Russia censored internet news sources as rebellion rumors flew

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation, in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023. Putin addressed the nation Saturday and vowed to defend the country and its people from an armed rebellion declared by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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Russian authorities blocked access to major news sources and information from the Wagner mercenary group as it pushed toward Moscow on Saturday, adding to the confusion as rumors and misinformation about events flourished.

News aggregator Google News was blocked beginning Friday night by Rostelecom, Russia's largest digital provider, and at least four other major internet service providers, according to the nonprofit group NetBlocks, which monitors internet censorship. Google News was available only about half the time on Moscow's city telephone service, MegaFon, NetBlocks said.

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Other monitors reported that Telegram, the messaging, news and social networking platform that is widely popular 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, which Wagner troops controlled.

Though monitors said the internet as a whole remained broadly functional Saturday evening, Russian government news outlet Tass reported that searches for Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin on Yandex, Russia's Google equivalent, yielded notices that some results were hidden in accordance with federal law. The Russian social network VKontakte also blocked content related to Prigozhin, according to the Atlantic Council Digital Forensics Research Lab.

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

The speed with which Russia moved to block content related to Wagner showed a substantial increase in the country's ability to control what news its residents have access to in the 16 months since the Ukraine war began.

Shortly after the war started in February of last year, major international digital services such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok were blocked in Russia, except to those using virtual private networks that mask locations. Yandex and other local companies have been subjected to escalating controls from Russian internet authority Roskomndazor.

With an international user base and headquarters outside of Russia, Telegram has been an especially 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 on Saturday, it was full of false information, including on some channels claiming affiliation with Wagner Group that were managed by Prigozhin supporters. One account, with more than 40,000 subscribers, denied that Prigozhin had reached a deal to halt his march to Moscow, even as others confirmed it. A similar account accused Prigozhin not of betraying Russia by attacking but by retreating afterward.

Some Twitter accounts popular for tracking the war meanwhile asserted that Putin had fled Moscow on his personal plane - reports for which there was no confirmation. Others had him cowering in a bunker.

Conflicting versions of the truth are a natural part of wartime actions by Prigozhin, one of the world's most famous propagandists, who came to international attention through his Internet Research Agency, a troll farm largely responsible for efforts to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The St. Petersburg-based entity also is 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 halted the prosecution of one of Prigozhin's companies, Concord Management, saying that taking the case to trial risked revealing national security information. But prosecutors said then they'd continue their pursuit of Prigozhin and other individuals named in the case.

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