Imagine you’re online and you see an amusing Game of Thrones meme likening the resurrection of one of the main characters, Jon Snow, to the resurrection of Christ. Chuckling to yourself, you re-post it on your social media page and promptly forget about it.
A few days later, the police raid your apartment and charge you with extremism. In addition to facing years in prison, you’re frozen out of your bank accounts.
Welcome to the reality that unsuspecting social media users across Russia are now facing as authorities ramp up their campaign against online extremism.
Though prosecutions for online posts are nothing new in Russia, this latest round has attracted special attention because many of them are based exclusively on memes. Daniil Markin, a 19-year-old resident of the town of Barnaul, was recently charged under Article 148 of the Russian Criminal Code, for “insulting the feelings of religious believers” for posting several memes on religious themes, including the aforementioned Jon Snow meme.
As a result of the charges, he has been added to a national register of extremists and had his bank accounts frozen. In an interview with Meduza, Markin said:
« I can see how for some people this could be offensive, but not so much that they could press charges. »
Markin’s situation isn’t unique, not even in his city of Barnaul. In a June 23 Twitter thread, fellow Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya described how a group of policemen came to her apartment with a search warrant, interrogated her about memes she had posted (some of which were racist, others offensive to religious sentiment) and confiscated her phone.
While Motuznaya initially laughed it off, the police taunted her, telling her that another woman had also thought it was a game until she was put behind bars for three years. Motuznaya was later charged with extremism under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code.
While the memes Markin and Motuznaya posted could easily offend religious sentiments, they did not represent a direct threat, incitement to violence, or promotion of an extremist or violent ideology. And the Russian internet is full of memes like this. So what tipped off authorities? And how did they so swiftly identify Markin and Motuznaya?
Both cases began with tips from a pair of students at a local higher-ed institute. Neither defendant knew these individuals personally. Because of this, Markin feels there’s something more to his prosecution.
« The officers find out about me somehow and suggest that these students file a complaint for extra study “perks” or even financial support. »
The situation may be less of a coincidence than it seems. Pressure on police in Russia to weed out extremism has created many situations in which authorities choose a target and then seek out justification for prosecution.
Motuznaya also suggested an ulterior motive during her interrogation. She had previously made several posts about Alexey Navalny, a Russian opposition figure known for his anti-corruption campaigns. It is unclear whether this had any bearing on her arrest.
The theory of memes-as-pretext, however, seems more and more plausible. Just recently, a journalist from the city of Tuva was arrested for posting two articles in 2014 that were accompanied by photos of Adolf Hitler and Nazi youth groups. This journalist had an activist past, as she wrote on issues affecting quality of life in the city and was campaign manager for Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal candidate in the 2018 Russian presidential elections.
How are social media companies responding?
Social media companies also play a pivotal role in identifying these memes and the people who post them. Vkontakte, one of the two most popular social networks in Russia, has been under fire for “ratting out” their users to the authorities and readily giving away their personal details for prosecution. Under Russian law, administrators of social networks are obligated to gather and store users’ personal information for six months, and provide access to these materials when requested by the authorities. For years, Vkontakte has been only too eager to comply with such requests.
An avalanche of recent negative coverage of criminal cases against social media users prompted the tech giant Mail.Ru, which owns Vkontakte, to release a statement condemning the practice of jailing people for memes. Observers were quick to point out Mail.ru's hypocrisy.
As Mediazona, an independent online outlet focused on police brutality and political show trials in Russia, put it:
Теперь как-то так pic.twitter.com/al0ZEUPegA— Michael Avrinsky (@gsl2k10) 4 août 2018
Via Лепра pic.twitter.com/bC8ZtS5Vrz— Барнаул.фм (@barnaulfm) 8 août 2018
Картинка №71: Фотография, на которой изображен патриарх Кирилл, освящающий помещение. Фотография сопровождается текстом: «Патриарх Кирилл привез в центр МВД новейший компьютерный антивирус»— Текстовые мемы за которые ты сядешь (@text_ments) 3 août 2018
Картинка №61: изображение Сталина и Муссолини, сопровожденное надписью: "Фашизм самая страшная идеология ХХ века"— Текстовые мемы за которые ты сядешь (@text_ments) 1 août 2018
Картинка №41: Фотоизображение мужчины негроидной рассы текстом «Да ты же просто робот, имитация жизни. Разве робот может написать симфонию, сделать шедевр?», под которым находится изображение персонажа с текстом «А ты вообще негр.»— Текстовые мемы за которые ты сядешь (@text_ments) 30 juillet 2018
Картинка №33: Изображение мужчины, держащего кроссовок сопровожденное надписью: «в трёхсотый раз повторяю: Нью Бэллансы были созданы специально для Русских националистов!..»— Текстовые мемы за которые ты сядешь (@text_ments) 30 juillet 2018