Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Lies: The Politics of Social Media in Russia

By Anastasia Denisova

three memes as an example

4 May 2019

Left: '"Why don’t you give a seat to the pensioner?" "When you post a meme, I will give you a seat". This is a play on words, as 'sit' has the connotation of "being sent to prison" in Russian (This meme is a reaction to the meme trials)'
Middle: 'The motto “Let’s strangle corruption!” was considered to be extremist as it calls to the violent upheaval of the current regime' 
Right: '“One meme here equals to seven years of prison” (This meme is a reaction to the meme trials)'
These memes have not featured in the prosecutors’ materials. They are drawn from the Internet and convey a similar message to those explained in the piece.


On the morning of 8 May 2018, twenty-three-year-old Maria was woken by a fierce knocking at her door. She opened — there were four police officers with two witnesses; they announced that Maria was accused of inciting racial hatred and insulting the feelings of religious believers. The main (and only) evidence being… the memes that Maria was saving to her photo albums in social networks. One of those memes said ‘Black humour does not reach everyone — just like food’ and featured a picture of starving black children. Another meme showed a Christian Orthodox procession in the middle of a broken road with the tagline ‘The two main problems of Russia’, thus referring to the famous saying that the two main Russian evils are fools and bad roads.

This was enough to charge Maria Motuznaya, a former hotel administrator in Siberia, with two serious offences which can lead to up to five years in prison. Roughly at the same time, a nineteen-year-old film student in a different region was accused of inciting hate speech when he likened Jesus Christ to Jon Snow from the HBO Game of Thrones, in a meme shared online. But after months of exhausting police interrogations, media scrutiny and trolling on social media, both cases… were suddenly dropped. The relief came from a presidential initiative. In October 2018, Vladimir Putin proposed to soften the Law on Extremism and decriminalize first-time offenders who post ‘hateful’ material online. Only those users who violate the rules again within twelve months will face real jail terms of two to five years. In December, this became a law.

The growing number of seemingly random and highly controversial cases against meme-sharers is a worrying sign for Internet satirists. The much-dreaded Law on Extremism (passed in 2003, updated in 2014–2016) is a flexible tool of fear-mongering. In theory, it is designed to tackle religious hatred and extremism, yet its definitions are so vague that the prosecutors can bend them as they fancy: 'inciting hate or enmity, or, similarly, insulting the dignity of a person or a group on the basis of sex, race, nationality, language, heritage, religious affiliation...'. There is a growing number of cases against Internet users (411 in 2017, according to the international human rights group Agora). Many of them were aimed at people who ‘like’, share, and save memes and sarcastic images — with references to religion, Nazism, corruption, and various ethnicities cohabiting Russia. By Western standards of free speech, most of these pictures would not even pass for controversial (never mind extremist) — they do not differ much from the mainstream whirlpool of the billions of stupid, punning, sometimes politically incorrect memes that flood the modern Internet.

So why have the Russian police started a crusade against memes? In 2011–2012, when a major anti-corruption protest broke in Russian cities, Facebook and Twitter were revealed to be the leading platforms where people connected, organised, and prepared for the marches. Since then, the state has restricted free assembly (no more than six people can march together without permission, even if they are walking their dogs). Then bloggers came under scrutiny — those reaching three thousand views on their account per day were obliged to send a copy of their passport to the communications watchdog.

I have been researching the role of social media in alternative political discourse in Russia since the early 2010s. However, due to the cascade of restrictive laws, by the late 2010s oppositional microbloggers were telling me that they couldn’t do much to oppose the mainstream. They were not sure how to mobilise people — many of them kept blogging critical comments simply to ‘stay sane’ and ‘raise awareness’. The majority of Russian media are state-controlled, hence the information and analysis pouring from the mainstream outlets is overwhelmingly uncritical and pro-Kremlin. The only free space for political deliberations in Russia is the Internet. But, as the 2018 attack on memes shows, it may not be free any longer. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly divided.

