On April 30, thousands of Russians gathered in Moscow to protest the activities of the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), which started blocking the private messaging app Telegram Messenger on April 16.
Many Twitter users, including Telegram Messenger’s Twitter account posted images of the large crowd of people with a hashtag #digitalresistance.
Protests, Dogs, and Paper Planes
The day Roskomnadzor began blocking Telegram in Russia, its founder Pavel Durov posted a drawing of a dog in a hood with the accompanying text “DIGITAL RESISTANCE”.
The following day he tweeted:
His tweet linked to his post on Telegram, where he elaborated on “Digital Resistance” — a decentralized movement standing for digital freedoms and progress globally.
On April 22, Durov posted on VKontakte (ВКонтакте or VK), the “Russian Facebook”, a call to join a flash mob of throwing paper planes, a similar action the former member of the Russian protest-art collective Pussy Riot Maria Alekhina organized on April 16.
The post read:
We lasted for 7 days under the most massive act of Internet censorship in the history of Russia.
All those who support the free Internet, we call to launch a paper airplane from a window today at exactly 7 pm local time.
An hour after the action, it makes sense to arrange a small clean-up project — to collect those airplanes that you will find at your house.
Thanks for the support. This week will remain in history.
The next day he posted a compilation of the videos posted on social media and called for another flashmob of a kind on April 29.
Nevertheless, on Sunday, April 29 Durov did not post the results of the flash mob, but a call to another act of protest that took place on April 30.
The protest in the Moscow city center and highly engaged posts by the so called “Russia’s Zuckerberg” was just the surface of what is going on with the Russian Digital Resistance.
According to the Business Insider, VK is the company Durov founded in 2006 and left in 2013 after being pushed out by other large investors connected with Mail.ru, a company that had ties to the Kremlin. In 2011, the Kremlin ordered him to shut down the pages of opposition politicians after controversial parliamentary elections. He responded by tweeting a picture of a dog wearing a hoodie.
The idea to use paper planes as an act of protest is two-fold. On the one hand Telegram’s logo is a paper plane. It made sense as a symbol of the previous flash mobs organized against the Telegram ban @DFRLab reported on previously.
On the other hand, in May 2012 Russian media reported Durov together with the then-Vice President of VK, Ilya Perekopsky, threw money folded as paper planes out of the window of VK’s office in St. Petersburg.
At that time Telegram was not yet officially launched.
Finally, the same idea of throwing paper planes out of the window as a sign of protest was used in the teaser for the Russian super hero movie “Mayor Grom” (translates as Major Thunder).
In the teaser, the narrator said:
Russia is sick nowadays. Corruption and the lack of rule of law is eating it up like a plague. There is only one way to get rid of it. Burn this infection out. I am ready to save my country. And you? Today, at 9 pm sharp throw a paper plane out of your window. Let them see — there are many of us, and we want change.
The teaser was released in November 2017, by The Bubble Comics. The quote from above belongs to the villain of the comics — the Plague Doctor, that according to Russian website Media Leaks has many similarities with Durov. In the comic, the Plague Doctor is a billionaire Sergei Razumovsky, creator of the social network “Vmeste”. The Plague Doctor was a mass murderer who kills corrupt officials and businessmen, leaving a white ribbon on the corpses — a symbol of mass protests in 2011–2012. Plague Doctor quickly gained popularity in society — many citizens support his actions. The main hero of the comics, Major of Police Igor Grom, fights the Plague Doctor.
The plot described above was released in the comic books from October 2012 to June 2013, the time Telegram was just created, but after Durov threw money as paper planes out of the window. It is hard to tell why Durov decided to follow the plot and copy the idea of the protest now, in April 2018.
Social Media Presence
Despite the rich context around the symbols of the Digital Resistance, the social media communities about it are rather small.
The most influential social media for the Digital Resistance movement is on VK. @DFRLab identified at least three VK communities. All of them share the same name of “Cifrovoe Sprotivlenie” (tr. Digital Resistance).
The biggest of them had 5,318 members at the time of writing this article. It first posted on April 19 the video of the VK dog putting on a black hoodie. The oldest of them first posted on April 16, the day Roskomnadzor started Telegram ban. However, this group had just 710 members. The third community had 1,702 members. Its first post was on April 24, over a week since the Telegram ban was passed.
On Facebook @DFRLab identified a group with just 64 members, a page created on April 19 with just one like, and another page that promotes t-shirts with the dog in the black hood. It also had just one page like.
Additionally, Russian artist Anton Anreyev created a set of “Digital Resistance” stickers for Telegram that was downloaded at least 7,902 times.
In over two weeks since Roskomnadzor began banning Telegram, the Russian Digital Resistance movement grew from small scale flash mobs to a noteworthy rally that was broadcasted by Navalny Channel.
The movement took the form of solo social media posts, social media channels, flash mobs of throwing paper planes, and a large gathering in Moscow.
The symbols of the movement have rich social and historical context that may help in mobilizing Russians who cherish internet freedom.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation and any further crackdowns on various engagement and communications platforms by the Russian government.