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A rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny on January 23, 2022
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The hunt for ‘antimilitarism’ Leaked documents indicate that Russia’s federal censor has been monitoring the Internet for peace activism since at least 2020

Source: Meduza
A rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny on January 23, 2022
A rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny on January 23, 2022
Elena Volzhankina / Kommersant

In early March, the nonprofit whistleblower site Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets) published hyperlinks to a large data leak from the office of Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor (RKN), in the Republic of Bashkortostan. With help from colleagues at The Intercept, Meduza downloaded and indexed hundreds of gigabytes of these data and learned that RKN started monitoring protest sentiment back in 2020, sharing daily reports with various government agencies (including the national security apparatus) about “the destabilization of Russian society.”

The semi-secret information we found in the data leak

Meduza learned that RKN has a new automated monitoring system called the Office of Operational Interaction (AS KOV) that is missing from the agency’s official list of information systems. We managed to find just two public mentions of AS KOV: (1) in December 2020, RKN announced that it was planning to spend 7 million rubles (now about $85,000) to equip its Main Radio Frequency Center (which monitors the mass media and Internet) with the “AS KOV mobile app” as part of a “unified digital platform” program, and (2) in March 2021, an anti-extremism commission in Russia’s Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug ordered the development of an algorithm using the AS KOV system to facilitate interdepartmental work on monitoring the mass media and Internet for content “capable of destabilizing [Russia’s] sociopolitical situation.”

Meduza found evidence that RKN’s regional divisions are tasked with identifying supposed “hotbeds of tension” and compiling daily reports about spikes in popular dissent appearing on social media and “instances of the destabilization of Russian society.”

Using the Office of Operational Interaction automated monitoring system, RKN sends these reports to the central offices and local branches of the Federal Protective Service (FSB) and the Interior Ministry (Russia’s police force), as well as regional governments and federal inspectors working for the Kremlin.

What keeps RKN up at night

Roskomnadzor’s Bashkortostan office didn’t get access to AS KOV until December 2020, but RKN began testing the new system three months earlier in Novosibirsk. In October 2020, the agency’s branch there delivered a presentation “on the organization of monitoring the information space to identify hotbeds of tension based on the example of the Novosibirsk region.”

Based on the data Meduza analyzed, RKN’s monitoring work always begins with a review of the number of “negative publications” concerning President Putin. Officials use a predetermined list of “destabilizing topics” that appears in every report, even when monitors recorded no cases on a particular day. This was the list in March 2022:

  • Criticisms of Russia’s current state officials, comparisons involving living standards
  • Coverage of the non-systemic [anti-Kremlin] opposition’s activities
  • Sanctions pressure
  • Regionalization and violations of Russia’s territorial integrity
  • Religious and ethnic conflicts
  • Anti-militarism
  • Sexual and other “freedoms,” imposed tolerance [sic]
  • The legalization of recreational drugs
  • Foreign aggression, interference by foreign states in Russia’s domestic affairs
  • Distortions of WWII history, pro-Western interpretations of the results and course of the war
  • Cross-border influence by neighboring states

Notably, RKN was targeting “anti-militarism” as early as September 2020 — well more than a year before Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Pages from the October 2020 slideshow prepared by RKN’s Novosibirsk deputy director, Ksenia Kalashnikova

Meduza was unable to establish who decided which subjects RKN would monitor, but the list was likely determined in advance of the agency’s trials in Novosibirsk, given the fact that reports often left many of these sections blank. A year and a half later, the structure of this monitoring work has barely changed. The reports leaked in Bashkortostan, for example, feature just a single new “destabilizing subject” (and it appears to be the product of Russia’s struggles in Ukraine): “cross-border influence by neighboring states.”

How RKN searches for “hotbeds of tension”

The materials recovered from RKN’s Novosibirsk trials indicate that this monitoring work is designed to cover all mass media resources (the news media, blogs, and social networks), with the exception of what the agency calls “pro-state” outlets. The records Meduza reviewed, however, contain no explicit criteria for determining whether a resource is “pro-state.”

RKN divides all the information sources it monitors into two main categories: “propaganda” and “soft power.” Every report on “instances of social destabilization” takes these two groups into account separately. The agency considers “propaganda” to be resources that rely on the technique of “repeating the simplest and most understandable concepts.” In RKN’s reports, the resources that fall into this group are the “websites of large news agencies and sources founded back before the dissolution of the USSR.” Resources built on “soft power,” meanwhile, specialize in manufacturing “underlying shifts in individuals’ attitudes.” This typically means social networks, content from opinion leaders, and news outlets and websites that don’t directly violate Russia’s media regulations.

To hammer home this distinction, RKN’s slideshow represents “propaganda” with a radio set and “soft power” with a smartphone.

RKN labels every information resource as either “propaganda” or “soft power.” In their monitoring work, analysts summarize various displays of discontent: criticisms of “the local authorities,” “of the electoral process (amendments to the Constitution),” “of public health measures (coronavirus),” “daily news reports criticizing the current state authorities,” and so on.

Meduza was unable to find any official documents regulating this monitoring program. Roskomnadzor did not respond to our questions about the purpose of its Office of Operational Interaction, and representatives of other state agencies connected to this system did not return Meduza’s calls.

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Story by Denis Dmitriev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock