A hybrid hunt for criminal journalists
How federal censors monitor and punish Russia’s mass media.
A lot is illegal when you’re a mass media outlet in Russia. You can’t talk about the ways people kill themselves, you can’t disseminate extremist materials, you can’t promote illegal drug use, and so on. To enforce all these prohibitions, Moscow has a special state enterprise that reports to Roskomnadzor: the Main Radio Frequency Center “GRChTs” federal state unitary enterprise. The outfit employs hundreds of people to scan the Internet every day, analyzing hundreds of websites with pornography, obscenities, and other illegal content, which is flagged by a special automated system that also monitors the country’s print media. Meduza takes a closer look at this facet of Russia’s online censorship and speaks to some of the people directly engaged in this work.
On August 22, 2017, Republic chief editor Maxim Kashulinsky got a message informing him that his publication was being cited for breaking the law. Routine government monitoring of the outlet’s website, it turned out, had turned up an embedded YouTube video of a rap battle between “Oxxxymiron” and “Slava KPSS” that contained obscene language.
The notification meticulously documented exactly which forbidden phrases the rappers used in their battle and when. Admittedly, the censors didn’t make it very far into their analysis of the contest: the report sent to Kashulinsky focused entirely on obscenities uttered in the first five minutes of the YouTube video, before any actual rapping even began.
“The first phrase that put the monitoring service on alert [sounded like] ‘We’re getting fucking registered!’” Kashulinsky explained on Facebook in August (the “registration” referred to an account at Tinkoff Bank, which sponsored the event). “In full accordance with this appeal, there was a document with screenshots drawn up and an attached (1) DVD copy of the battle. The document and the DVD were put into a clear plastic folder [by GRChTs] and sent to Roskomnadzor.” The regulatory agency then formally registered the infraction and notified Kashulinsky.
Three months later, in mid-November, Republic received another injunction from Roskomnadzor based on the results of monitoring by GRChTs. This time, the censors determined that a reader’s comment on an article about bicycles becoming a problem in modern cities “contained signs of the abuse of the freedom of mass information.” The reader’s comment contained an obscenity that means “careless ineptitude” and translates roughly to “shitshow.”
Roskomnadzor sends these notices to media outlets based on the results of monitoring. Infractions can result in fines for publications, and the agency has the right to file a lawsuit revoking the publishing license of any media outlet that receives more than one warning within a year. Roskomnadzor’s job, however, is to punish violators, not to carry out the monitoring work itself. Another outfit is responsible for finding extremism, pornography, obscenities, and other banned content in Russia’s online and printed media: the Main Radio Frequency Center (GRChTs), a state unitary enterprise subordinate to Roskomnadzor.
GRChTs is also the enterprise that’s connected to the felony case launched against several high-ranking Roskomnadzor officials in the fall of 2017. Press Secretary Vadim Ampelonsky, legal department director Boris Edidin, and Alexander Veselchakov (who acts as an advisor to the head of GRChTs and is believed to serve as Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov’s chief of staff) are accused of hiring fictitious staff and pocketing their salaries.
On October 25, 2017, a court fined Kashulinsky 5,000 rubles (85 US dollars) in the rap battle case.
“Simona” aka “Monolisa”
The Main Radio Frequency Center (GRChTs) state unitary enterprise was formed from two agencies that regulated Russia’s radio frequencies. In May 2014, the government made GRChTs responsible for monitoring compliance with legislation related to Roskomnadzor’s activities. At first, the enterprise’s Central Federal District branch handled this work, until it was formally merged in April 2017 with the rest of GRChTs. Every year, Roskomnadzor signs a new contract with GRChTs to “analyze and research the content disseminated in the mass media.” In 2017, this contract was worth 216 million rubles (3.7 million US dollars).
Roskomnadzor and its institutions use an Internet monitoring system developed in 2015 by the Presidential Affairs Department’s Main Computer Center. The software is based on the “Pskov” computer platform, which is also the foundation for systems used by the Kremlin and other state officials to monitor online news media and social media. In order to customize the “Pskov” platform for its needs, Roskomnadzor spent 20.5 million rubles(346,000 US dollars) and hired experts from the Higher School of Economics, who created special dictionaries for the system and taught it to process the necessary data. According to the technical specifications, the new analytical system should have, for example, developed “methods of automatic thematic rubrication of texts by ‘obscene language’ and ‘explicit or implicit approval of violence against people.’”
