Ukrainians Join Facebook by the Millions After Russian Social Media Ban

Russian cell phones
Mobile phones display home pages of Mail.ru, Vkontakte social network, and Yandex in this picture illustration taken May 17. Gleb Garanich/Illustration/Reuters

When Ukraine’s government banned the two most popular Russian social media sites in March, some supported the move as necessary to ward off propaganda while others expressed concern about a loss of freedom of expression.

The jury is still out on whether the ban of VKontakte and Odnoklassniki will help Kiev shake off Moscow’s political grip. But there’s one clear winner here: Facebook.

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Ukrainian Facebook accounts have surged by around two and a half million since May, bringing the total number of Ukrainian members of the social network to nine million—a fifth of the country’s population, Ukrainian digital market research firm Watcher reports.

Kiev’s decision to blacklist popular Russian online services continues to be controversial. Besides VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, Kiev banned the use of the most popular Russian search engine, Yandex, and one of the country’s top email domains: Mail.ru.

All of these websites are used for the spread of news stories in some form or another and promote news content about the tense political relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine’s armed forces are currently locked in a three-year armed conflict with pro-Russian fighters in its eastern regions and Kiev is lobbying for the return of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Over 10,000 have died in the fighting in Ukraine and the current low-intensity of the conflict has led the death toll to slowly increase with little prospect of an out and out resolution.

Moscow and Kiev have presented alternate accounts on the series of events that led to their fallout, with Ukraine regarding Russia as an aggressor, a supporter of separatist militants and an occupier of Crimea. Russia has pleaded innocence, claiming it does not know how the pro-Russian troops at its border with Ukraine have found the wherewithal to hold one of Europe’s largest armies at bay for three years.

Moscow previously also claimed it had nothing to do with the troops that annexed Crimea in 2014, but has since admitted that this was a Russian military operation.

The two countries’ legislation on events in Crimea and east Ukraine vary considerably with Ukraine ramping up punishments on those who show signs of sympathy with separatist forces, regarding them as an affront to its sovereignty. Russia, meanwhile has criminalized shows of sympathy with a handful of Ukrainian nationalist figures, equating them to Nazis.

Russia and Ukraine also fundamentally disagree on what role Moscow plays in the current ceasefire deal in the east. Ukraine holds Russia responsible for not assuring separatist fighters comply with the accords, Russia has claimed it signed the deal not as a participant in the conflict but as a broker of the talks.

Part of the reason why Kiev banned Russian websites in Ukraine was due to concerns that the lack of additional legislation on interpreting the conflict meant Russian companies could violate Ukrainian information law and adhere to Russian law instead.