Putin’s virtual army — how to resist it?

30.05.2022 0 Редакция NS.Writer

Why are the global communications corporations actually participating in the information war against Ukraine and on the side of Kremlin?

Of course, the communication giants themselves — YouTube video hosting, which is a part of Google and the Meta / Facebook social network, categorically deny such complicity. On the contrary, they are widely publicized in opposition to Putin, by condemning, only in words, the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine.
And YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking at a recent economic forum in Davos, said that the video hosting she managed had already removed more than 70,000 videos and 9,000 channels that spread fakes about the war in Ukraine and violated the rules of the platform.

Wojcicki called these impressive numbers, trying to justify the need to continue the work of YouTube in Russia. After all, according to her, the unwillingness to leave the Russian market is generated exclusively by the civic position of the hosting management: the desire to provide Russians with access to independent information and to fight disinformation spread by the Kremlin.

Wojcicki said it with such a conviction that those who have not experienced YouTube censorship could easily believe her. But those who have dealt with it in practice, and know how it works, are well aware of both the local devil and the one who lives, as usual, in inconspicuous folds of the terrain. And they know that this devil is providing services for Kremlin.

In a pursuit of money

There is no free internet hosting and there are no free social networks — this is as obvious as the absence of free lunches in our reality. But the average YouTube/FB/Google user often misses this detail. Meanwhile, YouTube is not a group of enthusiastic volunteers; its annual income has reached close to the $20 billion mark.

Where does the money come from if the access to YouTube for the entry-level users is free? Everything is obvious with the providers: you pay them money to get access to the World Wide Web. And who pays YouTube so that you can roam its collections in search of a video that interests you, or post one of your own there?

After all, this opportunity, which is used by more than 2.5 billion people worldwide every month, is provided by thousands of employees sitting in buildings stuffed with billions of dollars of equipment. And where does the money for all of this come from?

Money comes from advertising and trading in user data arrays. In data arrays trading — no one infringes on your personal data, at least in a legal way. But data arrays about search queries, and visits to different video content, make it possible to judge topics of interest of people in a given region. This is BigData in action, and a Klondike for advertisers/political technologists. In addition, by paying money, you can increase the frequency offers for your videos, as well as raise their position in the user search column.

It is clear that all these benefits will cost more, if they can cover a large part of the Earth’s territory/population. Russia, with its nominally 140 million inhabitants, is a huge advertising market, with a huge demand for data to make this advertising more effective.

As you can see, Susan Wojcicki’s civic position has a solid financial foundation. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but we are not finished yet, we are moving on.

Digressing a little to the side, I note: Facebook works exactly on the same principles. Everything that will be said in this article about YouTube applies to Facebook. But Mark Zuckerberg and his deeds are already widely publicized. And it would be unfair not to organize some PR for the lesser-known Wojcicki. Moreover, she also gave a reason for this, declaring her civic position from the podiumin Davos.

So, let’s get back to our data. It is clear that the data on Russia are of interest to those who work with the Russian population — that is, sell them something tangible or intangible. Including political ideas — well, why not? But no matter what is sold, it is clear that most of the buyers of the attention of the Russian audience, paying for this attention to YouTube, will be located in Russia. Not all, of course, but the vast majority. And, taking into account the sanctions that have hampered the movement of cash flows from Russia, and into it, it is better to take money from them in Russia too. Yes, in rubles — just like some countries are now buying Russian gas for rubles, albeit very conditionally.

This sale of gas for rubles became a way for Moscow to evade the sanctions, and the rubles that YouTube’s Russian office raises on the Russian market naturally find a place in this chain. But we won’t be picky. After all, this is a trifle compared to the fact that the inhabitants of Russia, through YouTube, will be able to access independent information that exposes the disinformation of the Kremlin. And, in general, we are not talking now about the fact that YouTube being on the Russian market without fail means that it has a Russian branch that sells hosting services directly in Russia. In this, if not to find fault with the details that we decided to omit, there is also no big sin — but we are still not finished, we continue to delve deeper into the topic.

