Several Russian social media influencers who live in other countries have been hit with criminal charges under Russia’s new “fake news law” after they spoke out against the war in Ukraine, according to a Monday report by Bloomberg News.
Bloomberg cited interviews and Russian court documents as showing that multiple expatriates who have criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have been charged. The outlet said that it has not been able to quantify the exact number of Russians living abroad who have been targeted for social media activity, but it named some influencers and political commentators who have already been sentenced to jail time or who will face charges should they ever return to their home country.
In March, the Russian parliament passed a law that criminalized the distribution of “fake news” about the Russian military, which was quickly signed by Putin. The law states that people and news organizations can be punished for misleading rhetoric about the Ukraine invasion, including using terms like “war” for what Russia calls its “special military operation.” Those prosecuted could face a potential 15-year prison sentence.
“If you say anything about the military being guilty of anything at all they will try to destroy you,” Michael Nacke, a YouTube personality who reportedly faces five to 10 years if he ever returns to Russia, told Bloomberg.
According to Bloomberg, those who have been targeted for online posts include political activists like Violetta Grudina—an ally of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny—who was charged last month for allegedly spreading false information on social media about Putin’s military. But activists and journalists aren’t the only Kremlin targets; Bloomberg said science-fiction writer Dmitry Glukhovsky and cooking/lifestyle influencer Veronika Belotserkovskaya have also been charged for content related to the war in Ukraine.
Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s media censorship agency, has also reportedly applied pressure to the media companies that host content posted by critical expats. Bloomberg reported that it had viewed emails sent from YouTube’s legal team that asked some Russian users to pull material after Roskomnadzor had sent formal requests.
Ivy Choi, a spokesperson for YouTube, responded to Newsweek with an emailed statement.
“YouTube remains available in Russia, providing its citizens with an important way to share and access authoritative information about the war in Ukraine,” Choi wrote. “In very limited circumstances, we will remove content that violates local Russian laws only after a valid legal request is made and a thorough review is completed.”
Another reported tactic used by Russian prosecutors to cut down on internet critiques is to mark certain social media influencers as “foreign agents.” Bloomberg wrote that among the expatriates online who have been designated as foreign agents are journalists, bloggers and activists. After these people have been deemed “foreign agents,” they must add a disclaimer to their posts and videos or face criminal charges should they return to Russia.
A spokesperson for the human rights group OVD-Info told Bloomberg that the “foreign agent” disclaimers can result in advertisers not working with influencers and thus cutting off social media users’ revenue.
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry and Roskomnadzor for comment.
Update 07/11/22 5:05 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include comment from a YouTube spokesperson.