Russia is playing whack-a-mole as it repeatedly blocks niche parts of the internet spreading information about Ukraine, including a pet grooming site, a scary story blog, and a sudoku site
Isobel Asher Hamilton – May 8, 2022
- Russia has cracked down on messaging about the Ukraine war that contradicts its state propaganda.
- Research found Russia blocked 300 fringe websites hosting identical blocks of text about the war.
- These websites included a pet grooming site, a scary story blog, and a website for a tattoo parlor.
Russia is sweeping incredibly obscure parts of the internet in its efforts to stop its citizens from viewing information about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, new research suggests.
Data collected by digital rights and privacy group Top10VPN and shared with Insider showed Russia is blocking hundreds of small websites. These include a pet grooming site, a short horror story blog, and a tattoo parlor’s website.
Russia has cracked down on any messaging that contradicts its propaganda line that the invasion of Ukraine is nothing more than a “special military operation.”
The blocking of these niche sites shows how the Russian state is cracking down on even the most fringe parts of the internet to control information about the war.
Top10VPN found many of the niche sites blocked by Russia contained the same chunk of Russian-language text attempting to inform readers about the war in Ukraine.
Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at Top10VPN, told Insider he had found roughly 300 sites that contained the same text about the war. He found they had been blocked by Russia by searching a publicly available list of blocked websites from Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office.
The pet grooming site, the horror story blog, and the website for the tattoo parlor all contained the same text.
It begins: “Russia has attacked Ukraine! We, Ukrainians, hope that you already know about this. For the sake of your children and any hope of light at the end of this hell — please finish reading our letter,” per an automated translation provided to Insider by Woodhams.
Woodhams said often the text was stashed away in hard-to-find resource pages on these websites.
It goes on to directly contradict Russian state propaganda, including Putin’s statement that Russia is “denazifying” Ukraine.
“While it’s unclear who is responsible for disseminating this message, it’s evident that efforts are being made to reach Russian citizens and bypass [Russia’s] vast censorship apparatus,” Woodhams told Insider.
“Although these obscure websites are unlikely to have a huge reach, there’s strength in numbers and with so many domains affected it’s likely some will have evaded Russia’s censorship apparatus,” he said.
Woodhams found other blocked websites, including a sudoku website, which also carried information about the war in Ukraine.
Sites are blocked alluding to the conflict in other ways too. “Sports websites for example are often blocked for interviewing a footballer who speaks out about the conflict,” said Woodhams.
Russia has already blocked mainstream online platforms and sites, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Since the invasion began 960 news domains have been blocked in Russia, according to Top10VPN.
On April 24 Russia also blocked Chess.com, which had publicly stated its condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine on February 26.
Chess.com said in a statement that its apps continued to function even though its website was blocked.
“We happily encourage our Russian members to continue accessing our site using our apps or any of the many outstanding VPN services that are so essential in Russia,” it said.
There was a surge in Russian demand for virtual private networks (VPNs), following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. VPNs allow users to access information otherwise blocked in their country.
Following the invasion, Ukrainians and activists found ingenious ways of bypassing Russian internet censorship.
Some posted Google reviews of restaurants and locations containing messages about Ukraine, leading to Google blocking Russian such reviews in early March.
Ukrainian ad professionals formed a volunteer group to target Russian internet users with ads debunking misinformation about the invasion, Insider’s Lara O’Reilly reported in March.