Russia is a state without a rule of law, and this is a fundamental provision that determines all further reasoning. The reason for the non-legal structure of Russia, where the administrative will is above the law, and the law oppresses as it pleases, lies in the fact that the Russian Federation is a specific ‘special operation’ country, built on the ruins of the USSR around the surviving Soviet special services. It was the special services, due to their caste closeness, that were the least affected by the processes of Soviet disintegration. As a result, it is precisely the people from the special services and their descendants, or at least persons closely associated with the Russian special services, that today form the backbone of the Russian political and propertied class. This position is supported by so many facts that it does not need detailed consideration.

This feature of the genesis of the Russian elites gave rise to the Russian style of doing business — any business, including money, politics, humanitarian cooperation, and even opposition to the current authorities. Behind everything that happens in Russia, and has at least some meaning or importance, there is always one of three rival intelligence services: the FSB, the SVR or the GRU. No other foundation — tradition, the rule of law, ideology, culture or anything else that can be the basis of the processes going on in society — exists anywhere in Russia — neither in politics, nor in business, nor in the media.

Even the anti-Putin opposition is a reserve project of the same Russian special services, formed in case they have to be friends with the West again during the next «thaw», while cursing Putin’s past.

This, in turn, means that any foreign business operating in Russia will inevitably be forced to act in the interests of the Russian special services, and its local staff will be densely saturated with their agents. Moreover, it is not necessary to send already-made agents for a job interview — it is easier to recruit local employees who have already been hired and working.

In other words, the local YouTube branch operating in Russia will almost entirely consist of agents. The only exception could be a few specialists that have arrived from abroad, and it would make no sense to recruit them. But, if such need arises, they will also be recruited, and the intractable ones will be squeezed out of Russia, and those who will arrive to replace them, the more compliant ones, will be recruited.

Isn’t it true that this local feature immediately makes one doubt that YouTube video hosting, being present in Russia with the aim of making profit in rubles, and its further conversion, bypassing existing restrictions, and forced in connection with this to reckon not only with Russian laws, but an unofficial wishes of the authorities, standing above the law, moreover, saturated with local agents at all levels, is it possible in practice to provide Russians with access to independent information and combat disinformation spread by the Kremlin?

But that’s not all. Strictly speaking, this is only an introduction to the topic.

YouTube censorship: how does it work?

YouTube has thousands of employees around the world — and billions of active users. Once again: thousands — and billions. In other words, for every YouTube employee, from Susan Wojcicki, inflamed by the consciousness of her high civic mission, to cleaners, security guards and other low-level personnel, there are about a million users. Let’s say that videos are posted by one in a hundred users — there is no exact data, YouTube does not like to share them, but offhand, from everyday experience, this figure is probably close to reality. On the other hand, not all YouTube employees are engaged in censorship — most of them perform other functions. The number of those who are directly involved in censoring content, in whatever form it may take, hardly exceeds 1% of the total number of video holding personnel. In other words, for one censor there are about a million content producers who post on average… well, even if 3-4 videos a year, this is the minimum figure. It is not possible to view them manually. We need an algorithm that would view the content automatically, filtering out unwanted content for some formal reason.

What are these reasons? Here it must be said that the details of content filtering are perhaps the most guarded secret, both in Facebook and in Google, which YouTube is a part of. But, based on the introductory part of this article, and on the practice of working with YouTube and Facebook, it is still possible to draw conclusions about what exactly is filtered out.

Let’s start with the fact that neither «fighting disinformation» nor «providing access to independent information» can have the highest priority in terms of reference given to the developers of filtering algorithms. Topping their list of tasks will be the successful sale of the YouTube services.

What is required for this?

First of all, hosting needs to meet the expectations of the majority of its audiences for the content available to them. To fulfill this condition, censorship algorithms should be sharpened.

