How YouTubers in Russia are trying to get around censorship

The Russian government has banned Facebook, Twitter and TikTok and passed a new media law that imposes a prison sentence of up to 15 years for intentionally spreading “false news” about the country’s military. Our team spoke to Maya Wolf, who serves as producer for Russian opposition YouTuber Ilya Varlamov, about how they have worked to spread their messages despite this censorship.

Maya Volf is a producer for Russian YouTuber Ilya Varlamov who talks candidly about the war in Ukraine on his YouTube channel dedicated to analyzing Russian politics. Wolff is currently in Amsterdam, but says part of her team is still in Russia. For security reasons, she could not tell us where Ilya Varlamov was.

Over the past two weeks, dissident YouTuber Ilya Varlamov has posted a number of videos about the war in Ukraine on his YouTube channel, which has more than 3 million subscribers. © YouTube, Ilya Varlamov (screenshot for moderators) Maya Wolf spoke to France 24 observers:

On Twitter, a lot of people are posting things like “Russians, you can stop this war.” but no! The Russians can’t. Even simply obtaining and sharing information with others poses a real danger to us and our families. For example, the husband is in Turkey now because I am afraid of him.

TikTok, Twitter and Facebook are all closed in Russia. So how are anti-war Russians supposed to get information? At the moment we still have Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp. YouTube is still doing well, but we believe both YouTube and Instagram will be shutting down soon as well. Soon, only Telegram will be left.

We’ve created a new dictionary to get around censorship, and new laws in Russia mean we can’t write what we want. We can no longer talk about the war, except to share information provided by the Russian Ministry. At the moment, the press in Russia is dead because if we write, for example, about the murder of Russian soldiers, we risk going to prison for 15 years.

It’s as if we had to create a new dictionary to get around the new media law.

We can no longer say the word “war”. Saying a phrase like “Glory to Ukraine” is considered extreme. Saying “Stop the war!” It is also considered a form of extremism. So we have to talk about war without using these words. So we mention the “situation in Ukraine” and “Tanks” […]But we have our attorneys reviewing every word.

If I look at our channel in Russia, I will see that the articles are written in strange words, but I understand why. As a journalist, I know it’s a new dictionary that people use to talk about the war in Ukraine. But there are a lot of other people who don’t know what’s going on. We know how to read the lines, but how will others understand what is happening in Ukraine?

Ilya Varlamov talks about Russia’s isolation due to “actions in Ukraine” in a video posted on March 4, the day President Vladimir Putin signed the new law against false information about the war in Ukraine. © Ilya Varlamov, Youtube (screenshot from France 24 Observers) Some Russian anti-war YouTubers and bloggers are using other forms of “coded” language to get around censorship. In an Instagram post on March 6, after the Anti-False Information Act was passed, Yuri Dodd, a Russian YouTube star known for reporting on topics not covered by Russian state media, shared a song called “The Hundred Years’ War.”

A band called Noise published this song the day before Russian forces bombed the country. The song did not directly mention the war in Ukraine, but the band wrote in the comments:

We’ve talked about […] What an artist should do when he has no way of influencing the course of the unfolding social and political catastrophe. We came to the conclusion that all of us, pathetic technical intellectuals, are nothing more than dandruff on the shoulders of a frightened general. So we have no other choice but to speak honestly about what is happening. This is what we do. Hello.

Media law and ban on social media mean Russian independent YouTubers have no way to speak out – Maya Wolf continues:

We have been working in Russia for more than ten years, but this is the most difficult period so far. We make money from YouTube, Google, and through ads. Currently, due to the crisis, Google has banned Russian users from monetizing their channels. YouTube is the most important channel to make money. But we cannot register as a media outlet due to Russian censorship.

I understand why the international community has enacted sanctions, but they are also very harmful to the Russian opposition. And we have to put up with that along with the influence of the policies of the Russian government.

People turn to VPNs and Tor to get around the blocking YouTubers Ilya Varlamov and Youri Doud suggest on their YouTube channels that people watch them using a VPN, a technology that enables people to visit blocked websites by masking their location.

YouTuber Yuri Dodd Russian gave viewers a link to a free VPN, which allows them to view blocked sites by masking their location, in the episode description posted on March 4. © YouTube Watchers, Iori Doud VPN use in Russia has increased more than 600% since the invasion of Ukraine, according to TOP10VPN, a website that tracks the use of this technology.

TOP10 VPN says that the demand for VPNs in Russia has increased more than 600% since the invasion of Ukraine. © Top10 VPN But even a VPN is not a miracle solution. Russians cannot pay for VPN with Visas or Mastercards due to recent sanctions and have to find a new way to pay.

On March 8, Twitter announced that it would launch a service on Tor, a network that helps people get around government internet blackouts and navigate anonymously.

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