Media uses digital backdoors to reach Russians

The media is finding creative ways to circumvent Kremlin efforts to block independent reporting in Russia, using everything from carbon-copy websites to encryption tools and anonymous browsers.

Why is this important: As old-fashioned circumvention methods like shortwave radio are reintroduced, journalists trying to break through Russia’s Iron Curtain for the media say sophisticated digital techniques can often be more effective and efficient.

  • “The fact is there are many digital channels that remain open and a lot can be done to reach people online,” said Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
  • Technological workarounds, he notes, do not require large investments in new (or old) technology since the public already owns smartphones and computers. The biggest challenge in many cases is educating the public about the best options.

Driving the news: Boehler and his colleagues at the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty mirrored the websites of the censored news sites, making exact copies at new Internet addresses.

  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently said he used mirror site technology to unblock access to Meduza, an independent Russian publication based in Latvia, which was blocked by the Kremlin earlier this month.
  • He said he was ready to create mirror sites “for all censored media” and thus “put them back in the front line of resistance to Moscow’s war on information”.

Be smart: The Kremlin can block the mirror domain once it is discovered, forcing media to constantly move to new domains.

  • Placing mirror sites on content delivery networks (CDNs) that host other vital services makes it much more difficult for the Russian government to shut them down, “because they depend on those CDNs for their own use,” Boehler said.
  • Encrypted messaging channels like Telegram or Whatsapp are often used by outlets to communicate with their audience to let them know which domains are active. (While most social platforms are blocked in the region, encrypted messaging platforms are mostly still available.)

Between the lines: News agencies also use these encrypted channels to communicate with individual Russians on the ground who can provide photos and videos to Western media for verification and reporting.

What to watch: News sites and social networks are also starting to establish their own Tor networks, which encrypt internet traffic and redirect it to thousands of servers around the world, making it virtually impossible to track.

  • Twitter last week announcement its own Tor service that helps Russians access its site despite efforts by the Russian government to block it.

The big picture: VOA and RFE, which are both funded by the US government but editorially independent, have plenty of experience circumventing censorship, but the speed of the crackdown in Russia has taken many by surprise. said Matthew Baise, director of digital strategy and audience development at VOA.

  • “Before the invasion, we had longstanding relationships with circumvention vendors,” he said, referring to circumvention tools such as Psiphon and ACI. Circumvention technology has long been used by VOA and other independent broadcasters to penetrate China, Iran, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

“We are witnessing a massive migration circumvention tools, which is quite new in the Russian market,” said Nat Kretchen, senior vice president of programs at the Open Technology Fund, a government-backed nonprofit focused on promoting internet freedom.

  • This migration began when the Kremlin began blocking mainstream Western media and social networks.
  • Even though Russia has long been a propaganda state, it “wasn’t a heavily censored market until a few weeks ago,” Kretchen said.

By the numbers: The data so far suggests that many Russians are desperate for accurate information.

  • The use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow users to hide their location to evade location-based restrictions, has exploded in Russia.
  •, which tracks search volume data, saw an increase in demand for VPN services peak at 2,692% above normal on March 14 after Russia announced it would ban Instagram.
  • Atlas VPN also reported a new record that day for VPN installs in Russia, increasing 11,253% above the norm.

Yes, but: “A lot of news organizations were as prepared as they could have been,” Shelley said. It was Russia’s fake news law that caught most of the region’s media by surprise, he said.

  • This law, which punishes up to 15 years in prison for simply calling the conflict a “war”, has driven most independent journalists out of the country, forcing many Western media outlets to rely on journalists.
  • “Being a freelancer for a Western news agency in Russia today is an extremely dangerous proposition. It’s almost dangerous like 007,” Shelley said.

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