Putin to engage in 'information war' with US says Clark
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The Russian President has taken drastic measures to control access to information, including banning several social media platforms from operating in the country. The Russian government has blocked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram since its army invaded Ukraine on February 24. Additionally, lawmakers passed a bill that makes it a criminal offence to spread “fake” news about the Russian military.
Offenders can face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of the crime, or face substantial fines.
The latest media crackdown has forced ordinary Russians to think up of new and creative ways to gain access to uncensored news.
Digital rights experts say Putin may have inadvertently sparked a massive, permanent shift in digital literacy in Russia that will work against the regime for years.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russians have been flocking to virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps – tools that can be used to access blocked websites such as Facebook.
Now new data compiled for The Times shows that 24 million (or one in six) Russians used a VPN in May.
This represents an increase of 1.6 million users on April, a clear sign that Russians are becoming more competent in evading their government’s draconian informational controls.
Gregory Asmolov, an expert at King’s College London, believes the Kremlin is not interested in strictly enforcing its own censorship.
He said: “The state is not entirely interested in a complete block.
“They understand that lots of Russians use pages like Instagram and Facebook not as a means of finding out what’s really going on but to connect with friends and for entertainment.
“They don’t want to cause too much frustration.”
However, there are signs that Russian officials are trying to close down the VPN loopholes.
Russia’s censorship agency confirmed recently that it is working to block VPN services that allegedly “violate Russian law”, according to the independent Russian media outlet Meduza.
Technology experts say that ways still exist to get around these new restrictions.
Oliver Linow, who describes himself as an internet freedom specialist for the German media site Deutsche Welle, tweeted: “Russia started to block VPNs. But there are still ways to get around the Russian firewall.
“Despite Tor is blocked – With bridges or snowflakes you can still connect to the network and get access to media that is not controlled by the Russian government.”
The Russian government has blocked over 1,500 websites as part of its crackdown, including BBC News.
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It comes as fierce fighting continues in Ukraine’s eastern territories, particularly around the city of Severodonetsk.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that the city’s defenders were still holding out despite being heavily outnumbered by Russian troops.
He claimed that Ukrainian forces had “every chance” of fighting back and were currently engaged in street-by-street battles with their enemy.
Mr Zelensky said that the intensity of the fighting in Severodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk had made them both “dead cities”.
If both cities are captured, then Russia would control the entire Luhansk province – one half of the Donbas region.
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