Michael Nacke, a popular YouTube personality based in Lithuania, said his phone started blowing up with text messages one May evening asking if he was a “foreign agent.”
Friends and family had spotted his name in a news article claiming that Nacke, a Russian native, had been charged with disseminating false information about that country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. The charge stemmed from a March 16 video about an alleged Russian attack on a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, an incident the Kremlin denied.
It turns out Nacke wasn’t designated an agent but was charged under a new Russian law that bans anyone from criticizing military operations in Ukraine. If he returns home to Russia, Nacke faces as many as 10 years in prison.
“This law is the most stupid thing in history,” Nacke says. “If you say anything about the military being guilty of anything at all they will try to destroy you.”
Nacke is one of several Russian-born social media influencers living outside the country that Moscow is trying to censor using a combination of criminal charges and pressure on technology companies, according to a series of interviews and Russian court documents obtained by Bloomberg News.
The effort to silence critical expats living outside Russian borders coincides with a broader crackdown on dissent closer to home. Authorities have detained more than 16,300 people in Russia for voicing opposition to the war, according to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info, for alleged crimes including placing antiwar leaflets in a grocery store and holding signs that say “Mir,” the Russian word for “peace.”
While the exact number of Russians charged in absentia is difficult to quantify, Moscow is already using the legislation dubbed the “fake news law,” passed in March, to stifle independent voices on social media platforms where many young people consume their news, according to Stanislav Seleznev, a lawyer at Net Freedoms Project.
Besides Nacke, Russia has charged several other expatriates who have criticized the war on social media:
- Journalist Izabella Evloeva, for instance, who lives in Latvia, was sentenced to three years in prison for saying that the “Z” sign - embraced by supporters of the war in Ukraine - was “a synonym for aggression, death, pain and shameless manipulation” on her Telegram channel in March.
- Violetta Grudina, an ally of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny who left Russia in 2021, was charged in June with allegedly spreading false information about the armed forces on social media.
- Journalist Alexander Nevzorov, who has averaged up to 2.5 million views on each YouTube video, was arrested in absentia in March with the same charges.
Other expats who have been charged under the fake news law include science-fiction writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, lifestyle influencer Veronika Belotserkovskaya, and journalist Andrei Soldatov.
Soldatov, who lives in London, only realized he had been charged when he began receiving strange texts from banks where he held an account in Russia, which he thought were phishing attacks. It was only because the bank passed along information that he found out he faced ten years in prison for “spreading fake news about Russia’s National Guard” on YouTube.
Soldatov had recently critiqued the Russian military’s effectiveness during the early stages of the Ukrainian invasion on another journalist’s YouTube channel. However, he believes he was under scrutiny for his critical reporting on Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), but that they used his YouTube appearance as an excuse to prosecute him.
“There’s a normal psychological reaction to try and find this funny, but it is not,” Soldatov says. “My family is still in Moscow, and my 70-year-old father is under investigation. They’ve stolen my money, and I have to be careful where I travel.”
Soldatov was advised by a lawyer not to travel to Serbia, Hungary, Turkey or Georgia, he said. His case will be tried in the coming weeks, but he expects to be found guilty. “I don’t think Putin’s strategy is effective, because Russians who are critical and want to know what is really going on in Ukraine are relying on journalists in exile and moving to YouTube and Telegram,” he says.
The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Arrests relating to freedom of expression in Russia have been growing steadily since 2006, according to Oleg Kozlovsky, a researcher focused on Russia at Amnesty International. Since the invasion of Ukraine, though, the scale and severity of such prosecutions have surpassed any prior censorship efforts, he said.
In all, since the February invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities have arrested, fined or imposed restrictions on more than 2,170 people in and outside the country, according to Net Freedom’s Seleznev, who analyzed sudrf.ru, the web portal for courts in the Russian Federation. Some of these charges fall under the new fake news law, along with laws banning “public actions aimed at discrediting” Russian Armed Forces and calling to withdraw troops, he says.
Meanwhile, access to the internet has been restricted.
Russian technology giant VK has been blocking independent media outlets and human rights groups. Yandex, a key news source for Russian citizens, has been removing similar content from its search engine and news aggregator. Bytedance-owned TikTok stopped all Russians from uploading videos after the law came into effect on March 6.
Western companies are similarly under scrutiny, and at least one U.S.-based social media platform has urged Russian expats to remove videos critical of the war at the behest of the Kremlin. The government also labeled Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Instagram as “extremist” organizations. While many Russians use virtual private networks to hide their connections to the site, the “extremist” designation makes it especially risky for anyone to publish anything on the sites. Google’s YouTube removed videos in Russia from influencer Svetlana Sokova, a Russian living in Spain who regularly criticizes the government, after Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s media censorship agency, requested that she be taken offline. The videos remained viewable outside of her native country. Sokova later received a message from a lawyer in warning her that she had been charged with extremism and inciting violence against the government in absentia and that she should await a trial date.
