Putin’s ‘psychological firewall’ turns Russians off critical websites

Putin’s ‘psychological firewall’ turns Russians off critical websites

Researchers find government propaganda hugely effective in citizen self-censorship

Russians who rely on government approved television for their news are more likely to support online censorship, survey analysis by researchers at Ohio State University suggests.

Researchers say their findings prove the effectiveness of what they call President Vladimir Putin’s ‘psychological firewall’.

"Government authorities have convinced many Russians that censoring content labeled as extremist protects the population from harm, while at the same time failing to mention that this label is often applied by authorities to legitimate political opposition or opinions that run counter to government policies," said Professor Olga Kamenchuk, co-author of the study published last week in Social Science Quarterly.

The study is based on a 2014 survey of 1,601 Russian citizens about their internet and media use, risk perceptions about the internet and support for online political censorship and the Putin government.

Those who relied most on state-sponsored TV news were more likely to see the internet as a threat, more likely to agree that the internet was used by foreign countries against Russia and more likely to believe it was a threat to political stability within the country.

Unsurprisingly, those who saw the internet as a threat were also more likely to support online censorship, as were those that identified as supporters of Putin.

"This is actually more insidious. The government doesn't have to rely as much on legal or technical firewalls against content they don't like. They have created a psychological firewall in which people censor themselves," co-author Professor Erik Nisbet said. "People report they don't go to certain websites because the government says it is bad for me."

The researchers said the Russian government uses television to “spread fear” about anti-government websites, often using “graphic metaphors to sensationalise the risk” of unfavourable internet content.

For example, the government has compared websites it opposes to suicide bombers and tells citizens its response would be to use internet control and censorship to create a "bulletproof vest for the Russian society".

Citizens are able to circumnavigate the government’s blocking of a number of sites on its blacklist, although doing so is illegal. Despite this the researchers say people choose to ignore the sites.

"There is opposition TV, radio and newspapers in the country that are not blocked. People can find them freely. But our studies show that many deliberately choose to ignore those outlets," Nisbet said.

"It is tougher to circumvent that psychological firewall than it is the legal or technological firewalls. How do you circumvent the mindset that censorship is good?"

Eastern block

Human rights group Agora note a marked rise in instances of internet censorship in Russia, which they say increased ninefold between 2014 and 2015, from 1,019 to 9,022.

Between 2014 and 2016, 85 per cent of convictions for “extremist expression” dealt with online expression, with punishments ranging from fines or community service to prison time, according to Human Rights Watch.

In July, Putin banned virtual private networks (VPNs) and Tor to crack down on apps that allow access to prohibited websites. The law will come into effect in November.

A second law, which comes into effect in January, bans anonymous use of online messaging services.

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Tags censorshipvpnrussiaTorcybervirtual private networksVladimir Putinputinsecure communications

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