- Russia has suppressed messages about the war in Ukraine that contradict its state propaganda.
- The survey found that Russia blocked 300 fringe websites that hosted identical blocks of text about the war.
- These sites included a pet care website, a scary stories blog, and a website for a tattoo parlor.
Russia is sweeping incredibly obscure parts of the internet in its efforts to prevent its citizens from seeing information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, new research suggests.
Data collected by digital rights and privacy group Top10VPN and shared with Insider showed that Russia is blocking hundreds of small websites. This includes a pet care website, a short horror story blog, and a tattoo parlor website.
Russia has suppressed any message that contradicted its propaganda line that the invasion of Ukraine is nothing more than a “special military operation”.
Blocking these niche sites shows how the Russian state is cracking down on even the most peripheral parts of the internet to control war information.
Top10VPN found that many of the niche sites blocked by Russia contained the same piece of Russian text trying to inform readers about the war in Ukraine.
Samuel Woodhams, a researcher at Top10VPN, told Insider that he found about 300 sites that contained the same text about the war. He found that they were blocked by Russia by searching a publicly available list of blocked websites from the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia.
The pet care website, the horror story blog and the tattoo parlor website all contained the same text.
It begins: “Russia has attacked Ukraine! We Ukrainians hope you already know this. For the sake of your children and any hope of light at the end of this hell – please finish reading our letter”, by an automatic translation provided to Insider by Woodhams.
Woodhams said the text was often hidden on resource pages that were hard to find on those sites.
It continues to directly contradict Russian state propaganda, including Putin’s statement that Russia is “denazifying” Ukraine.
“While it is unclear who is responsible for spreading this message, it is evident that efforts are being made to reach Russian citizens and circumvent [Russia’s] vast censorship apparatus,” Woodhams told Insider.
“While these shady sites are unlikely to have a wide reach, there is strength in numbers and with so many domains affected it is likely that some have escaped Russia’s censorship apparatus,” he said.
Woodhams found other websites blocked, including a sudoku site, which also featured information about the war in Ukraine.
Sites are blocked alluding to the conflict in other ways as well. “Sports websites, for example, are often blocked from interviewing a football player who talks about conflict,” Woodhams said.
Russia has already blocked major online platforms and websites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Since the invasion began, 960 news domains have been blocked in Russia, according to Top10VPN.
On April 24, Russia also blocked Chess.com, which had publicly declared its condemnation of the February 26 invasion of Ukraine.
Chess.com said in a statement that its apps continued to work even though its website was blocked.
“We encourage our Russian members to continue to access our website using our apps or any of the many pending apps
services that are so essential in Russia,” he said.
There has been an increase in Russian demand for virtual private networks (VPNs) following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. VPNs allow users to access information that is blocked in their country.
After the invasion, Ukrainians and activists found ingenious ways to circumvent Russian internet censorship.
Some posted Google comments about restaurants and places containing messages about Ukraine, leading Google to block such Russian comments in early March.
Ukrainian advertising professionals formed a voluntary group to target Russian internet users with ads debunking misinformation about the hack, Insider’s Lara O’Reilly reported in March.