Yandex News controlled from 2023 by the Russian social network Vk, a further step from the Kremlin towards total censorship? This is how we could have titled this article, already knowing the answer or almost. In a press release released last week, the Russian group Yandex announced that it was selling some of its activities to Vk, in particular its media platform. So imagine that Google sells its famous Google News to Facebook. Lunar on the western side, possible in a Russia where the propaganda of power and the control of news companies are a daily reality six months after the start of the war in ukraine.
“The conflict, in all its dimensions, is only an accelerator of tendencies present in Russia for ten, fifteen, twenty years. This is the case for the Internet. The beginning of digital control dates back to 2012”, analyzes Kévin Limonier, lecturer at the French Institute of Geopolitics and deputy director of the Geode research center, specializing in cybernetic and informational issues. With a climax at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, which marked the total shutdown independent and/or opposition media. How, then, can we imagine that censorship can be further strengthened in Russia?
In the continuity of what has been happening since 2012
the RuNet was nevertheless born free, as Olga Bronnikova, research professor at the University of Grenoble Alpes, sociologist and specialist in Russia, reminded us of 20 minutes at the start of the conflict. “Unlike China, where the internet was very controlled from its inception, in Russia it was decentralized and independent.” The takeover therefore only officially began in 2012 with the establishment of an ever more repressive legislative arsenal for the media and journalists.
Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Reporters Without Borders Western and Central Europe office, however, places the planning of a Kremlin takeover of Yandex News further back in time. “According to Lev Gershenzon, former head of Yandex News, who can be considered a whistleblower, the heads of the presidential administration asked as early as the summer of 2008, after the war in South Ossetia, to have access to the home page interface in case of war”.
The same Lev Gershenzon, who resigned from the company several years ago after working there for eight years, and now a refugee in Germany, called on his former colleagues in March to stop “hiding evidence of the war”. “He explained his resignation by the transformation, even before the start of the conflict, of Yandex News into a ‘propaganda machine'”, specifies the expert.
The increasingly ubiquitous hand of the Kremlin
For Jeanne Cavelier, “Yandex was already in the hands of the Kremlin anyway.” The head of the RSF Western and Central Europe desk recalls in particular that in April, Reporters Without Borders spotted, in the results generated by the Yandex News algorithm, a clone of The Insider, a Russian opposition investigative media based abroad. This clone broadcast propaganda content with the image of the original site. “Since 2008, independent media no longer appeared in the first search results and had great difficulty in making themselves visible on this platform,” adds Jeanne Cavelier. Before disappearing completely since the start of the war in Ukraine.
“It is not a break but a strengthening of censorship, adds Kévin Limonier. There has been a real continuity for more than ten years in trying to control 100% of intermediation platforms such as search engines or social networks used by Russians”. The novelty, according to the expert, is the direct takeover. “From a partial manipulation by Yandex, widely known, we switch to a total stranglehold on the algorithms of a society totally under the influence of the Kremlin”.
However, when Vk was created, a social network based on the Facebook model, it was difficult to imagine this model being taken over. In 2006, billionaire Pavel Durov, who has since given birth to the controversial messaging service Telegram, founded VKontakte, which has since become Vk, “totally outside the orbit of power”, specifies Kévin Limonier. “Before 2012, Russian authorities saw VKontakte as a playground for sneaker start-ups and geeks, rather than a strategic asset and a potential vector for destabilizing the regime.”
But that year, demonstrations took place in the country against the return to power of Vladimir Putin, after a few years as Prime Minister of Dmitry Medvedev. Like the Arab Spring, massively orchestrated via social networks, the mobilization is taking off in part thanks to VKontakte, which allows its organization. “Pavel Dourov then refuses to give the names of the leaders, publishes the letters of the FSB (ex-KGB) asking him to denounce the creators of the groups and events on the network. His refusal to cooperate leads to his flight from Russia, to the search of the premises of his social network, to his conviction in absentia, and finally to the confiscation of his shares in VK, ”explains the specialist in Russian-speaking cyberspace.
From then on, Vk switched to the groups of Russian media magnates, these oligarchs very close to power. Alisher Usmanov, in particular, owned and managed the social network before completely selling its stakes in 2021. Today, at the time of the takeover of Yandex News, Vk belongs to the group led by Vladimir Kirienko, son of Sergei Kirienko, member of the presidential administration and close to Vladimir Putin. “Digital authoritarianism has become the bread and butter of some entrepreneurial families in Russia, who get rich on the authorities’ control of the Russian Internet, which obviously generates money and a real market” , notes Kévin Limonier.
A glimmer of hope
But the experts have not lost all hope of defeating this growing censorship. At RSF, Jeanne Cavelier underlines the people’s weariness with official propaganda. “A study by the independent Romir Institute of Sociology shows a fall in audiences for the three main public television channels, Perviy Kanal, Rossiya 1 and NTV, of around 25% during the last six months”. And it is worth remembering that television is the first information medium in Russia.
Likewise, the country, often compared to China, is not on the same level when it comes to controlling the Internet. “The Russian network is one of the most complex to muzzle and the Kremlin today does not have the technological means to do so, assures Kévin Limonier. The messy side – that’s the term that comes to mind – makes it possible to keep crossroads to circulate information and partly avoid filtering”.