From YouTube to Rutube. Inside Russia’s Influence Campaign.
Wednesday - 20/04/2022 06:49
Kremlin cracks down on Western social media, but Russia’s homemade alternatives are a tough sell
The Kremlin is waging a new influence campaign: persuading Russians to quit Western social-media platforms.
As part of an expansive effort to control the narrative about its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is pushing Russians to embrace homegrown alternatives instead. Russian authorities have put up firewalls around several Western social-media platforms and are threatening more. Now they have to convince Russians used to the freedoms of YouTube and Instagram that censored domestic social networks can deliver moneymaking opportunities and equally large audiences. And that they aren’t just cheap knockoffs.
The Ministry of Digital Development of the Russian Federation last month said it was taking emergency measures to draw attention to domestic social-networking apps. Rutube, Russia’s answer to YouTube, and Fiesta, an Instagram-like app, have since enjoyed a huge surge in downloads, though so have apps that enable people to access recently banned outlets.
The country’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, blocked Facebook and Instagram last month after their owner, Meta Platforms Inc., placed restrictions on Russian media outlets. Meta and other social-media companies also paused advertising in Russia, making it harder for content creators to generate revenue from a Russian social-media account.
“Our bloggers have to leave foreign platforms—maybe that’s OK,” Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told the State Duma earlier this month.
“Our brains, our guys, programmers are able to improve these platforms,” he said, citing as examples Rutube and VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook. What is lacking is effective monetization opportunities, he said: “This will return our youth, and give us our own field.”
The Kremlin’s campaign to encourage Russian upstarts over Western platform operators has put users and content creators in their crosshairs. While people around the globe are turning to YouTube, Instagram and other social-media outlets for news and firsthand accounts of the violence, Russia has made that kind of online activity riskier. The government passed a law that threatens prison time for anyone publishing what authorities deem to be false information about the country’s invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin refers to as a special military operation. The law applies to both traditional and social media.
Gazprom-Media, a unit of the Russian energy giant Gazprom PJSC and the owner of Rutube, has been leading Russia’s effort to develop social-media alternatives, with the government’s backing. Gazprom, which also owns VKontakte through its insurance arm Sogaz, in November launched Yappy, a homemade version of TikTok. Earlier this month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that money would be invested in Rutube to make it more user-friendly.
These efforts have had some success. Fiesta, which launched in November 2021, reached No. 1 in downloads among top free iPhone apps in Russia on Apple Inc.’s App Store for five days last month, according to app-analytics firm Sensor Tower Inc. Rutube gained 1.1 million downloads across both Apple’s App Store and Alphabet’s Google Play in Russia last month, while Yappy has gained two million downloads through them since the start of February, Sensor Tower’s data show.
Still, Russian users are sticking with foreign platforms. Last month, nearly two billion visits to YouTube came from Russian web-browser users across mobile web and desktop, according to estimates provided by analytics firm Similarweb Ltd.