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Putin’s ‘psychological firewall’ induces Russians to self-censor online, study finds

Researchers at Ohio State University have carried out a study into the internet use of Russian citizens, finding that the Russian government has successfully convinced many to avoid websites and social media networks that may be critical of Putin’s regime.

Analysis of a 2014 survey of Russian citizens about internet and media use found that those who consume more news from state-backed television tend to perceive the internet as a greater national security threat than others. These more paranoid citizens are more likely to believe that the internet was being used by foreign countries against Russia and was a threat to political stability, thus favouring online political censorship.

Approval of Putin’s government significantly increased the impact of these threat perceptions, increasing support for censorship, further.

“Authoritarian regimes commonly justify internet censorship by framing the internet as a threat to their citizens that must be tightly controlled for their own protection. This threat rhetoric underpins government censorship and creates a ‘psychological firewall’ driving public support for a censored internet”, the authors wrote.

Putin’s government extensively uses state news outlets to spread concern about anti-Russian websites. One method involves employing violent metaphor to induce fear. For example, the government has compared websites to “suicide bombers” and advised citizens to self-censor to create a “bulletproof vest for the Russian society”.

Similar fearmongering tactics are used by other authoritarian regimes to undermine oppositional web presence, such as by Erdogan’s government in Turkey.

“This is actually more insidious [than state-enforced censorship],” said Professor Erik Nisbet, a professor of communication at Ohio State University. “The government doesn’t have to rely as much on legal or technical firewalls against content they don’t like. They have created a psychological firewall in which people censor themselves.

“People report they don’t go to certain websites because the government says it is bad for me.”

Critical news outlets exist in Russia and are mostly not blocked online, although the researchers found that many citizens deliberately choose to ignore these sources.

“But it is tougher to circumvent that psychological firewall than it is the legal or technological firewalls,” said Professor Olga Kamenchuk, also of Ohio State University. “How do you circumvent the mindset that censorship is good?”

While Russia discourages citizens from accessing oppositional material through manipulative media, other authoritarian governments block websites that could host troublesome content. The “Great Firewall of China”, for instance, uses increasingly strict legal and technological barriers to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing foreign websites, including Google, Twitter and Facebook.

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