YouTube restored Sokova’s channel after Bloomberg News questioned the reason for its removal.
Emails from YouTube’s legal team, seen by Bloomberg News, show how the company has asked some Russians who criticize the military to remove their videos when Roskomnadzor requests it. In the messages, YouTube warns users that their videos may be blocked if they do not delete it themselves. A YouTube spokesperson said that the company removes content that violates local Russian laws after a legal request and an internal review.
Nacke has received dozens of emails from YouTube dating back to March 2021 asking him to delete his videos due to requests from Roskomnadzor, he said. Danila Poperechny, a Russian stand-up comedian and YouTube personality, recently revealed similar requests to remove his own videos on Telegram, telling his followers he’d comply because he needed to return to Russia and feared he would be put in jail.
“The answer is very simple: for me, ‘Russia’ is not the decisions of the state, laws and stickers on cars,” Poperechny said. “It is the people close, dear and dear to me, most of whom are in this country forever.”
“Is it worth losing the opportunity to see them because of some video that our authorities did not like and that you all have already watched?”
YouTube will remove content that violates local Russian laws only after a valid legal request is made and a thorough review is completed, Ivy Choi, a YouTube spokesperson said. Google was fined 14 million rubles, or $255,000, for not complying with Rokomnadzor’s requests in April. Russian prosecutors are also marking social media influencers as “foreign agents” for publicizing their critiques. Among those designated as a foreign agent since February are political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, journalist Alexey Pivovarov, blogger Yuri Dud, LGBTQ activist Karen Shainyan and Alexey Venediktov, former head of a radio station shuttered by authorities. Together, they have about 15 million YouTube subscribers. They were either outside the country when they were charged, or left as a result.
The people marked as foreign agents are required to include a 24-word disclaimer on every social media post and YouTube, Instagram and TikTok video or face criminal charges and detention upon their return home.
“The point is to destroy the audience’s trust as in the mass consciousness as the term ‘foreign agent’ is closely associated with Stalinist repressions, and to jeopardize their advertising revenue as advertisers contact them less,” says Maria Kuznetsova, a spokesperson the human rights group OVD-Info.The disclaimers alienate advertisers who provide crucial revenue for Russian video creators in and out of the country, and have become an effective way for the Kremlin to cut off vital revenue sources for independent voices, experts said.
While there’s no current data to suggest how much content creators have lost as a result, Meduza, an independent media outlet that operates from Latvia, recently said it has lost 90% of its advertising revenue after being designated a foreign agent in 2021, Kuznetsova says. “Russia definitely wants to cause self-censorship,” says Christopher Paul, senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation. “The authorities also seem to be more willing now to go after their nonpolitical critics like bloggers even if it risks alienating their followers.”
Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censorship agency, is using algorithms and human investigators to trawl comments shared on technology platforms to find illegal content, according to Seleznev, of the Net Freedoms Project. Russians charged in-absentia under the fake news law are added to an international wanted list and often have their property in Russia seized, Seleznev says.
Russia’s self-silencing tactics have been particularly effective during the war in Ukraine, according to Nacke, Amnesty’s Kozlovsky, and Paul, of RAND.
Mikhail Petrov, a St. Petersburg University student, booked a ticket out of Russia in the first week of March, when the new law was introduced. The 23-year-old had built a lively following on TikTok and Instagram. He had just uploaded a clip comparing the war in Ukraine to World War II, which was clocking up almost one million views and put him at risk of arrest.
He’s now living at the home of an Instagram follower in Tbilisi, Georgia. What was supposed to be a one-month trip has been extended indefinitely, and Petrov is searching for an apartment amid rising prices as Russians flood the rental market in neighboring countries. Some landlords are less than keen to house his countrymen, Petrov says. The income generated by Petrov’s blog is in rubles and sanctions make it difficult for him to extract his earnings.”You leave your country and you never know what you’re going to do and whether you are going to come back,” says Mikhail Petrov.
For Nacke, the actions from the Russian authorities could present an opportunity.
He hopes that Russians will continue to watch his channels, through virtual private networks if necessary, to hear a different side to the story. He is acutely aware of how the Russian Federation wants to be loved by its people.”I had often asked myself whether doing YouTube videos could actually do something to stop Putin and whether I should go be a humanitarian or something more useful instead,” he says.
“But my case creates a risk for them, that people might believe me, and I’ll continue to upload in the hope that will help stop this war.”
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