Fighting Russia Online: How Activists Are Making Use of Memes Against Putin’s Social Media Censorship

Russia’s internet is becoming a harder place to expose an anonymous opinion. During the past five years, the government has enacted a series of laws, putting the same demands on popular bloggers as it does in the state-dominated media sector.

One of the sternest pieces of regulation, introduced in 2014, directs that all popular influencers on social media or web writers are required to record their account with the government, along with supporting documents that can have their identity revealed.

“If you have more than 3,000 views on your social media account per day you have to send a copy of your passport to the Russian communication watchdog,” said Anastasia Denisova, an educator at the University of Westminster in London, investigating on Russian internet policy. “Which basically means no anonymity, very limited freedom of speech lets say.”

The move is a part of a drive to strengthen the Kremlin’s hand in dealing with anything online, having already permitted its state watchdog to blacklist websites even with the absence of a court order and outlawed services that cover an Internet Service Provider address of a user.

A law that was ratified in 2013 and is yet to be fully enforced demands that all companies that manage the personal data of Russia submit their servers, temporarily at least, to the Russian authorities’ jurisdiction. Data from Google reveals that over the last year, the Russian government has requested and flagged the removal of more content on various Google services including YouTube, more than all the other countries in the world combined.

Looking at who the enemies of the Kremlin at home are—tech-savvy activists, followers of Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who posts his work on YouTube, and popular bloggers —it is easy to understand why.

Last year, his documentary regarding the alleged financial dealings of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev drew millions of views and initiated two mass waves of protests. The judiciary has since directed the video to be taken down.

However, one thing that the government cannot manage to ban is online meme-sharing. The mockery of Navalny in 2011 that the United Russia party of President Vladimir Putin is merely a  crowd of “crooks and thieves” has been a shorthand in the meme-focused language of the internet. To reprimand stagnation and government inaction, other images including Zhdun, a humanoid manatee that symbolises indefinite waiting, have become a viral phenomenon that many Russians share.

“Very often you can see that politically active users in Russia, they turn to memes to say something that cannot be said in the public sphere,” states Denisova. “Words are still powerful. Symbols are powerful because they really stick to your memory and to your mind, and memes are one of those things.” “Can you really change public opinion by the means of memes? I’m not sure about that. But it is a good way to keep your mind sane, as many people say in Russia, and to keep the discussion going, even in a very limited social network conversation.”