But the audience is heterogeneous, it has different views, sometimes the opposite ones. Fortunately, the warring sectors in most cases can be separated, as fans of different teams are separated at the stadium. Skillful content targeting can literally work wonders. Problems arise only when a conflict occurs within a group, which, according to formal criteria, can’t be divided into subgroups, offering each of them its own version of events, it turns out to be difficult. Example: conflict of opinions within the Russian-speaking audience in connection with the war in Ukraine.

In general, the algorithm should focus on four groups of people.

First, these are the consumers of content in each specific target segment, the very bottom of the chain, its ‘plankton’ who watches, among other things, the content for which YouTube paid to increase the number of views. Consumers should like the content in their target sector. This results in more of them watching, which encourages advertisers to pay more money to YouTube.

Second, these are advertisers who put money into YouTube in order to increase the number of views for their videos and to get information about what consumers want to see, those that we have in the first group. At the same time, if we are talking about Russia, advertisers should also be sure that their presence on YouTube will not cause dissatisfaction of the authorities.

Third, these are local authorities who collect taxes and oversee the process as a whole. In the case with Russia, these authorities directly grow from the bowels of the special services, live in the space of permanent and all-pervasive special operations, and are currently waging a war against Ukraine, seeking to destroy it. This war is also called a special operation in the Kremlin, and this is not so much even a direct lie as rather a feature of the Kremlin’s overall worldview.

Finally, fourth, this is the «big hall in Davos», shared with the whole world, which should, at least in part, believe in the high mission of YouTube in the version of Susan Wojcicki. Why is it necessary? Well, at least because people like it when someone does something good to them for free — see «first group». And this is also necessary in order to maintain good relations with the authorities in other countries, especially in the USA, where YouTube is based — here see «third group».

Here, in fact, is the entire list of goals that the censorship algorithm should cover. Obviously, the sacramental «I was banned for the truth» from the point of view of this list is meaningless. «For the truth», as well as «for disinformation», YouTube/Facebook does not ban anyone. Bans solely exist in the framework of maintaining a balance between the four listed groups. If, at the same time, someone is banned for disinformation, or for an unpleasant truth, this is nothing more than a coincidence.

Such algorithms are complex, a puzzling combination of programming, CEO, linguistics, psychology, economic forecasting, and diplomacy. There are a lot of conflicting requirements to meet, and it’s hard as hell. Naturally, such algorithms are developed centrally. Then they are sent down to local offices, where they are already adjusted to the requirements of specific target groups. The setting also includes formal features that serve as the basis for filtering.

Naturally, this is done by local employees —by native speakers of the language who understand social psychology of the target audience. They, if we are talking about Russia, are the agents of the Russian special services, who also contribute to the algorithm settings. However, even without this contribution from «fighting disinformation» and «providing access to independent information» there are only candy wrappers left to demonstrate to the world under the fourth group paragraph.

But, since the world is often far removed from the problems of a specific target group, it is not difficult to confuse it with a story about «70 thousand videos and 9 thousand channels», which were closed «for spreading fakes about the war on the territory of Ukraine and violating the rules of the platform» is not difficult. By the way, the wording itself is a cheater. Spreading fakes and violating platform rules are completely different things.

Of course, the most odious channels, like the Solovyov show, YouTube was forced to close. The Kremlin authorities, after the threats for the sake of appearances, treated this matter with understanding. The Russian intelligence services, exactly like YouTube, employ pragmatists sharpened to solve the tasks set within the limits of the possible. They are well aware that the depth of YouTube’s deflection before the authorities of the Russian Federation has its own limit, and there is no need for this deflection to be noticeable from the outside. On the contrary, the conflict between YouTube and the Russian government, and the principled position of video hosting, should be evident to everyone. So, the noise around the blocking of a number of Russian channels that most actively called for war against Ukraine played into the hands of both the Russian authorities and YouTube. The Russian authorities told their people that there are enemies around and advertised their RuTube, where Russians can post anything they ‘want’. And YouTube has shown the world unbending courage in the face of Russian threats.