As a result, Roskomnadzor got an automated system consisting of several parts. The first part is “Simona” (the Violations Monitoring System), and it’s designed to browse websites from a list compiled by Roskomnadzor, and flag for operators any materials that contain certain keywords. This is the system that’s responsible for detecting illegal content published in readers’ comments.
A former GRChTs employee told Meduza that, inside the company, this software is called “Monalisa” and is known as “the combat system.” The software has apparently been a major asset to GRChTs’ Internet monitors, who previously had to scour the Web manually or rely on appeals from concerned citizens. Roskomnadzor deputy head Vadim Subbotin has also drawn attention to the successes of automation, noting that GRChTs detected only 2,000 media violations in 2015, but more than 25,000 just a year later, when the Simona system was fully implemented.
The Simona system mimics the software that allows Internet search engines to index search results: it downloads suspicious texts that contain violations (in order not to miss anything, the system works from catalogues of various possible word forms), and stores them in a database after purging the texts of banners and other superfluous elements. Meduza’s source says the software is configured to pay special attention to certain media outlets, such as the independent television station Dozhd.
The Justice Ministry compiles the simplest monitoring category: the list of organizations that are banned in Russia. “Simona” flags for further analysis any text that mentions any of these banned organizations — even when media outlets highlight that a group is outlawed in Russia. Meduza’s source, who used to work at GRChTs, says this allows monitors to spend literally just a few seconds on each case.
A thoroughly flexible computer system, “Simona” is frequently tweaked by GRChTs’ managers. “They want to capture as little superfluous content as possible, while achieving maximum coverage and missing nothing,” Meduza’s source said. The system is capable of finding “suspicious” materials even if, for example, they don’t mention the word “suicide.” The former GRChTs monitor recalled how “Simona” once flagged a story about a suicide that only mentioned a man falling from the sixth floor of a building.
In order to support the system’s flexibility, GRChTs employs linguists who administer the automation settings, managing Simona’s ever-growing dictionaries. On a Russian job website, Meduza discovered that GRChTs is currently seeking more linguists, warning potential applicants that they must be prepared to work “with taboo vocabulary” and “adult content,” know how to search for information online, and have some experience in political journalism. “Friday as a national holiday is a half-day,” says the friendly advertisement.
Meduza’s source says there are, however, more than a few complaints about the Simona system in its present form. For starters, it can’t separate the violations it finds by coefficients. For example, the system doesn’t distinguish between content that includes the phrase “you can buy drugs at this address“ and content that has the phrase “take drugs!” (Meduza’s source also noted that Simona’s dictionaries don’t even include key drug-related slang like “mix” and “spice.”) Another significant shortcoming is that “Simona” only works with texts, not videos or images. Meduza’s source argues that GRChTs is more interested in inflating its staff and winning more federal subsidies than acquiring the instruments necessary for multimedia analysis, which he says have existed for years.
An employee at one of Roskomnadzor’s regional offices told Meduza that Russia’s monitoring of television and radio broadcasts is “still more wishful thinking than reality.” The Florida-based company “Qligent” (which has residency at Russia’s Skolkovo Innovation Center and a contract with Russia Today) designed Russia’s broadcast monitoring system for more than 214 million rubles (3.6 million US dollars ). Meduza’s source at Roskomnadzor, however, says this system can only report interruptions in broadcasts or weakened signal quality. The software merely records entire broadcast feeds, and any content monitoring or analysis has to be done manually. These limitations, Meduza’s source says, are precisely why the message sent to Republic mentioned only the first five minutes of the “Oxxxymiron vs. Slava KPSS” rap battle: once monitors recorded several media violations, they had no reason to waste time reviewing the rest of the YouTube video.
Meduza’s source at GRChTs says the government’s monitoring system also suffers occasional outages. This can happen when a large archive is uploaded to “Simona,” or when particular news events, such as celebrity suicides, cause bottlenecks, as news organizations flood the Internet with similar stories.
For people working at GRChTs, “Simona” looks like endlessly cascading text. The news stories come one after another, and each type of potential media violation is displayed in a special color, making monitors’ computer screens look like rainbows.
