Russians switch to homegrown social media amid Ukraine crackdown (2023)

When YouTube stopped users in Russia from monetising their clips following the invasion of Ukraine, George Kavanosyan, a Moscow-based environmentalist with 60,000 followers on the platform tried to switch to its local equivalent, RuTube. But, as the Kremlin tightened control over online information, he became increasingly frustrated by the video sharing site, which is owned by the media division of Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom.

“The first video I uploaded was moderated for two-three days,” Kavanosyan, 35, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding by the time it was approved “its relevance was lost”.

Founded in 2006, RuTube is one of several Russian social media platforms that have seen a surge in users since Moscow escalated its long-simmering dispute with Big Tech in an attempt to control the domestic narrative over its invasion of Ukraine.

With Russian media dominated by state outlets that closely follow Kremlin lines, the web has traditionally provided a space for opposition voices and open discussions.

Russia accuses the West of spreading false information about the invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise Ukraine, and has restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram since sending its troops over the border. YouTube may soon suffer the same fate as it comes under growing pressure from Russia’s state communications regulator.

(Video) Social Media Platforms Fight To Keep Their Sites Available In Russia

Although there is no stated policy on replacing foreign social media, the government has promised income tax breaks and preferential loans for homegrown IT companies, and employees can get their military service deferred. Politicians are also encouraging users to switch to domestic providers.


This has bolstered new and existing domestic rivals, who critics say are more pliant about complying with requests to remove content or help authorities with information. “This is really about the government seeking to have more and more complete control over the information that its citizens are receiving,” said Alina Polyakova, who heads the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a Washington-based think-tank.


RuTube was downloaded about 1.4 million times on Russia’s App Store and Google Play in the 40 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, up more than 2,000% on the previous period, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

VKontakte, a Facebook-like site that already dominated the Russian market, saw a 14% jump in active users in March, with social networks Telegram and OK also experiencing 23% and 6% growth respectively, according to monitor Brand Analytics.

Instagram alternative Fiesta reached number one on Russia’s app store at the end of March and the newest entrant in the space is Rossgram, another Instagram clone. A parody black-and-white alternative called Grustnogram, which translates as Sadgram, has also gone live in recent weeks, inviting users to post sad pictures of themselves to express their grief at the loss of the U.S. platform.


Following Chine, Russia is not alone in attempting to foster a domestic internet ecosystem. Countries including China and India have built substitute apps and social media platforms that are more easily controlled by the government.

In China, the ban of Google and Facebook helped catapult WeChat to become the country’s leading digital platform. With the so-called great firewall blocking many Western platforms, local sites such as search engine Baidu and the Twitter-like Weibo have established dominance, though critics point out that they are closely monitored and heavily censored.

(Video) Russia: Putin cracks down on media over Ukraine war

In India, after failing to control content posted on Twitter the government has actively promoted an alternative named Koo, which says it now boasts more than twice as many users as its U.S. competitor in the country.

Short video app Josh, launched just days after the government banned China’s TikTok in 2020, claims to have more than 150 million users.


Yet analysts say it might take time for Russia catch up with China in terms of fostering a local social media ecosystem, as some of its domestic platforms are a long way from becoming viable alternatives to their established counterparts.


Rossgram’s launch has been hampered by delays, and RuTube’s reach in Russia is still a fraction of that of YouTube, according to figures announced by the Russian company’s CEO and from market research groups.

RuTube said it strives to protect users from “fakes” and “disinformation”, adding that moderation processes were taking longer than usual due to increased load on the site and stricter legal requirements on the “reliability of information”.


Rossgram did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Wary of censorship, monitoring, and the potential consequences of speaking their minds, some content creators are avoiding domestic sites.

“I don’t see any point in the newly created Russian-language services. It is unlikely that I will be able to speak freely on them,” said Alexander Kim, a 40-year-old YouTuber and human rights activist.

(Video) As Russia bans Facebook and Instagram, what alternatives will Russian social media users turn to?


Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Internet Protection Society, a Russian digital rights group, said users are afraid what is acceptable to authorities today might become unlawful tomorrow, leading to platforms filled with poor content.

“It takes some courage to produce quality content that attracts users. And users also need courage to provide feedback to content creators,” he said. “To put likes and write comments … is just dangerous.”

Russian platforms might also face logistical challenges as sanctions hamper their ability to import computer hardware such as servers to support further growth, he added.


‘Meanwhile, many in Russia have turned to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to keep accessing banned sites, despite Moscow’s attempts to block service providers.Still, accessing independent and dissenting voices has become increasingly difficult.Some measures taken by Western tech firms in response to the war, such as YouTube stopping monetisation, have been counterproductive, punishing pro-Kremlin and independent content generators alike, said video creator Kavanosyan.

YouTube stopped monetising videos for users in Russia in March, as global outrage over the Ukraine conflict mounted and Western sanctions started to pose banking challenges in Russia.

“The blocking of monetisation hit many independent editorial offices, journalists and bloggers, and made it almost impossible to create new journalistic or media projects,” said Kavanosyan.

Klimarev, from the Russian digital rights group, also urged tech giants such as Google and Apple to introduce technologies in Russia that encrypt internet traffic and foil attempts to block content.

“Shutting down and blocking the internet is Putin’s weapon,” he said. “When you turn off the internet for ordinary users, you involve them in the abyss of Putin’s propaganda.”


What do Russians use instead of Facebook? ›

Vkontakte: the Facebook of Russia

VK has undergone significant growth over the past five years, with its user base rising from 43.9 million users in March 2016 to 67 million users in December 2021.

