Increased media censorship in Russia creates ‘alternative reality’ for citizens

Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 10:36 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - As the Russian government isolates the country from the rest of the Western world, its control of public thought through media censorship can cost people who violate a new law.

Many people’s first thought of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is to label it as a “war” or an “invasion,” but under Russian law, using those words could land you in jail for up to 15 years.

East Carolina University professor Brian Massey says media censorship and nationwide propaganda are not new tactics for Russian rulers. However, the way to break through for many citizens comes through a different style of speech: emojis.

“They are embedded with a great many meanings and they all depend on the users of them to sort of get it, right?” Massey said.

In Russia, referring to the invasion of Ukraine as anything but a “special military operation” could land a person in jail for up to 15 years. Emojis are used in place of forbidden terms to evade government persecution.

“They’re the ones who control access to the mass media channels and the alternative narrative,” Massey said. “So it’s exceptionally in their favor to spin this alternative narrative and to crack down on, censor access to alternative, factual sources.”

ECU has a partner university in Russia. Since the start of the conflict, the global affairs office has not been in contact with them.

“How this conflict is presented to them is quite different than how it’s presented here, and that’s probably a little different from what we see on the ground,” Jon Rezek, ECU Global Affairs assistant vice-chancellor said.

In the modern era, war is not as simple as it is portrayed in films.

“War isn’t just bombs and bullets and missiles and people out to end each other’s lives,” said Massey. “There’s also an information space where war is conducted.”

The blurred lines of mass and social media make it harder for governments to completely censor information without a filtered firewall. Russia does not yet appear to have that capability.

“Back in the old days, we didn’t have social media and the technology that we have today, so it was easier to maintain the alternative reality,” said Massey.

While these educators condemn the practices of Russian leaders, they remain sensitive to their international students and colleagues.

“We don’t want to hold them necessarily responsible for what’s going on in their country since there, from all appearances, seems to be a great deal of misinformation,” said Rezek.

In response to this censor-driven law in Russia, CNN halted live broadcasting in the country, the BBC suspended its work there, and Tik Tok has barred livestreaming and new content produced by Russian creators.

Nonetheless, citizens show resiliency through emojis using a symbol of a walking man or woman to symbolize protesting or a sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower, to show solidarity and support.

U.S. leaders have also adopted these symbols. First lady Jill Biden was seen wearing a sunflower embroidered mask earlier this month.

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