Over the past two weeks, the Russian government has taken steps to eliminate any semblance of a free and fair press as it continues its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
The crackdown has been multipronged, involving laws passed through Russia’s parliament, edicts handed down by Russian government agencies and the threat of physical violence by Russian law enforcement officials.
Taken together, these steps aim to eliminate press freedoms and construct an alternate reality for people living in Russia. Americans observing Russia’s quick turn toward totalitarianism should take this as forewarning, because similar ideas have been floated in the United States, as well.
Time to compare and contrast.
On Friday, I reported on the Russian government’s Facebook ban, a move the Kremlin made after Facebook fact-checked posts about the invasion made by government-backed media. Roskomnadzor, the Russian agency that controls mass media, claimed without evidence that Facebook committed “26 cases of discrimination against Russian media and information resources.”
Those bogus allegations of social media discrimination sound quite similar to claims Republicans made all throughout 2020, when former President Donald Trump and other conservative figures frequently shared misinformation that was flagged and occasionally removed from social platforms.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Trump, who’s since been banned from Twitter and Facebook, last year celebrated Nigeria's decision to ban Twitter and suggested he might pursue a similar ban if he were elected president in 2024. (Nigeria lifted its ban in January.)
In another case of censorship, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed a law last week that criminalizes journalism critical of the war, including journalists who use the word “war” to describe Russia’s assault. Laws like this employ a veil of patriotism to defend obvious censorship; Americans should be quite familiar with this tactic.
Conservative politicians across the U.S. are actively passing bills that ban teachings and trainings about America’s history of racism and gender-based discrimination, claiming such teachings are “anti-American.” As president, Trump made the same claim and brazenly attempted to brainwash Americans with a propaganda document — known as the “1776 Report” — that was meant to undermine lessons about social inequality and instill what he deemed a “patriotic education.”
We’ve also seen images of Russian police beating and arresting anti-war protesters, images that may remind you of the police brutality we’ve seen at anti-racist protests across the United States. These acts of violence have an impact on the spread of truthful information by creating a chilling effect that discourages people from condemning government misconduct.
And Politico on Friday published a piece about Russia’s development of a “splinternet,” which is effectively what happens when entities branch off and create their own online spaces. Politico highlighted the Russian search engine Yandex and the social media site VK as examples of platforms that give the Kremlin more control over the spread of information.
Such endeavors sound very similar to conservative attempts at creating platforms — like Trump’s fledgling Truth Social and a host of others — that allow the spread of some false and hateful information.
All of which is to say: Watching Russia’s attempts to create an alternate reality is deeply worrying. But Americans have heard our own officials praise “alternative facts” in the past, so we should be aware that attacks on truth proliferate in our country, as well. These attacks are not inherent to social media or the internet, and we must take all steps possible to defend against them on all fronts.