Russia’s social media shutdown is expensive, costing its economy more than $860 million so far this year

March 18, 2022, 12:29 AM UTC

Russia’s social media shutdowns have cost the country’s economy $861 million in 2022, highlighting the steep price of its efforts to silence online dissent since the Ukraine War began. 

The findings, by the independent research firm Top10VPN.com, also show that the economic impact of Russia’s online censorship exceeds that of all other countries. 

Kazakhstan was No. 2 on the list with $430 million in economic impact so far this year from censorship, which included shutting down the internet following days of protests after the government lifted a cap on the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

Myanmar followed with $185 million after its government shut down the web to impede pro-democracy protests.

Last year, before the Ukraine War, the economic impact of Russia’s censorship was negligible. According to Top10VPN.com, it only amounted to $1 million, while in 2020 Russia didn’t even make the list. 

The Kremlin’s first recent censorship targets were Western social media companies and independent news outlets. Upset by such services allowing information contrary to official channels, Russia’s government restricted access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Earlier this month, the last independent media outlet in Russia without a connection to the Kremlin, TV Rain, was also pulled from the air

Independent newspapers, like Novaya Gazeta, that have attempted to give the opposition a voice have been censored as well. Novaya Gazeta’s Nobel prize-winning editor Dmitri A. Muratov told the New York Times earlier this month that “everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated.”

Russian internet censorship, though extensive, still falls short of the restrictions that China has created, according to experts. China didn’t make the Top10VPN.com list because it’s able to censor its own social media apps without shutting them down. Although China blocks Facebook and Twitter, there is no economic loss because they were never in the country to begin with. 

Even Kremlin-backed media outlets have had difficulty fully quashing critics. Putin supporter Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian journalist and TV personality on the Russia-1 channel, found himself attempting to quickly shut down guests who openly criticized Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the Kremlin’s censorship efforts, including the removal of nearly 7,000 apps from the Russian app store since the start of the Ukraine War, millions of Russians continue to find a way through the new Iron Curtain by using virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted messaging apps.

The top five VPNs on Apple and Google’s app stores were used for a total of 2.7 million downloads in Russia in the first week of the Ukraine War, a 200% increase compared to the week prior. And the encrypted messaging app signal was downloaded over 130,000 times in Russia last week alone, CNN reported.

Russians have also embraced the “dark web,” a type of encrypted network whose content is unlisted by search engines and can only be accessed through special software like the Tor browser. Tor, which is partially backed by the U.S. government, bounces users’ traffic through “relay” connections making it more difficult for governments to track online searches.

The browser was blocked by Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor in late 2021, but tens of thousands of Russians have been using private relays called “bridges” to use the service anyway, according to Tor.

Hackers worldwide have also been fighting Russian censorship. Hacker collective Anonymous declared war on Russia on March 1 and has since been able to hack Roskomnadzor, releasing over 340,000 files, and also broadcasting war coverage on Kremlin-backed TV channels.

“We, as activists, will not sit idle as Russian forces kill and murder innocent people trying to defend their homeland,” the group said in a statement on Twitter.

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