The fact that the second-ranked Russian propagandists, like «Goblin»-Puchkov, with all of their anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, remained freely on YouTube and feel great over there, against the backdrop of these public showdowns, has disappeared into the media shadows.

Hedging your bets

But what to if the target group, torn apart by an internal conflict, just cannot be divided, and something needs to be sacrificed? The answer is obvious: it is necessary to minimize losses, since they are inevitable. This is the time to ask the uncomfortable question: do Russians want to know the truth about the events in Ukraine?

The results of all, without exception, opinion polls unequivocally give the answer: no.

The vast majority of Russians, at the level of 80-90%, prefer to believe Russian propaganda. And there is nothing surprising in this. Nazism — and in Russia today the Nazi regime has been established — completely deprives huge masses of people of even a hint of critical thinking. William Shearer, who left a detailed description of the life of Nazi Germany from the inside, stated in September 1939: «Any moralizing of the rest of the world about the aggression against Poland practically does not evoke a response from the population. Citizens of all classes, women as well as men, for two weeks crowded around the shop windows in Berlin, gazing with approval at the maps on which the victorious advance of the German troops in Poland was marked with red pins. As long as the Germans are winning and don’t have to tighten their belts too much, this war will not become unpopular.»

That’s exactly how the inhabitants of Russia perceive today the news about the war in Ukraine.

Another question is that the Russian-speaking sector of YouTube is not limited to Russia alone. It also includes Ukraine, whose citizens, including Russian speakers, are fighting against Russian Nazism. But YouTube does not care about the fight against Nazism. Its task is to maintain the maximum level of profitability, for which it is necessary to retain the maximum part of the Russian-speaking audience, balancing between the four points listed above. And YouTube management has made a pragmatic choice in favor of Russia, since the 140 million-strong piece of the Russian-language advertising market is undoubtedly fatter. In addition, the Russian-speaking audience in other countries is largely multilingual. In Ukraine, for example, it is also Ukrainian-speaking. And YouTube, having thrown into the ban, for public decency, the channels of Vladimir Solovyov, this Russian analogue of Julius Streicher, began to crush anti-Putin and pro-Ukrainian channels broadcasting in Russian. Facebook did the same.

Who ordered a hit on «Tedious Pence»?

Consider a specific example of such unrelenting pressure. The pro-Ukrainian, Russian- and Ukrainian-language channel «Tedious Pence» switched only to Russian on the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, based on the fact that the global Russian-speaking audience is much larger, and it is necessary to convey the truth about Russian war crimes in Ukraine to as many people as possible. But, by having switched to Russian, «Tedious Pence» immediately fell under the jurisdiction of the Russian office of YouTube, located in Moscow.

On the second day of Russian invasion of Ukraine, 02/25/2022, the channel released a video titled «Second Day. Night and Morning.» Not immediately, but on May 11, the video was transferred to restricted viewing mode «for violating community rules.» What kind of rules —it remains unknown. YouTube operators do not condescend to such explanations. In addition, all the videos of this channel were revised for the last four years of its existence. And another one was found, with a photograph of smoking children (YouTube is against smoking!) taken … in a year 1910!

This was the basis for the second warning. Three warnings lead to the complete deletion of the channel, without the possibility of recovery. And, judging by the zeal of the employees of the YouTube Moscow office, the third warning will follow very soon.

The case with «Tedious Pence» is not isolated. On the contrary, it is so typical that it gives grounds for serious suspicions about the figures of 70,000 deleted videos and 9,000 closed channels that allegedly «spread fake news about the war on the territory of Ukraine.» It is very likely that a significant part of these videos and channels were involved in anti-Nazi and anti-Putin propaganda, which prevented YouTube from making money on the Russian market.

