The uses and abuses of fighting extremism on RuNet

Nov 6, 2012
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The Internet is becoming ever more accessible in Russia, offering unlimited possibilities for the distribution of every kind of content. Cyberspace is also censored very minimally. This gives everyone an opportunity to speak their minds and cyber-antagonism is widespread in the Russian Internet community.

However, the number of savvy Internet users among law enforcement officials has increased as well; since 2006 their control over the Russian segment of the Internet (RuNet) has become much more noticeable, and the Russian judiciary has now accumulated substantial experience in the ‘war on Internet extremism.’ Its campaign has, however, been waged not only against truly dangerous criminals, such as those inciting racial hatred, but also against many people whose so-called criminal activity is questionable,  or even non-existent.


Criminal convictions: Articles 280 and 282

Before 2008, the number of convictions for specifically Internet propaganda was in single digits:

  • in 2007 we knew of only 3 cases (out of a total of 28) of online public provocation to extremist activity and/or incitement to racial or other hatred;
  • in 2008 the number of Internet-related convictions had already increased to 14 (out of 45);
  • in 2009 it grew to 17 (out of 56);
  • in 2010 there were 26 (out of 72);
  • in 2011 convictions had doubled: there were at least 52 (out of 78 in total). In other words, the majority of ‘extremist propaganda’ cases resulted from online activity;
  • this trend continues in 2012: in the first half of the year there were at least 18 convictions (out of 32).

The graph below shows the dynamics of this process (the data for 2012 are a projection, assuming that the second half will be the same as the first one):


These figures give the lie to the assertion that Russia lacks the legal framework for prosecuting ‘cyber-hatred,’ and confirm that existing articles of the Criminal Code are being successfully applied in cases of illegal online propaganda.

The key ‘anti-propaganda’ article of the Criminal Code in the public mind (and probably in the minds of law enforcement agencies too) is Article 282 (‘incitement of national, racial, or religious enmity). Article 280 (‘Public incitement to extremist activity’) is used far less often.

The first known criminal conviction, under Article 280, for propaganda via the Internet was in March 2005. Another conviction took place at almost the same time in Syktyvkar [capital of the Komi Republic, Russian Federation], this time under Article 282, for publishing xenophobic materials on the Internet.

A matter of crucial significance in any propaganda crime is the degree of publicity – fairly obvious in cases of traditional media, but much less so for online publications. The wording of Articles 280 and 282 refers to public statements delivered by any means, including the internet, but not all online material can be considered public. It can, for example, be password-protected and accessible only to a small group. This factor has, however, so far not been taken into account. For example, in 2011, a court in Chuvashia [Central Russia] handed down a conviction for sending files by e-mail, which hardly qualifies as a public statement


Sites and targets

In 2007–2011 material resulting in convictions for Internet propaganda came from a variety of sources: social network sites, blogs, forums, local networks and emails. By 2011 law enforcement agencies had focused their monitoring on social networks, primarily on ‘Vkontakte,’ the Russian counterpart to Facebook –  perhaps because since 2007 this platform has been rapidly gaining popularity among many groups, including young right-wing radicals.

Analysis of any case of ‘extremist content’ requires knowledge of the target group. Who is the potential victim for right-wing radicals and similar groups? Unfortunately, our classification is incomplete. The convoluted, standard legal phrasing of ‘extremist posting on the Internet’ and ‘statements intended to stir up hatred and hostility and humiliation of groups of individuals’ is extremely difficult to understand. Where possible, we have identified the following groups as objects of animosity:

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Immigrants from the Caucasus region 1 7 7 9 20
Jews 1 4 4 5 5
Komi 0 0 0 0 1
Bashkirs 0 0 0 0 1
Tatars 0 0 0 0 1
Yazidi (Kurdish groups) 1 0 0 0 0
Dark-skinned 0 0 2 0 2
Government officials (incl. police officers) 0 3 2 2 2
Non-Slavs 0 0 3 2 3
Russians 0 0 0 3 1
Christians 0 0 2 2 4
‘Infidels’ (calls for armed jihad) 0 0 0 0 4
Unknown 0 3 4 5 13