What social media do Russians use? ›

Over three quarters of the Russian online population aged 16 to 64 years used VK (Vkontakte) in the third quarter of 2022, thus making it the most used platform among those listed in the ranking. WhatsApp ranked second, with a penetration rate of nearly 72 percent, followed by Telegram and Odnoklassniki.

What is the Russian alternative to Instagram? ›

Looky markets itself as an “improved version” of Instagram, the highly popular platform which was blocked in Russia when a court branded its parent company Meta “extremist” in March. The app's developers say they can migrate Instagram users' photos, stories and followers onto its platform.

Can Russians still use Instagram? ›

Can You Use Instagram in Russia? Instagram is currently banned in Russia, but you can bypass Russian censorship geoblocks and access the full features of Instagram with a virtual private network (VPN). In our book, ExpressVPN is the best VPN for that purpose, but NordVPN and CyberGhost are cheaper alternatives.

What does China use instead of Facebook? ›

Today, WeChat is the largest social media platform in China, with over 1 billion monthly active users. Compare this to Facebook's 2 billion worldwide. Given that WeChat's user base is concentrated heavily in China it's easy to see why many users call it the Chinese Facebook.

What media is blocked in Russia? ›

In March 2022, amid its invasion of Ukraine, Russia began to increasingly block international news outlets such as BBC News Russian, Deutsche Welle, and RFE/RL (including Current Time), and Twitter was "restricted".

Does Netflix work in Russia? ›

Is Netflix Blocked in Russia? Netflix doesn't work in Russia because the streaming service has pulled out of the country. The best way to access Netflix there is to use a VPN.

Do Russians use Snapchat? ›

As of January 2023, Snapchat in Russia was largely used by the female audience compared to male counterparts. The advertisement reach of the social media platform to the total population over 13 years old was measured at 6.4 percent.

Does Russia have its own social media? › is a search, email and web portal that owns social networks, Odnoklassniki and Moi Mir (My World). It reportedly reaches around 84% of Russian internet users every month. Mail.

Are Ukrainians getting social welfare? ›

You will get a temporary social welfare payment called Supplementary Welfare Allowance. It is a weekly payment for you and any dependents (for example, children) you may have. If you need help applying for this payment, you can visit your nearest Ukraine Support Centre.

Who controls the media in Ukraine? ›

The main regulatory authority for the broadcast media is the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine (NTRBCU), tasked with licensing media outlets and ensure their compliance with the law.

What is the blacklist in Russia? ›

Since 2012, Russia maintains a centralized internet blacklist (known as the "single register") maintained by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor). The list is used for the censorship of individual URLs, domain names, and IP addresses.

Does TikTok work in Russia? ›

Chinese-owned video app TikTok suspended livestreaming and new uploads in Russia after Moscow introduced strict new media censorship following its invasion of Ukraine in February.

What do Asians use instead of Facebook? ›

Baidu Tieba

While it might not be well known in Western countries, Baidu Tieba is actually older than Facebook. Its total number of registered internet users has surpassed 1.5 billion, making it a top network for brands to consider.

Is TikTok Chinese owned? ›

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, has long maintained that it does not share data with the Chinese government and that its data is not held in China.

Has Netflix blocked Russia? ›

Netflix's website and application are no longer working in Russia. As a result, reports Kommersant, the service can only be received via a VPN.

Can you use Gmail in Russia? ›

Like Google search services, Gmail is available in Russia.

Does Apple block Russia? ›

Officially: Apple will not leave Russians without an iPhone. Unofficially: the same smartphones, though 'gray', had been sold long before the sanctions. On March 2, 2022, Apple, among others, officially announced the suspension of sales in Russia.

Can you watch TV in Russia? ›

Most channels in Russia are state-owned, at least in part. There are also many private channels and regional channels. Most homes can access 20 channels for free, which include the main federal broadcasters, news, and kids' shows. It's also possible to receive digital TV, satellite TV, and streaming services.

What messaging apps do Russians use? ›

WhatsApp is Russia's most popular messenger app. In fact, you probably have it on your phone already, as it's the world's favorite mobile messenger. If not, it should be on your download list. WhatsApp is useful for sending instant messages and sharing videos and pictures.

What apps do Russia use? ›

In 2021, WhatsApp was the most popular social media messenger in Russia, with a usage index of 82 percent. The usage index of one of WhatsApp's main competitors in the region - Telegram, was at 52 percent. Viber ranked third, used by nearly one half of Russians who had it installed on their devices.

Which social media is blocked in Russia? ›

In March 2022, amid its invasion of Ukraine, Russia began to increasingly block international news outlets such as BBC News Russian, Deutsche Welle, and RFE/RL (including Current Time), and Twitter was "restricted".

Is Apple working in Russia? ›

While services like Apple Pay aren't usable in the territory, Apple also ceased the export of products to sales channels in the country. However, while Apple isn't going to ship the iPhone 14 to Russia itself, potential customers in the country still have the chance to get hold of the newest smartphones.

Which country uses messenger the most? ›

Most Popular Chat Apps by Country
CountryMost Popular App (By Active Users)
United Kingdom (UK)WhatsApp
United States of America (USA)Facebook Messenger
Uzbekistan*Telegram Messenger
147 more rows
Feb 22, 2023

Which country Cannot use Facebook? ›

Many countries have banned or temporarily limited access to Facebook. Use of the website has also been restricted in various ways in other countries. As of July 2022, the only countries to continually ban access to the social networking site are China, Iran, North Korea, Uganda and Russia.


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