The Kremlin’s data-driven propaganda machine is just getting started

The war in Ukraine is in full swing, but silence reigns on the streets of Russian cities; there are almost no anti-war rallies.  

The majority of Russians support the war in Ukraine and have rallied around the ruling regime. According to the independent polling company the Levada Center — recognized in Russia as a foreign agent — 75 percent of Russians supported the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine as of June 2022. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Russians increased from 71 percent to 83 percent during the war.  

Citizens are convinced not only of the justice of the war but also of the various myths surrounding it. Many believe that Ukraine itself was preparing to attack Russia and that the neighboring country shelters Nazis and enemy biological laboratoriesThe blame for the nightmarish war crimes in Bucha and other Ukrainian cities is most often attributed by Russian citizens to the Ukrainian armed forces.  

One gets the impression that the consciousness of the Russian people was skillfully hacked. 

In recent decades due to digital technologies, Russians have begun to generate enormous amounts of personal data. The Kremlin saw in this process a huge opportunity to strengthen its regime and, in 2019 piloted a system for combining, storing and analyzing the personal data of Russians. In 2020, it approved a “uniform federal database” for citizens’ personal data, including, “birth certificates, passport details, marital status, any change of gender, education, residence permits abroad, employment, and taxpayers’ information.” The database is expected to be in operation by 2025.  

Such data allows Russian authorities to monitor the mood of citizens and their reactions to various events in real-time. Authoritarian regimes of the 20th century could only dream of such a tool. Detailed knowledge and understanding of citizens, their weak points and their aspirations have helped the Kremlin to learn to play upon the moods of Russians like a piano. 

The main sources of data for the Kremlin are state authorities and private companies. Major companies in Russia usually have close ties to the Kremlin and most are committed to strengthening the current political regime. As a result, telecom operators, banks, transport companies, internet services and other Russian businesses provide the authorities with access to the personal data they collect. At the same time, no laws designed to protect personal data work effectively. Moreover, Yarovaya laws obliging telecom operators to collect and store all user traffic without notice contribute to the greater collection of personal data by the state.  

I, along with other activists, have tried in every possible way to resist the concentration of personal data by the Kremlin. We have drawn public attention to the issue of data ownership, particularly the weakness of legislation protecting personal data. Before the start of the war in Ukraine, we made a petition to the State Duma and other state authorities to strengthen the protection of personal data. 

After I was detained in 2018 by Russian authorities using a facial recognition system, I filed a lawsuit against Moscow’s Department of Technology, which controls a network of 213,000 cameras that covers the entire city. I saw practically no chance that the Russian court would take my side. The defendants, including the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Department of Information Technology of Moscow, said that the video surveillance system is designed not only to identify citizens but also to “detect snow at the entrance, overflowing garbage cans, broken swings in playgrounds.” As expected, the court dismissed the claim. I have brought this claim to the European Court of Human Rights, which will soon consider my case.  

After the court’s decision, it became clear there is no way to legally oppose the development of a data collection system without the fight being equated with anti-state activity. Without a change in the current political regime, it is nearly impossible to stop the erosion of privacy and autonomy of citizens. 

A second key element of the Kremlin’s population control methods is its monopoly over sources of information. Today, most Russians receive information only from media controlled by the Kremlin. Many Russian media outlets are not directly owned by the state but are run by businessmen close to the authorities. This applies not only to traditional media but also to internet portals as well as Russian social networks, which have become a new source of information for many citizens. Alternative sources including Meduza, Dozhd, Radio Echo of MoscowBBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio SvobodaFacebook, Twitter and many others were censored and blocked. The Kremlin has gained a near-total monopoly over domestic information and is now skillfully using it to manipulate Russians. 

With the evolution of information technology, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine will become even more effective. The authorities will collect more of Russia’s personal data and use sophisticated machine learning algorithms to analyze it. Propaganda is gradually transforming from mass media to personalized media. At some point, the Kremlin will begin to know Russians better than they know themselves. Dictators around the world will have significant control over the opinions of citizens and will be able to provide support for any of their actions: from heads of state maintaining power indefinitely to genocide in a neighboring country. 

It is imperative to continue to fight against Russia’s total surveillance regime and its monopoly over sources of information. Effective solutions include increasing citizens’ digital literacy to help to spread the use of VPNs, developing state-independent access to the internet such as Elon Musk’s Starlink system, actively promoting alternative information via the internet and excluding from sanctions the equipment necessary to ensure the operation of the internet.  

Russians need to be provided with access to alternative sources of information. Only then can Russian civil society change the current political regime. 

Alena Popova is the Galina Starovoitova fellow at Wilson Center. She is a Russian opposition politician and founder of the Ethics and Technology think tank. She specializes in researching the impact of emerging technologies on autocratic and democratic governance models.

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