Last week, a new report revealed that government censorship on Russia’s largest social media network, VK, increased 3000% since the country entered war with Ukraine last year.

Access denied

Published by Canadian research group The Citizen Lab, the report analyzed how content posted on VK was being censored in Russia, Canada, and Ukraine. The researchers found that during an 8-month period, access to “94,942 videos, 1,569 community accounts, and 787 personal accounts” had been blocked for Russian-based VK users. However, for Canadian VK users, not even 3,000 videos were blocked.

The reasons for restricting content varied for each country, from copyright infringement concerns in Canada, to the sharing of unsanctioned political viewpoints in Russia. As the report relates:

“VK predominantly blocked access to music videos and other entertainment content in Canada, whereas, in Russia, we found VK blocked content posted by independent news organizations, as well as content related to Ukrainian and Belarusian issues, protests, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) content. In Ukraine, we discovered no content that VK blocked, though the site itself is blocked to varying extents by most Internet providers in Ukraine.”

Shaping the narrative

According the report, Russian court orders for content restrictions increased in February of last year from “once every 50 days” to “once a day following the invasion [of Ukraine],” with the majority of video removal requests relating to the conflict.

Following the Kremlin’s ban of international social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the move to restrict speech on more localized platforms is hardly surprising. However, the expansion of VK content restrictions shows just how much the Russian government seeks to dampen dissent and control the narrative surrounding its current military actions.

Jeffrey Knockel, one of the report’s authors related:

“These findings suggest the extreme political sensitivity of the Ukraine war in Russia and Russia’s need to tightly control Russians’ access to information regarding the invasion.”