On Jan. 31, Twitter announced that it took down 418 accounts thought to have originated in Russia that were suspected of spreading disinformation targeting the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Two weeks earlier, Facebook removed yet another round of Russia-linked pages and accounts for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Russian fake news seemingly proliferates on every major platform. But the Russian government has also been gearing up for a fake news fight of its own.
Just last week, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, approved the first reading of a bill package that, if passed in its current form, would prohibit Russian citizens and news outlets from publishing unreliable news and from expressing disrespect toward the government. The legislation is intended to protect the Russian public from misinformation, according to its authors. Yet many worry that it will simply be used as a pretext to further limit freedom of expression online. The Russian government is already blocking the popular messenger app Telegram and trying to force social media giants to store local data on Russian servers. Enacting new controls over online expression would allow government agencies to target opposition under the dubious pretext of rooting out Western propaganda and fake news.
The bill defines unreliable news as “untruthful socially significant information” that is presented as trustworthy. “Untruthful socially significant information” can mean reports on anything from inconsistencies in government spending to environmental catastrophes. Individuals who spread false information would face administrative fines of up to 5,000 rubles (about $75), while legal entities would be liable for fines up to 1,000,000 rubles (about $15,000). Those found posting “indecent” materials about Russian government entities, state symbols, or the constitution can face up to 15 days under administrative arrest or fines between 1,000 to 5,000 rubles (about $15 to $75).
Out of 374 Duma deputies present at the reading, 332 members supported the measure. A number of representatives from two opposition parties—the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation—spoke out against it during the reading. LDPR’s Sergei Ivanov especially criticized the provision against disrespecting the government. “If we stop calling a fool a fool, he won’t stop being a fool as a result,” he said. “Simply don’t give people a reason to treat you with disrespect.”
The bill makes some concessions to concerns about violating freedom of speech. An explanatory note attached to the bill, obtained by Russian news agency Tass, states that the bill is a response to “the awareness of the negative aspects of spreading false information” and reaffirms the legal guarantees against “the abuse of the freedom of speech.” To qualify as unreliable news, the bill says, a story must pose a threat to an individual’s life or health or be capable of causing large-scale social disorder.
But opponents think that language is just a fig leaf. The RosKomSvoboda project, which fights internet censorship in Russia, says that the bill goes against both the Russian Constitution and international law, calling it “repressive and regressive.” Sen. Andrey Klishas, who sponsored the bill, disagrees. He contended that the spread of false, socially significant information could infringe upon the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens, which the constitution is meant to protect. “These changes are aimed at suppressing unlawful acts of this sort,” Klishas told Tass when the bill was first introduced in the Duma.
Russia is not the first country to attempt to crack down on fake news in recent years. If the proposed bill is adopted, it will join France, Belarus, Kenya, China, and Cambodia, all of which have enacted laws against online misinformation, according to Poynter.
The French law, passed in November 2018, specifically targets misinformation during elections. It grants the government authority to remove fake content, block sites that publish it, and enforce financial transparency for sponsored content on social media platforms during the three months leading up to a national election. Similarly, Belarus amended its media laws in June 2018 to allow the state to block social media and any websites found to be spreading false information online. In Kenya, anyone knowingly sharing false information can be fined up to 5 million shillings (about $50,000) or imprisoned for up to two years. In Cambodia, individuals can be jailed for two years and fined up to $1,000 for publishing fake news. The Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized these governments for stifling free speech. Malaysia had a similar law but repealed it after just a few months. CNN quoted Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams as saying that the then-proposed law was a “blatant attempt by the government to prevent any and all news that it doesn’t like, whether about corruption or elections.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s China that currently has one of the strictest misinformation laws in the world. Any rumors that “undermine economic and social order” were criminalized in 2016. By 2017, social media platforms were only permitted to link to news articles from registered media. In August 2018, the government launched an app that uses artificial intelligence to identify false reports online and allows the public to report any “online rumors.”
China’s crackdown on fake news is in line with President XI Jinping’s broader policy of cyber sovereignty, a concept that advocates total sovereign control over networks and data within a country’s borders. It’s an idea that Russia has also tried to emulate. Klishas, the same man who’s pushing for the adoption of the fake news bill in the Duma, has also proposed the creation of an independent Russian internet called Runet. The Runet law would create a centralized internet traffic control system in Russia, develop a national domain name system, and mandate that all Russian network operators install “technical means” of unspecified nature to counter threats to their networks. These technical tools would be provided by Roskomnadzor, the Russian media watchdog, to both protect the network and block all sites blacklisted by the agency.
Between a crackdown on unreliable news and anti-government speech and an attempt to separate Russian networks from the World Wide Web, Russia is clearly favoring the Chinese cyber model, as Emily Parker noted for Future Tense in 2017. Moves toward more centralized control of cyberspace could set a dangerous precedent, according to Samuel S. Visner, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and director of the National Cybersecurity Federally Funded Research and Development Center at the MITRE Corporation. “That model limits international access to information,” Visner told me over email. “It also politicizes information as a result of the political considerations used to determine what is or is not ‘fake.’ I worry that a centralized approach practiced by other countries will lead to further Balkanization of the internet, attempts at cyberspace sovereignty, and diminished work on setting international cybersecurity standards.”
Both Russian proposals are still in the early stages. As they’re debated and amended, perhaps the best way to help Russians who are concerned about a free and open internet would be for real journalists around the world to watch closely.