Mar 22, 2022 - Technology

News media uses digital back doors to reach Russians

Illustration of a computer mouse chord going around a brick wall with Russian flag colors

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

News outlets are finding creative ways to get around the Kremlin's efforts to block independent reporting inside Russia, utilizing everything from carbon-copy websites to encryption tools and anonymous browsers.

Why it matters: While old-school circumvention methods like short-wave radio are being reintroduced, journalists trying to break through Russia's iron curtain for media argue sophisticated digital techniques can often be more effective and efficient.

  • "The fact is, there are many digital channels that remain open and a lot can be done to reach people online," said Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
  • Tech workarounds, he notes, don't require big investments in new (or old) technologies since audiences already have smartphones and computers. The bigger challenge in many cases is educating the audience about the best options.

Driving the news: Boehler and his colleagues at the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been mirroring websites for news sites being censored — making exact copies of them at new internet addresses.

  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently said it used mirror site technology to unblock access to Meduza, an independent Russian publication based in Latvia, that was blocked by the Kremlin earlier this month.
  • It said it's ready to create mirror sites "for all censored media outlets" and thereby "return them to the front line of the resistance to Moscow’s war on information."

Be smart: The Kremlin can block the mirrored domain once it's discovered, forcing news outlets to constantly shift to new domains.

  • Placing mirror sites on content delivery networks (CDNs) that host other vital services make it much harder for the Russian government to shut them down, "because they rely on these CDNs for their own use," Boehler said.
  • Encrypted messaging channels like Telegram or Whatsapp are often used by outlets to communicate with their audiences to let them know which domains are active. (While most social platforms are blocked in the region, encrypted messaging platforms are mostly still available.)

Between the lines: News organizations also using those encrypted channels to communicate with individual Russians on the ground who may provide photos and videos to Western outlets to verify and report on.

What to watch: News sites and social networks are also beginning to establish their own Tor networks, which encrypt internet traffic and reroute it through thousands of servers around the world, making it virtually impossible to track.

  • Twitter last week announced its own Tor service that helps Russians access its site despite Russian government efforts to block it.

The big picture: Both VOA and RFE, which are funded by the U.S. government but editorially independent, have a lot of experience when it comes to circumventing censorship, but the speed of the crackdown in Russia took many by surprise, said Matthew Baise, director of digital strategy and audience development at the VOA.

  • "Before the invasion, we have had long-standing relationships with circumvention vendors," he said, referring to circumvention tools like Psiphon and ACI. Circumvention technology has long been used by the VOA and other independent channels to penetrate China, Iran, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

"We're seeing that mass migration to circumvention tools, which is pretty new to the Russian market," said Nat Kretchen, senior VP of programs of the Open Technology Fund, a government-supported nonprofit focused on advancing internet freedom.

  • That migration began when the Kremlin began blocking major Western media outlets and social networks.
  • Even though Russia has long been a propaganda state, it "was not a high censorship market until a couple weeks ago," Kretchen said.

By the numbers: So far, data suggests many Russians are desperate to get their hands on accurate information.

  • Use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, which enable users to hide their locations to evade location-based restrictions, has skyrocketed in Russia.
  •, which has tracked search volume data, saw the demand increase for VPN services peak at 2,692% above normal on March 14 after Russia announced it would ban Instagram.
  • Atlas VPN also reported a new high that day of VPN installs in Russia, increasing 11,253% above the norm.

Yes, but: "A lot of news organizations were as prepared as they could've been," said Dan Shelley, executive director of Radio Television Digital News Association. It was Russia's fake news law that caught most outlets in the region by surprise, he said.

  • That law, which makes it punishable with up to 15 years of jail time to even call the conflict a "war," has driven most independent journalists out of the country, forcing many Western news outlets to rely on stringers.
  • "To be a stringer for a western news agency inside Russia today is an extremely dangerous proposition. It's almost 007-like dangerous," Shelley said.
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