As Russia has stepped up its military campaign in Ukraine, the crackdown at home has intensified. The Kremlin has suppressed news sources that didn’t align with its world view, squashing the country’s last remaining independent media.
But even Vladimir Putin couldn’t quite plug all the gaps as the truth about the reality of his deadly campaign continued to trickle back to Russians at home. Frequently this was happening via social media. At the time of the invasion, an increasing number of Russians, nearly 40 per cent, according to the independent Russian polling organisation Levada Center, most often got their news this way.
With reliable mainstream sources of information on the war fast running dry, many were turning to platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to find out what was truly going on, as well as to spread anti-war messages. By 21 March, both Meta-owned platforms were banned in Russia; access to Twitter had also been severely restricted.
Despite this, several western social media giants continue to remain active in Russia, including WhatsApp, Meta’s last bastion in the country, and YouTube. But how long for?
YouTube has fast approaching competition, or so the Russian state would like everyone to believe. Pushed as YouTube’s homegrown alternative, the video streaming platform RuTube is being touted as a credible rival to the American-run giant in the Russian market.
Founded in 2006, RuTube trundled along in relative obscurity for nearly 15 years, before being bought out by Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the sanctioned state-backed gas giant Gazprom, in 2020. It was then that the platform began to gain attention. The company started to make an active effort to poach influencers and vloggers from YouTube, promising them higher viewership fees and other incentives.
RuTube is visually, and in many ways conceptually, similar to YouTube: you can watch pranksters play practical jokes on innocent passersby, or food vloggers, such as influencer Double Bubble, try out the new menu of McDonald’s successor ‘Tasty – and that’s that’.
But that is where the likeness between the two ends. Despite the tempting offers, many content creators have been reticent to move across. For one, the platform doesn’t display any view counts or allow viewers to leave comments, both important metrics for influencers looking to monetise their videos. This also leaves vloggers entirely at the mercy of the platform’s opaque algorithm, with no real way of telling whether their content will be pushed at viewers.
Secondly, and more seriously, there are concerns over censorship. Uploading a video to the site can take up to 24 hours, up to four times longer than on YouTube, because RuTube’s moderation team watches every video before it is approved. There has also been speculation that the video platform could introduce a state-backed user verification system, all of which would, and already does, expose vloggers to a high level of surveillance.
Scrolling through the platform, its state-supporting stance is clear. The innocuous prank, taste test and travel videos are frequently interspersed with vlogs explaining the latest developments in Russia’s ‘special operation’, or satirical news shows mocking Western current affairs.
The campaign to grow RuTube into a credible rival to YouTube has also received more direct state backing. According to research by the independent Russian investigative journalists iStories, the Kremlin has been pumping cash into the platform through third party companies since at least 2021. In April this year, Kremlin press secretary Dmitriy Peskov pledged that yet more money would be invested into it.
RuTube is claiming victory. In March, Gazprom-Media stated that the site was pulling in a quarter of YouTube’s Russian viewership – some 25 million people. This contradicts independent viewing figures which suggest YouTube’s Russian viewership is closer to two billion, meaning RuTube, at best, has stolen away just 2.5 per cent of its audience.
So can RuTube successfully usurp YouTube in Russia? Will YouTube eventually be shut down?
In February 2021, Putin said that no foreign internet service would be shut down until Russia had its own version, although ‘hostile actions’ against the country would be deemed unacceptable. It was under this pretence that Facebook and Instagram were banned, after Meta was deemed ‘extremist’ for relaxing hate speech rules concerning the Russian army in Ukraine.
While YouTube continues to dwarf RuTube, this by no means guarantees it invincibility. The Kremlin is already tightening the screws, slapping Google, the platform’s parent company, with a £301 million fine for refusing to remove ‘prohibited’ content about Ukraine from the site. Whether or not Google chooses to comply and pay the fine will, without a doubt, be instrumental in deciding YouTube’s future in Russia in the coming months.
It seems unlikely that the Kremlin would wait for RuTube to develop into an equivalent alternative before shutting YouTube down. The little matter of allowing Russian citizens the freedom to choose where to watch videos online will hardly trouble Putin. The Russian state shutting down YouTube is a matter of when, not if.