“Sirena” and Fairytales
“Simona” is just the first stage of Roskomnador’s monitoring system. When a GRChTs operator confirms a media violation, it goes to “Siren” (the “Violation Registration System”). After it’s registered, each case is transferred to a Roskomnadzor inspector, who has 24 hours to determine the agency’s response. The third and final stage of this monitoring system — “Revisor” (Inspector) — oversees which websites Russian Internet providers are required to block.
When a GRChTs employee identifies a media violation, the offender is mailed an official letter demanding that the illegal content be deleted within 24 hours. (Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov says his agency has “managed to achieve” the deletion of extremist materials from 22,000 websites by these means.) If the content isn’t removed, the website is added to a special registry of restricted online resources, meaning that Russian Internet providers are required to block them.
In early 2017, there were more than 80,000 Web addresses on this registry — most of which were not media outlets. Most of the offenders on this list are common websites and blogs where monitors discovered content related to extremism, pornography, suicide promotion, and other banned subjects. The Attorney General’s Office also has the power to add websites to this registry, as do the Federal Consumer Rights Service and other state agencies, as well as Russia’s courts, which can ban any website based on a lawsuit filed by an ordinary citizen. That, for instance, is how Ruslan Okhlopkov, an employee at Togliatti State University, managed to get Russia to block the porn studio Brazzers.
The number of violations committed by Russia’s mass media is relatively small. In 2016, for example, Roskomnadzor contacted different publications 2,277 times with demands to delete or redact readers’ comments (usually to censor obscenities, and sometimes to remove racist hate speech). Roskomnadzor issued another 66 warnings last year for content published by news outlets themselves that violated Russian media laws. (If a media outlet receives two such warnings within a year, Roskomnadzor has the right to file a lawsuit revoking its publishing license.) In most cases, these media law violations also concerned obscene language, and in some cases outlets were accused of illegally divulging minors’ personal data. Over the course of 2016, Russian media outlets paid a combined 5.9 million rubles (99,500 US dollars ) in fines.
Sometimes, in order to make sure that a violation of the law in fact occurred, Roskomnadzor turns to specially hired experts. According to state procurement records, the agency relies entirely on the private organization “Sodex” for this expertise. Sodex is housed at the Moscow State Legal Academy, whose past and present instructors own the business. (In June 2017, the academy was the focus of many news reports, after it restored a plaque honoring Joseph Stalin, which prompted attorney Henry Reznik to leave the university.) Roskomnadzor signed a no-bid contract with Sodex, explaining the procurement order as the “result of an accident or other emergency of a natural or man-made nature and to prevent the threat of these conditions occurring.”
In 2016, Sodex completed 11 expert reports, leading to six official warnings issued by Roskomnadzor. The magazine Psychologies, for example, received a warning for disseminating pornography when it published an 11-page study titled “Kamasutra” without cautioning underage readers. That same year, Roskomnadzor also warned The New Times about publishing obscene language, and in 2017 the agency warned it again about publishing an interview with a Russian citizen who went to Syria to fight with ISIS. Meanwhile, the news outlet Planeta+ Gorno-Altaisk had to pay for publishing a dirty joke, and the Altai newspaper Listok v Ongudaiskom Raione was flagged for obscene language in an article about seven “true love stories.”
The Kaliningrad newspaper Novye Kolesa decided to challenge its citation in court. Roskomnadzor objected to its article about Hans von Lehndorff (“the count-surgeon of Königsberg”), which featured excerpts from his memoirs describing the behavior of Soviet soldiers during the city’s capture in World War II. Russian censors said the article contained “obvious disrespect for the days honoring and commemorating Russia’s military glory,” pointing out that the text was published on the eve of Königsberg’s capture by the Red Army. The court sided against Roskomnadzor, ruling that Königsberg’s capture isn’t one of Russia’s official “Days of War Glory.” The court also noted that Lehndorff’s memoirs exist in the public domain.
On April 9, 2016 — exactly 71 years after the USSR seized Königsberg from Germany — Roskomnadzor’s citation was canceled. It was the first time this had happened in at least three years. The following year, in November 2017, police arrested Novye Kolesa chief editor Igor Rudnikov on charges of blackmailing the head of Kaliningrad’s Investigative Committee.
A former GRChTs employee told Meduza that even the hired experts sometimes fail to prove that a certain violation took place, recalling as an example the hashtag #сказочноебали, which can be interpreted to mean either “#FairytaleBali” or “#FantasticallyFucked.” The meme exploded on the Russian Internet in early 2017, and even national television networks covered the trend. Meduza’s source says state censors have apparently decided that all neologisms using “obscenities formed where inflexions meet” are not considered violations of the law.