In other words, the most frequently prosecuted online rhetoric is directed against people from the Caucasus region, which is indeed quite widespread, though figures for hate propaganda aimed at migrants from Central Asia were in many cases actually higher. Anti-Semitic content is a less active area of cyber-antagonism, but is still very much present. Notably, the number of convictions for anti-Semitic propaganda has remained virtually unchanged from year to year. Cases of prosecution for xenophobic propaganda against other ethnic groups are quite rare.

Printed material, multimedia and individual comments

Before 2009 sentences were given predominantly for printed materials, but most of the relevant texts are no longer available, so we are unable to assess the degree of danger they represented for the public.

In 2010-2011 the number of convictions for multimedia content had reached almost the same level as for print materials previously. This is not surprising: a movie or video recording has much greater visual impact than any text, linking to them has become easier, and the sheer number of online videos has increased as well.

Remarkably, in most cases the video in question is not produced or uploaded to the Internet by the offender; he or she simply publishes a link to a video posted elsewhere (for example, on YouTube). Of course, it is possible that the person posting a link to a video on a social network is the one who put it there originally. However, in most cases, we believe that these are different people. We also believe that it would make more sense to identify the person who originally posted the video and, most importantly, the one who created it (especially since videos often depict an actual violent crime), instead of prosecuting those who share the links. This holds true even if we assume that in all cases they had shared proven inflammatory intent.

By 2011 the number of sentences for individual comments on social networks, blogs and forums had increased. It is highly likely that these people were selected at random, were not excessively popular among the far right, and did not have a significant audience.

In other words, the prosecutors increasingly went after the people whose statements, while clearly racist and unacceptable from an ethical point of view, did not represent any significant danger to society.

Soft targets

In the early stages of fighting online ‘extremism’, law enforcement agencies focused on the level of ‘significance’ of the Internet propagandists and the extent to which their acts could be considered dangerous. In 2007, a court in the Kaluga region convicted a Nazi skinhead group for online distribution of a video showing their members beating up people of ‘non-Slavic appearance.’ In 2008, the creator of a neo-Nazi website that hosted bomb recipes and called for violence was convicted in Lipetsk. In Vladivostok, the leader of a local neo-Nazi group, Soiuz Slavyan (Union of Slavs), was convicted in 2009.

Despite these cases, convictions of leaders and right-wing ideologues were rare: those prosecuted were essentially the rank-and-file content distributors. By 2010-2011, criminal prosecution for xenophobia was deliberately directed at authors of re-posts, links and online comments, as well as isolated statements on social networks, even when the real audience for those texts was obviously very small.

Given a climate which puts few obstacles in the way of ultra-right social network groups, allowing them to coordinate violent actions and publish ‘hit lists’ with personal data and photos of ‘enemies,’ this policy looks like a mere simulated fight against cyber-hate, serving only one purpose – the statistics look good on the report.

The number of convictions is inflated by prosecutions for statements which are either not inherently dangerous or not widely enough available to warrant prosecution (unfortunately, the prosecution of hate propaganda outside the Internet follows the same pattern).

In November 2011, for example, the Syktyvkar City Court (Komi Republic) delivered a one-year suspended sentence to 33-year local resident, Georgii Borman, who between May to July 2010 had published several xenophobic comments to articles on the Republic of Komi Business News website under different aliases. The comments remained visible to the public for only a few hours, before they were removed by moderators.


Some Internet-related convictions are simply inappropriate. The most resonant is the sentence handed down to blogger Savva Terentyev on 7th July 2008 by the Syktyvkar City Court. Terentyev was found guilty of inciting social hatred against police officers (Article 282) and sentenced to one year of imprisonment with a probation period of one year for an anti-police comment in an online diary. The blog containing the offending comment was accorded the same status as a mainstream newspaper article; the police officers were recognized as a social group in need of the protection offered by the anti-extremist legislation. Most importantly, the basic principle of criminal law was violated: the act in question must not just fit the wording of the Criminal Code, but must constitute social danger. The case was absurd and completely discredited all who took part in it.

