Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The World Wide Web’s Break Up: State-Backed Media’s Role in Supporting Internet Fragmentation
The World Wide Web’s Break Up: State-Backed Media’s Role in Supporting Internet Fragmentation

The World Wide Web’s Break Up: State-Backed Media’s Role in Supporting Internet Fragmentation

February 28, 2021

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

In the early years of the Internet and social media, perception about the web’s ability to connect, democratize information and transcend physical boundaries was marked by idealism. Social media’s power to connect users behind a common cause, like the protests during the Arab Spring, illustrated the Internet’s unique ability to progress democracy and combat governments’ control of the information space for many. But some around the world—Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and other authoritarian leaders—saw in an open Internet born in Silicon Valley a threat to their grip on power at home. The West also saw its own rose-colored glasses shattered as extremist groups like ISIS recruited online, adversaries weaponized social media to interfere in elections, misinformation spread like wildfire, and videos showing domestic terror incidents like mass shootings were uploaded and rapidly disseminated on social media. Internet idealism has thoroughly declined in all corners of the globe.

The inevitable consequence of revealing social media’s power has been a breaking apart of the World Wide Web into separate Internets that more distinctly map onto geographic and geopolitical divides. To solidify strongholds on their domestic information spaces in the age of the open Internet, regimes in countries with  technological capabilities to stifle information flows or censor speech are increasingly supporting the creation of their own Internet hosting systems, web services and social media platforms. While Silicon Valley spawned tech and social media platforms used by billions of users every day on a global scale, China created and Russia seeks to build their own alternatives to the fully open Internet operating under the thumb of government.

China’s Great Firewall has significantly limited the degree to which Chinese citizens can access West-based tech and social media since the beginning of social media proliferation. The Chinese government blocked Twitter and Facebook in 2009 in the wake of riots in China’s Xinjiang province, while Google was banned in 2010 after disputes over censorship in search. Chinese tech and social media platforms like Baidu, Weibo, WeChat and Douyin have flourished, providing social media applications for Chinese citizens while complying with CCP censorship regulations.

Russia perhaps lacks China’s technological bandwidth and the political will to completely cut off Western apps for now. However, the Kremlin has always sought to control the Internet within its borders, and its intentions for steadily increasing control through domestic social media apps are clear. Western social media apps have long sat in the crosshairs of the Kremlin, and tensions between foreign social media platforms and the Russian government run especially high during times of social unrest. Many Russians still use Western social media apps widely and regularly, but the Russian government has sought to increase available domestic infrastructure and exert greater control through Russian platforms. Vkontakte offers an alternative to Facebook, Rutube to YouTube, and President Vladimir Putin’s alleged daughter is supporting the development of a Russian TikTok video platform alternative.

These three siloing Internets—in the West, in China and in Russia—mirror geographic and ideological divides, and will likely only continue to diverge over time. For example, after social media outlets provided a platform for young Russians to organize amid last month’s nationwide protests in the wake of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s arrest by Russian authorities, the Russian government called on platforms to obey its censorship demands and increased its attacks on Western social media outlets. Many authoritarian nations will likely follow this Kremlin model of information manipulation to undermine internal dissent. 

State media’s role in promoting insular Internets

State-sponsored media outlets play a central role as key amplifiers of the state’s positions on Internet regulations, criticisms of American social media companies, and authoritarian talking points justifying increased control or censorship. Amid the aforementioned protests in support of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s RT published articles like “‘A coup conducted by the West’: Russian parents association boss asks government to ban TikTok over calls for children to protest,” promoting a conspiracy that Russian children were “incite[d] to riot” by outside forces through the social media app. RT coverage of the protests in Russian also promoted the claim that outside forces were responsible for the protests, pinning an “attack” and “manipulation” that allegedly urged children to protest on foreign social media platforms.

Separately, during the 2020 election, Russian state-sponsored media coverage often criticized moderation efforts by American tech and social media companies as alleged censorship and “Russophobia.” One RT documentary, titled “Cyber Censors,” purports that American Big Tech companies “dominate” the “once free Internet,” depicting these companies as the leading forces behind unfair censorship and dangerous content proliferating online for Russian users, while also maintaining bias against foreign platforms.

After YouTube removed Tsargrad TV’s channel—a media outlet backed by U.S.-sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev—in 2020, Russian state-backed outlets RT and TASS highlighted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s statement that Western Internet companies should be treated with “a low degree of trust.” Tsargrad filed a lawsuit over the ban, and some in Russia have used the court case as a jumping off point for promoting further state control over the web.

Another RT article from November 2020 regarding YouTube labels on RT content wrote that “Russian journalists and content creators have been advised” by Roskomnadzor—the Russian agency responsible for media and telecommunications censorship—to use “digital services based in their own country.”

China’s state media has also shown its proclivity for boosting CCP criticisms of American Internet companies and regulations, particularly concerning what it often refers to as the “new Cold War” over tech between the U.S. and China. Given that many American social media platforms are already banned in mainland China, much of this state-backed content focuses on Chinese telecom companies like Huawei and American regulations concerned with potential bans or other limitations on Chinese tech or social media companies.

Since President Biden has taken office, much of the Global Times’s coverage has centered on these tensions between the two countries over the tech industry and tech relations, and has portrayed the U.S. as continuously and unfairly targeting China despite China’s long-standing domestic bans for many American platforms.

How will new social media apps fare?

Emerging social media apps and tech companies will increasingly contend with demands from authoritarian regimes or risk being cut out of the market. As reported in a February 21 New York Times piece by Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski, the young social media audio app Clubhouse recently came under fire by the Roskomnadzor for allegedly violating Russian citizens’ rights online. Surely there will be others. Ultimately, new Internet and social media companies will be required to choose their fate in markets where authoritarians may seek to weed out foreign platforms if they refuse to comply with censorship or other government controls. 

Much like with election interference efforts, state-sponsored media outlets from authoritarian regimes may prove to provide noteworthy signals with regard to governments’ positions on social media regulation, tech trade relations and, ultimately, the further fragmentation of the Internet. 

Russian and Chinese state-backed outlets acting as megaphones for government strategic narratives allow Moscow and Beijing to message not only to their own populations about foreign and domestic Internet regulations, but also to foreign audiences. Pushing the Kremlin and CCP’s preferred narratives, these outlets both amplify criticisms of Western tech as well as manipulate the information space to serve these governments’ goal of a controlled Internet.