Russia’s crackdown on the media started long before it invaded Ukraine. But after the war started, things quickly got worse: A new “fake” news law threatened journalists with prison time for publishing anything other than the government’s false version of what was happening in Ukraine. The largest remaining independent media outlets in the country shut down. Western publications pulled out of Russia. The government told internet providers to block Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. YouTube might be next.
The fight to bring Russian citizens news about the reality in Ukraine has grown as quickly. Two days into the war, hackers briefly broke into into Russian state TV to broadcast videos from the front lines. Before the BBC’s website was blocked, it suggested that readers download Psiphon, a VPN app that would hide their location so they could bypass censorship. (Twelve of the top 20 apps downloaded last week in Russia were VPNs.) The New York Times and Washington Post launched channels on Telegram, a social media and messaging app that hasn’t been banned yet. Polish programmers built an app to allow anyone around the world to text people in Russia with information about the war; 40 million messages have been sent so far. Developers in Germany shared code that automatically posts pop-up messages about the war whenever someone in Russia visits a website. Others have been posting business reviews on Yandex, Russia’s version of Google, that share the truth about the war.
Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit that defends press freedom, is taking another creative approach—linking news to the winning lottery number for the week. The team started working on the program, which it calls The Truth Wins, more than a year ago, as it considered how to deal with censorship in countries like Russia and Turkey. Under local laws, governments can ask platforms like Twitter to take down the accounts of independent journalists. Someone might then start a new account, but then it would be hard for people to find. The same is true for blocked websites that have “mirror” sites with the same information, but a new URL that people don’t know.
“We thought this was an interesting problem: The truth is actually accessible, but nobody knows where to find it when you ‘mirror’ it or relaunch it to a new account,” says Tobias Natterer, who works with DDB Berlin, a creative agency that partnered with Reporters Without Borders on the campaign. “So we thought it would be interesting to have one address where people can access the truth. And this one address is constantly changing, but people would still know at all times where where to find it.”
Lottery numbers, they realized, could function as a not-so-secret code. “They’re changing all the time,” he says. “So they’re faster than censorship, but at the same time, they’re vastly promoted through the state-owned media, because the lotteries are state owned . . . we’re basically using the government’s own media and their own media budget, their own lotteries, to fight against them.”
On Twitter, which was still accessible in some areas in Russia last week—the process of cutting it off took time—the team started an account that links to independent Russian sources, and mirror sites of blocked media that Reporters Without Borders is hosting. Anyone searching the daily lottery number on Twitter could find it. Journalists can also add the number to their bio so they show up in search results. The nonprofit is now launching an account on VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, which hasn’t yet been banned. It also launched accounts in Turkey and Brazil, two other countries where media is heavily censored.
Censorship in Russia had been growing before the invasion. “Internet censorship in Russia has been dramatically worsening for a number of years,” says Lisa Dittmer, advocacy officer for internet freedom at Reporters Without Borders. “In fact, we’ve seen a decline in all kinds of civil freedoms over the last years.” The changes since the invasion are unprecedented, she says. “It’s happening at such a scale that we certainly didn’t expect, but now we’re adapting as we can to the situation.”
The solution won’t help everyone—people who are digitally savvy may already be using VPNs or other alternatives, and the majority of older Russians still get their news from government-controlled TV channels and are resistant to the truth, even when they’re hearing reports from relatives in Ukraine. “To some extent, obviously, you have to be realistic,” says Dittmer. “We won’t get the reach that a Russian state media has. But, I think pointing out that there is an alternative version—making sure that people who seek the truth or who have doubts are able to find these alternative news sources—is playing a really important part in keeping people informed.”