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The American and European far right are migrating en masse to Russian social media. ‘There's less censorship there’

Meduza
21:04, 17 august 2017

Giants of U.S. Internet technology launched an unprecedented campaign against domestic hate groups this week, following violence between far-right demonstrators and counterprotesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which included a vehicular terrorist attack on the latter group, killing 32-year-old woman Heather Heyer. Two Internet giants, Google and the domain registrar and web hosting company GoDaddy, subsequently refused to offer service to The Daily Stormer, a fascist website, after which the site’s creators decided to re-register on Russia’s .RU domain, where it was soon de-registered again. Meduza reviews how American far-right groups are suddenly flocking to Russian social networks in search of a safe haven.

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On August 15, The Daily Stormer, one of the most popular American neo-Nazi sources online, registered itself on the Russian .RU domain, days after Google and GoDaddy refused its business. The crackdown came after a violent showdown in Charlottesville, Virginia, between hate groups and counterprotesters that culminated in a vehicular terrorist attack against the latter group. The car attack injured 19 people and killed a woman named Heather Heyer. After her murder, Daily Stormer creator Andrew Anglin published an article where he called Heyer a “fat, childless, 32-year-old slut.” After this inflammatory text, GoDaddy refused to continue offering service to The Daily Stormer. When the website’s administrators approached Google, they were turned away.

The Daily Stormer’s .RU website was de-registered within a day, at the recommendation of Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal media censor. Ru-Center, the Russian registrar used to move The Daily Stormer to the .RU domain, received a formal letter from Roskomnadzor on August 17 “recommending” that it deregister the neo-Nazi website on the grounds that it promotes extremism. Roskomnadzor side-stepped the country’s usual censorship procedures to take action against The Daily Stormer. In Russia, anti-extremism efforts are the Attorney General’s purview, and Roskomnadzor is merely charged with enforcing the Attorney General’s orders to block websites it has identified as extremist. Roskomnadzor’s press secretary, Vadim Ampelonsky, says his office had no orders from the Attorney General regarding The Daily Stormer.

Thanks to another American company rejecting its business, the website dailystormer.ru was inaccessible before Ru-Center ever deregistered it. Hours before Russia’s censor intervened, the Internet security service CloudFlare also ditched The Daily Stormer, leaving it totally exposed to DDoS attacks. On The Daily Stormer’s Vkontakte page, administrators later published a message saying they were looking for an alternative to CloudFlare that would mask the website’s true IP-address and guard against hackers.

The Daily Stormer’s new server could be located inside Russia. On August 15, a self-described “security and research” expert named Bill Sader tweeted circumstantial evidence to this effect. The neo-Nazi website used CloudFlare to disguise its source address, but Sader claims to have identified this IP-address in an email received from the site’s administrators. The address he uncovered is linked to Russia in two ways: it’s listed in the official IP-address database of Europe’s regional Internet registry as “related to Russia” (meaning that the website’s servers or the office using this IP-address could be in Russia, though this isn’t certain); and the IP-address’ provider’s email address is admin@rnet.ru, a Russian Internet provider. (RNET did not respond to Meduza’s messages.)

Western far-right groups started migrating to the Russian Internet after being banned on Facebook. There are already more than a hundred neo-Nazi groups with community pages on Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular social network. The groups’ subscribers are users in Russia, the U.S., Germany, Sweden, and other countries. There are also a few dozen hate groups on Vkontakte created and populated entirely by foreigners. Some of these pages have as few as 30 members, and others have up to a few thousand.

A man who identified himself as “Henry from Houston,” the founder of two far-right Vkontakte groups created for foreigners, told Meduza that he first registered on the Russian social network in June 2016. “I was brought here by Facebook’s internal censorship. The terms of service there have a lot of things you’re not allowed to talk about or post about. For example, alternative opinions about the Holocaust, Jews, racism, Masonry. You can’t even write anything about Adolf Hitler,” Henry complained. One of his Vkontakte groups has 100 subscribers. There are 450 users following his other group. He says he simultaneously runs a closed group on Facebook with 1,300 people, but he says he can write on Vkontakte what they’d ban him for on Facebook. Henry says his most recent suspension on Facebook lasted several months.

“Leaving Facebook for Vkontakte is becoming a trend among the Alt-Right. There’s not much censorship here, though a couple of my friends recently lost their pages because of right-wing posts,” Henry told Meduza. In their social media groups, far-right Internet users also discuss what is sometimes described as a looming exodus of the American far right to Russian social networks. Based on Meduza’s analysis of these groups, many of these Internet users registered with Vkontakte after the events in Charlottesville. “Vkontakte is a new discovery for us,” another member of the American far right told Meduza.

Henry (“from Houston”) says he knows that Russian police arrest and lock up Internet users for posting extremist content online, and he’s against it. “I’m opposed to any form of censorship. We must protect the freedom of discussion. You can’t just ban others from expressing their views,” he says.

A neo-Nazi demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Vkontakte representatives say the network has no current plans to begin blocking users for far-right views. Evgeny Krasnikov, the website’s press secretary, told Meduza that Vkontakte decided not to block The Daily Stormer’s page after Roskomnadzor lobbied for the website’s deregistration. “Vkontakte doesn’t block groups simply because websites with similar names have been blocked on other resources. When deciding to block a group, we first of all focus on whether the group’s content complies with our terms of service and the laws of the Russian Federation. If the group in question publishes incitements to cruelty or violence or any other illegal materials, it will be blocked,” Krasnikov explained.

Vkontakte’s spokesman also addressed comments by American far-right activists who claim that the Russian social network practices “less censorship.” “Our platform provides the opportunity to discuss different topics and exchange ideas,” he said. “But Vkontakte is expressly opposed to incitements of cruelty and violence. We delete such content.”

Unlike Russian citizens, foreigners outside Russia effectively face no criminal liability for posting extremist content or prohibited symbols, including swastikas. Damir Gainutdinov, a lawyer with the human rights group “Agora,” told Meduza that Russian police could only theoretically bring extremism charges against foreign citizens who post extremist content on Vkontakte. To date, Russian police have never prosecuted a foreigner for posts or “likes” on Vkontakte.

“Russian legislation allows police to charge an American citizen [with online extremism], but it’s impossible to do in practice. Publishing a swastika is a misdemeanor, and the statute of limitations is just three months. And nobody is going to bother with foreigners when there are more than enough extremists at home. Even with criminal charges, it’s not worth the trouble. It’s impossible to get the suspect to Russia to prosecute them in the first place, so why bring charges if they’re no hope of catching the perpetrator? This is basic stuff, and it’s also good for [crime] statistics,” Gainutdinov says.

Russian text by Pavel Merzlikin, translation by Kevin Rothrock