The Russian Internet is a peculiar space. Both politically loyal and resistant publics use it widely. Russians love the Web. But they mostly visit different parts. Habermas would not be happy with this ‘public sphere’. Simply put, the two sides of the political spectrum have too much fear of and prejudice against each other. They register on different social networks; they read different websites; and their memes and gifs mock different characters and vices. What unites both groups, however, is the tendency towards echo chambers. Users mostly read and follow those who share their opinions.

I find it peculiar that the police have been looking so closely at memes, among the many artefacts of critical resistance. Because these little viral hits are pretty useless at changing people’s minds. Memes are wonderful attention traps. They help like-minded citizens to identify each other. They can serve as inside jokes for those who know why to laugh at a certain individual or situation. They can replace deeper engagement with journalism and facts, when people use them as fast-food media and think that they’ve learned what’s going on from a meme. But they are helpless in changing minds. A die-hard Putin fan does not reflect on corruption just because she or he sees a meme about it.

The recent crusade against meme-makers is a dangerous warning. Even with the softening of punishment for first-time offenders, it sends a clear message: don’t try doing meme activism continuously. The big cases like that of Maria Motuznaya should alarm those who are not activists but are merely curious: those who stay on the fence.

What else do we need to know about the risks of online resistance? 

While a Siberian woman is accused of inciting hatred via ambiguous memes, hundreds of Internet trolls poison the Internet with hate speech. They are being paid out of taxpayers’ money. The Kremlin reacted quickly to the outburst of free speech in 2011–2012. Since then, the number of pro-government bloggers has increased, with the now famous troll factories abusing free speech by engaging in propaganda or unrelated chatter. Another strand consists in It girls and Instagram influencers. There are now TV celebrities who once in a while put in a nice word about the governors, somewhere between posting about blueberry smoothies and hot-steam yoga pants.

Three leading platforms for free speech in Russia are YouTube, Twitter, and Telegram. YouTube is the potent tribune for Alexey Navalny (two and a half million subscribers), the opposition blogger-turned-politician whose investigations into corruption, daily TV shows, and addresses to the people gain dozens of millions of views. Twitter is another free platform (It has proved less cooperative with the state than VKontakte, the Russian copycat of Facebook, which gave the materials to the prosecutors in the anti-meme cases). Twitter’s drawback is the small number of Russian users; it fails to broadcast to large audiences. The third platform, Telegram, is the encoded mobile messenger that was banned in Russia in April 2018. The authorities seemed unable to crack the code and reacted in the only way remaining. The little problem is that Telegram is still not blocked in Russia; in August 2018, the state was still trying to find a technological solution that would stop the ubiquitous message service. It is still operating.

Social media in Russia is the most exciting field in which to monitor public discourse. And the close attention of the Kremlin to the Internet proves it. The police do not come for anti-Putin memes; they come for ironic images on race, religion, or abuse of power. Irony is under attack. The truth is, nobody knows how much surveillance the state can really afford over its 140+ million citizens. Yet, the public ‘feeling’ about the power of Kremlin is what matters. There is a theory that the state has leaked information on Russian trolls to foreign journalists on purpose, in order to produce universal fear of the manipulative Russian mind. Western media with their extensive (often panicky) reporting on Russian trolls inadvertently contribute to this propaganda.

The extraordinary domestic and global attention that glorifies the impact of Russian trolls and the alarming charges against meme-sharers both create the idea that the Internet is not safe for free speech: that there is no free speech for Internet users in Russia. And this might be the greatest achievement of the state propaganda. This might be the greatest lie.

Dr Anastasia Denisova participated in IAS Lies: Misinformed — A Roundtable on Social Media and the Shaping of Public Discourse. An audio recording of this event is available here.

Anastasia Denisova is a Lecturer in Journalism at CAMRI, University of Westminster. Her new book, Internet Memes and Society, is due in 2019. Her other publications explore the themes of Russian rap, viral journalism in the UK, and viral cultures globally.

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