Russia censored internet news sources as rumors of rebellion circulated

Russian authorities blocked access to key sources of news and information from the Wagner mercenary group as it pushed towards Moscow on Saturday, adding to confusion as rumors and misinformation about events flourished.

News aggregator Google News was blocked as of Friday evening by Rostelecom, Russia’s largest digital provider, along with at least four other major Internet service providers, according to the non-profit group NetBlocks, which monitors censorship of Internet. Google News was only available about half of the time on Moscow City’s telephone service, MegaFon, NetBlocks said.

Other monitors reported that Telegram, a very popular messaging, news and social networking program in Russia, had significant outages in cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as points en route to the capital from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. , controlled by Wagner’s troops.

Though monitors said the Internet as a whole remained largely functional Saturday night, Russian government news outlet Tass reported that Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s searches on Yandex, Russia’s equivalent of Google, yielded warnings that some results they were hidden in accordance with federal law. Russian social network VKontakte has also blocked content related to Prigozhin, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

One of the blocked VKontakte groups, with nearly half a million subscribers, was used by Wagner to post job vacancies and promote the group as an effective fighting force in Ukraine.

The speed with which Russia has moved to block Wagner-related content has shown a substantial increase in the country’s ability to control what news its residents have access to in the 16 months since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Shortly after the war began in February last year, major international digital services such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok were blocked in Russia, except for those using location-masking virtual private networks. Yandex and other local companies have come under increasing scrutiny by Russia’s internet authority Roskomnadzor.

With an international user base and locations outside Russia, Telegram has been a particularly important source of information about events in Ukraine. It has had many Russian users since its founding 10 years ago by Russian entrepreneurs who are now in exile.

But Saturday was full of false information, including on some channels claiming affiliation with the Wagner group that were run by Prigozhin supporters. One account, with more than 40,000 subscribers, denied that Prigozhin had reached an agreement to halt his march on Moscow, though others confirmed it. A similar account accused Prigozhin of betraying Russia by withdrawing.

Meanwhile, some notorious war-monitoring Twitter accounts claimed that Putin had fled Moscow on his personal aviation reports for which there was no corroboration. Others had him huddled in a bunker.

Conflicting information is a natural part of the wartime actions of Prigozhin, one of the world’s most famous propagandists, who has come to international attention through his Internet Research Agency, a troll farm largely responsible for efforts to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election. The St Petersburg-based IRA is also believed to have been involved in election interference campaigns in several other countries.

Prigozhin was among the Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III for interfering in the election. The Justice Department in 2020 stopped prosecuting one of Prigozhin’s companies, Concord Management, saying taking the case to trial risked revealing national security information. But prosecutors said they would continue to prosecute Prigozhin and other people named in the case.

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