In fairness, it should be noted that the situation with the censorship on Facebook and Instagram is even worse, and censorship methods are more sophisticated, although inside the Russian Federation both networks are formally recognized as extremist and banned. In fact, it is technically impossible to block them in Russia, and they are available, but the Russians themselves kicked the Russian advertisers from both social networks. However, this did not change the situation with censorship. As a result, all of the world’s largest media structures based in the United States, in fact, play along with Russia in its information war against Ukraine.

What to do with all this?

Ignoring unpleasant things that prevent you from extracting maximum income is a common tactic of Big Business. The Ukrainian Holodomor would interfere with the trade with Soviet Russia, and therefore, Europe, as well as the United States, which needed this trade to overcome the consequences of the global crisis, noticed it only after the collapse of the USSR (and the Kazakh famine, it seems, has not been ever noticed).

Hitler’s death camps in the West, for the same reason, were not noticed until about mid-1944. Yes, there was already a war, but there were neutral countries through which it was possible to trade with the Third Reich in spite of any war. So, the current difficulties with sanctions against Putin’s Russia are not out of the ordinary. On the contrary, the world is less and less willing to turn a blind eye to war crimes — although these changes are happening very slowly.

However, the problem remains. It has two obvious reasons: the general logic of a business that thinks about profit, and the saturation of all institutions with the agents of the Russian special services where people from Russia work, including those outside of the Russian Federation.

There are no easy solutions here. More precisely, there is an easy solution, but it comes down to accepting the existing state of affairs. But if you do not want to put up with it, then there are two possible answers.

First, YouTube needs to leave Russia. Having an office in Moscow, YouTube cannot convey any objective information to the Russians in principle, precisely because it will be blackmailed through having an office in Russia. Business with Russia and objective informing for Russians about what is happening in Russia and Ukraine are not compatible today — not at all. Furthermore, most Russians do not need this either, so all of these efforts are wasted anyway.

Of course, it will be a pity for YouTube to lose revenues, but today, YouTube can only make money in Russia by cooperating with the Putin’s regime.

Second, Internet censorship in the Russian-speaking sector for all three social networks should be outsourced to Ukrainians for the duration of the war. Fortunately, things are not worse with the Russian language in Ukraine than in Russia, and there are more than enough of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Including those who have the necessary technical knowledge — however, there is also no problem in having American specialists to control the process technically. It is possible to organize this in partnership with Poland, there are also enough people who know Russian and live there.

But immigrants from Russia, even if they are formally in opposition to the Kremlin, should not be in such a project. There is no way to weed out from among them both direct agents and those who are poisoned by the imperial propaganda. It would seem that Seva Novgorodtsev, who lived most of his life in the UK, is beyond suspicion — and, yet, he ruined his obituary with an anti-Ukrainian statement. And Garry Kasparov, who is posing as a liberal, and a supporter of Western freedoms, suddenly became worried about whether Ukraine, having liberated Crimea, would be too cruel to its occupiers, and to immigrants brought there from Russia.

Nazism in Russia did not arise yesterday, but existed in a latent form for a very long time, long before Putin, almost since Lenin’s time. And it put down very deep roots in the minds and psyche of Russians.

Too radical decisions? But half measures won’t work here. And if Ukraine today holds the front in the interests of the entire West, closing it from the Russian Nazi horde, which threatens the very existence of the entire Western civilization, then these decisions look logical. And if the West does not realize the global nature and importance of the war in Ukraine, and sees it just as another local conflict, then why even bother with these anti-Russian sanctions that are burdensome for the entire world?

What can induce global media corporations to take these steps, ending support for Putin, not in words but in real deeds? Obviously, such a decision has nothing to do with business, and can only be political. Taken either by a strong-willed leadership of these corporations, or, more likely, under pressure from politicians and public world opinion. There is no other way here.

However, in the case of YouTube, there may be still another way. They can release videos either in Ukrainian or in English, with Ukrainian subtitles. This idea may work — although this is no longer certain.

Russian version

Ukrainian version

Sergey Ilchenko, for Newssky


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