Fighting Russia Online: How Activists Are Using Memes Against Putin's Social Media Censorship

Russian anti-corruption campaigner and opposition figure Alexei Navalny addresses a protest against new anti-terrorism legislation approved by President Vladimir Putin that critics say will curb basic freedoms and make it easier for the authorities to stifle dissent, in Moscow's Sokolniki park, Russia, August 9, 2016. Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

The internet in Russia is becoming a tougher place to express an anonymous opinion. In the past five years the government has passed a series of laws, placing the same demands on popular bloggers as it does on the state-dominated media sector.

One of the strictest bits of regulation, introduced in 2014, demands that all popular social media influencers or web writers have to register their account with the government, along with documents revealing their identity.

"If you have more than 3,000 views on your social media account per day you have to send a copy of your passport to the Russian communication watchdog," Anastasia Denisova, a professor at London's University of Westminster, researching Russian internet policy says. "Which basically means no anonymity, very limited freedom of speech lets say."

The move is part of a general push to strengthen the Kremlin's hand in dealing with anything online, having already allowed its state watchdog to blacklist websites without a court order and outlawed services that disguise a user's Internet Service Provider address.

A law yet to be fully enforces but ratified in 2013 demands that all companies that handle Russians' personal data, submit their servers, at least temporarily, to the jurisdiction of Russian authorities. Google data shows that over the last year the Russian government has flagged and requested the removal of more content on YouTube and any other Google services than all other countries in the world put together.

Looking at who the Kremlin's enemies at home are—popular bloggers, tech savvy activists and followers of anti-corruption investigator Alexey Navalny who posts his work on YouTube—it is easy to see why.

In 2016 his documentary about the alleged financial dealings of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev earned millions of views and launched two mass waves of protests. The judiciary has since ordered the video to be removed.

One thing the government cannot manage to ban, however, is meme-sharing online. Navalny's jibe in 2011 that President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party is just a crowd of "crooks and thieves" has become shorthand in the meme-focused language of the internet. Other images like Zhdun—a humanoid manatee that symbolises indefinite waiting—have become viral phenomenons that many Russians share to criticize stagnation and government inaction.

"Very often you can see that politically active users in Russia, they turn to memes to say something that cannot be said in the public sphere," Denisova says. "Words are still powerful. Symbols are powerful because they really stick to your memory and to your mind, and memes are one of those things." "Can you really change public opinion by the means of memes? I'm not sure about that. But it is a good way to keep your mind sane, as many people say in Russia, and to keep the discussion going, even in a very limited social network conversation."