Letter From the Editors

In January 2014, one month before the start of the “Russian spring” in the Crimea and parts of Ukraine, Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary. The social media platform indeed had a lot to celebrate – that same month, 1 billion users connected via various mobile devices. But back in spring 2014, the Russian authorities weren’t too worried about Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild posing a threat to the “return” of the Crimea to Russia. Pro-Russian activists rejoiced over Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s social media live updates from a “friendship train” headed to the Crimea. Russian society was euphoric over what it saw as the righting of a historical wrong.

While Ramzan Kadyrov is still trying to rally die-hard Russian patriots with selfies from war-torn Mariupol, the euphoria is gone, says Levada Center director Denis Volkov. And so is the Russian government’s lackadaisical approach to social networks – Facebook (or rather, its parent organization, Meta), has been banned in Russia as “extremist.” The same goes for Instagram. YouTube seems to be next in line.

So what’s behind media oversight agency Roskomnadzor’s heavy-handed approach to social media of late? According to Volkov, the “special operation” in Ukraine has Russian society split along both generational and geographic lines. Urban Russians are less likely to support the war compared to rural citizens (ironically, the majority of those currently serving – and dying – in Ukraine happen to come from more rural areas). What’s more, older Russians, who get their news almost entirely from television, which is state-controlled, support the war more staunchly than younger people, who have more varied media consumption.

But an important caveat, says Volkov, is that support for the military operation in Ukraine is not the jubilation we saw in 2014 – rather, it’s lukewarm at best: “We see that a portion of supporters are themselves shocked by what is happening. Many are saying: ‘Let it be over quickly,’ ” says Volkov. Perhaps that’s what is worrying the Kremlin – and explains its bizarre and draconian set of laws against “fake news” and “discrediting the Armed Forces.” Aleksandr Khinshtein, head of the State Duma committee on information policy, tried to sugarcoat the recent legislation, saying that users won’t get in trouble for simply having Facebook and Instagram on their phones (Khinshtein added that he has unsubscribed from Instagram, natch). At the same time, the lawmaker said it’s important to focus on young people and their patriotic education: “What is driving young people? Are they truly concerned about their country? Do they want to make it better?” That is why “our companies are working so hard to improve our Russian social networks,” he concluded. Federation Council Senator Aleksei Pushkov echoed his Duma colleague, even suggesting making such goals part of Russia’s national projects.

But will these efforts really win over the hearts and minds of Russia’s teenagers – who, like teenagers everywhere, don’t trust anyone over 30? For instance, back in 2014, many tech experts started to point out that Facebook was becoming a “mom network.” According to Business Insider, while still maintaining its clout as the social media heavyweight, Facebook was starting to fall out of favor with teens. “Teens – who frequently fuel the growth of the mobile world’s hot new things – hate being in environments where their parents can see what they’re up to,” BI wrote. So perhaps Russian lawmakers, who rushed to ban Facebook in the country, are overreacting? Or maybe moms are exactly the demographic the Kremlin is worried about. After all, they are the ones who will be grieving the loss of their sons in the “brotherly nation” Putin is trying to save from Nazis.