In 2009, the journalist Irek Murtazin and the chairman of the Tatar Public Center Rafis Kashapov were convicted in Kazan for inciting hatred of a social group. Murtazin got nearly two years in a penal colony and Kashapov went to prison for 15 years for an article in his blog.

In 2010 Islamly Ilham Sarjuddin-ogly from Azerbaijan received an eight-month suspended sentence in the Nizhny-Novgorod court for online distribution of works by the Turkish theologian Said Nursi.

Dmitry Lebedev, from Gatchina, Leningrad region, was a member of a group called ‘Kill the Patriarch.’ However, Lebedev never actually called for illegal actions against the Orthodox community – the Patriarch was supposed to be killed by a mystical force. His one-year suspended sentence was therefore inappropriate.

However, the penalties for online distribution are not usually so severe. Court decisions on these defendants reflect the use of suspended sentences and fines, as well as restrictions on personal freedom, imprisonment and mandatory treatment.

The share of offenders who receive suspended sentences without any additional penalties is on the rise. This, in fact, constitutes a non-punishment, and its effectiveness against ideologically motivated offenders is in serious doubt. We consider other types of non-custodial penalties, such as community service or fines, to be much more appropriate. Unfortunately, the number of these penalties has been dropping in comparison to suspended sentences.

Prosecutions: quantity and quality

Criminal prosecution for online hate propaganda covers at least 50 regions of Russia. Figures for the Moscow and St. Petersburg regions, or Nizhny Novgorod, reveal very low levels of activity in this area, though according to our data these regions are responsible for the largest number of hate-motivated violent crimes. We can only assume that local law enforcement agencies have more pressing things to do than going after online chatters.

Overall, the practices of Russian law enforcers in combating cyber-hate can best be described as less than successful. Quantitative indicators of anti-extremist measures undertaken by police officers are growing, but the quality of law enforcement is deteriorating.

Material that directly incites violence or is related to the actual use of violence, such as ‘hit lists’, or ‘street terror manuals’, which provide instructions on dispatching an enemy, are still openly posted but remain virtually unnoticed by Russian law enforcement agencies. The recorded number of prosecutions for these genuinely dangerous incitements is exceedingly small.

Law enforcement officers go for the most part after random, individual people for isolated statements. The number of such statements on the Internet is huge, so dealing with them piecemeal is simply not rational. We are also seeing an ever greater number of inappropriate and unjustified court decisions.

Such law enforcement is not merely selective, but simply chaotic. As a result there is no consensus between the public, the law enforcement officers and the various radical groups themselves as to what, in fact, should be prohibited.

But the Russian security services do provide instances of excellent work. The November 2009 apprehension by law enforcement officials of Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenia Khasis, later convicted for the murder of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, is an example of the proper use of the Internet. Specialists from the Department of Technical Activities of the Moscow police identified Tikhonov and Khasis by monitoring right-wing websites and following the chain of IP-addresses. The well-known ultra-right activist, Valentin Mumzhiev, a member of the right-wing St. Petersburg group NS/WP, was located in a similar fashion.

Unfortunately, though, there are very few examples of this kind. Those who are working to combat extremism on the Internet should focus their efforts on disarming dangerous groups and individuals who practice or directly incite violence. Dealing with comments on social networks or the distribution of stand-alone materials is best left to community organizations and activists, who can not only engage in ongoing debate, but may also be able to persuade hosting providers or the owners of social networking sites to remove socially dangerous content.

Natalia Yudina is chief expert at the Moscow based SOVA hate crime monitoring agency. This article originally appeared on Open Democracy Russia. Creative commons licensed. Front page photo courtesy Anton Fomkin/Flickr

About the Author

Natalia Yudina, Open Democracy Russia

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