“‘Monalisa’ could work independently — machine learning makes this possible,” the former GRChTs employee told Meduza. “But Roskomnadzor has postponed this, for now. The idea is still too ambitious and scary. This is a state enterprise, after all, and federal money is allocated to people doing monitoring work. With a smart Monalisa system, they’d have to make layoffs. When there’s no need to earn money, there’s no incentive to take any initiative or optimize, either.”
A psychological toll
The government also pays for GRChTs’ news subscriptions to 64 different publications, including both printed newspapers and magazines and paywalled websites, like Republic. GRChTs subscribes to Vedomosti, but not to Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the government’s official newspaper of record. It gets copies of Chastlivye Roditeli (Happy Parents), but not the Russian edition of Tatler magazine. Records also indicate that GRChTs overstates the costs of these subscriptions, for example claiming that an annual business subscription to Vedomosti is almost 10,000 rubles (169 US dollars), when in fact it’s 6,490 rubles (110 US dollars). The government says it pays 18,378 rubles (310 US dollars) for its subscription to the independent TV network Dozhd, though any individual is welcome to sign up online for just 4,800 rubles (81 US dollars).
Meduza’s source says GRChTs employs roughly 400 people working as media monitors across the country (Roskomnadzor’s deputy head said the agency added 211 new staff to work on its automated Simona system). Job search websites turn up vacancies at GRChTs indicating that monitoring specialists’ annual salaries in Moscow start at 684,000 rubles (11,545 US dollars). The pay is less in Russia’s regions, according to Meduza’s source, who says full-time staff earn as little as 240,000 rubles (4,050 US dollars) a year.
GRChTs’ Moscow department occupies multiple floors of the Sheremetyevsky business center, which is also home to several newsrooms monitored by GRChTs, including Vedomosti, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and the Burda publishing house.
Meduza’s source says GRChTs typically asks potential recruits to perform several trial assignments: for example, examining printed texts and highlighting the words that are considered to be obscene or signs of extremism. GRChTs monitors each have their own speciality: some monitor obscenities, some look for drug propaganda, others search for extremism, and so on. The former GRChTs employee says monitoring news about suicide is the hardest work. “It’s difficult to read and register,” he said. “A certain gloom overtakes you and you start looking at people in a different way.” Meduza’s source says he skimmed so many Russian news articles at work (the Simona system flags “about 900 violations” every day) that he read exclusively in English when he was at home.
“A media monitor’s job is psychologically tough, but they don’t pay attention to this,” the former GRChTs employee told Meduza. In the West, the psychological consequences of working with this kind of content are discussed widely. In January 2017, two online safety employees at Microsoft sued the company for failing to offer adequate support for a job that required them to view “indescribable” sexual assaults and murders, which they say caused them to develop post-traumatic stress disorders.
Meduza’s source says he had no “doubts or inner moral questions” when he took the job at GRChTs. Nothing he flagged as a censor led to anyone being arrested, and he says he would have “watched out for such things” and obeyed the law, if he were in the media business. The former GRChTs monitor says he used to think that Roskomnadzor just blocks everything, but once he started working for the government he realized that there are “exceptions” and that state censors are actually “doing good,” targeting incitements to suicide and drug use. “Of course, it’s more complicated with extremism, but it must be said that our country has always had institutions that controlled the media,” he explained. “Before, all this was more transparent and more baseless. Now, of course, the state can still target anyone, but the process has become more transparent. This isn’t some secret KGB department digging up who knows what — now everyone is working according to the law, though sometimes it’s still a sham.”
The former censor says he sees no problem with holding people accountable for their posts on social media. “This is a separate issue,” he says, “because these restrictions apply to specific people. […] Right now, people aren’t accustomed to taking responsibility for the information they publish online. Soon, they’ll get used to it.”
This article was originally published by Meduza on December 13th 2017
Translated by Kevin Rothrock
Ivan Golunov is a Russian investigative journalist and anti-corruption reporter working for the independent outlet Meduza. On June 6th 2019, police planted drugs and drug paraphernalia in his possessions. He was later released after an unprecedented and widespread public outcry following his arrest. Alexander Gorbachev and Daniil Turovsky also contributed to this article.