From YouTube to Rutube. Inside Russia's Influence Campaign.
Kremlin cracks down on Western social media, but Russia's homemade alternatives are a tough sell
The Kremlin is waging a new influence campaign: persuading Russians to quit Western social-media platforms.
As part of an expansive effort to control the narrative about its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is pushing Russians to embrace homegrown alternatives instead.
Russian authorities have put up firewalls around several Western social-media platforms and are threatening more.
Now they have to convince Russians used to the freedoms of YouTube and Instagram that censored domestic social networks can deliver moneymaking opportunities and equally large audiences. And that they aren't just cheap knockoffs.
The Ministry of Digital Development of the Russian Federation last month said it was taking emergency measures to draw attention to domestic social-networking apps.
Rutube, Russia's answer to YouTube, and Fiesta, an Instagram-like app, have since enjoyed a huge surge in downloads, though so have apps that enable people to access recently banned outlets.
The country's communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, blocked Facebook and Instagram last month after their owner, Meta Platforms Inc., placed restrictions on Russian media outlets.
Meta and other social-media companies also paused advertising in Russia, making it harder for content creators to generate revenue from a Russian social-media account.
"Our bloggers have to leave foreign platforms -- maybe that's OK," Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told the State Duma earlier this month.
"Our brains, our guys, programmers are able to improve these platforms," he said, citing as examples Rutube and VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook.
"What is lacking is effective monetization opportunities,'' Mr. Mishustin said: "This will return our youth, and give us our own field."
The Kremlin's campaign to encourage Russian upstarts over Western platform operators has put users and content creators in their crosshairs.
While people around the globe are turning to YouTube, Instagram and other social-media outlets for news and firsthand accounts of the violence, Russia has made it riskier to provide the online content that is in demand.
The government passed a law that threatens prison time for anyone publishing what authorities deem to be false information about the country's invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin refers to as a special military operation. The law applies to both traditional and social media.
Gazprom-Media, a unit of the Russian energy giant Gazprom PJSC and the owner of Rutube, has been leading Russia's effort to develop social-media alternatives, with the government's backing.
Gazprom, which also owns VKontakte through its insurance arm Sogaz, in November launched Yappy, a homemade version of TikTok.
Those efforts have had some success. Fiesta, which launched in November 2021, reached No. 1 in downloads among top free iPhone apps in Russia on Apple Inc.'s App Store for five days last month, according to app-analytics firm Sensor Tower Inc.
Rutube gained 1.1 million downloads across both Apple's App Store and Alphabet Inc's Google Play in Russia last month, while Yappy has gained two million downloads through them since the start of February, Sensor Tower's data show.
Still, Russian users are sticking with foreign platforms.
Last month, nearly two billion visits to YouTube came from Russian web-browser users across mobile web and desktop, according to estimates provided by analytics firm Similarweb Ltd.
And apps and browser extensions that enable people to access recently banned social networks have been thriving.
Demand for virtual private networks, or VPNs, shot up nearly 2,700% compared with the average daily demand in the week leading up to the start of the invasion of Ukraine, according to Top10VPN.com, from London-based research company PrivacyCo Ltd.
It estimates that the Kremlin has blocked more than 900 websites relating to the war.
According to Similarweb, Instagram had 157 million visits from Russian web users based on the same metrics as YouTube.
Some Russians simply aren't impressed by the local alternatives.
Veniamin Prozorov, a 30-year-old graphic designer in Moscow, said he has no interest in leaving YouTube, which he uses for alternative opinions to Russian state media and for entertainment.
He also uses Twitter, through a VPN, and Telegram, an encrypted platform.
"I unequivocally will not go to Rutube because it's a cheap surrogate that won't ever be able to replace YouTube," Mr. Prozorov said. "I tried to use it but I had an extremely negative impression from the quality of the video and content that was posted."
The platform, which is organized more like Netflix than YouTube, has sections for news, shows, recommended videos, new video bloggers and TikTok-like shorts.
The news is exclusively from state-backed media or pro-government talking heads, and on a recent day the content was predominantly pro-war. Other popular videos included titles such as "Swimming in a warm pool" and "How I cured my acne."
For some content creators in Russia, the country's platform alternatives aren't large enough for them to make a living. They also don't expect the devoted fan bases they have spent years cultivating on mainstream apps to suddenly move over to Russian networks.
Lilia Khazhieva, owner of the jewelry company Copine, did the bulk of her business on Instagram.
She had plans to expand to Europe and had been invited by showrooms in France and Italy -- which connected with her through Instagram -- to show her jewelry there. Now she can no longer place targeted ads on the platform, preventing her from building a bigger audience.
Her sales have dropped by around 30% to 40% since the start of the war.
The 30-year-old doesn't see the Russian platforms as viable alternatives and said she doesn't want to support them on political grounds.
"If our brand is no longer visible, this will be a steady death for us and most small brands," Ms. Khazhieva said.
Ruslan Usachev of St. Petersburg has managed a YouTube channel since 2010 that features mainly travel and news videos.
Since YouTube parent Google, a unit of Alphabet, paused ad monetization in Russia in February, Mr. Usachev said his income from the video platform, where the 32-year-old has 2.6 million subscribers, has decreased by roughly 10-fold.
Russia has warned YouTube could be blocked after the company banned Russian state media channels, citing its policy barring content that "minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent events."
After YouTube banned the Duma's channel earlier this month, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: "YouTube has apparently signed its own verdict. Download content, transfer to Russian platforms. And quickly."
Mr. Usachev, who is still posting content to YouTube, has also been posting to VKontakte and Telegram. But, he said, "None of them are able to replace YouTube in functionality or offer the same reach for video."
YouTube's pause on ad monetization in Russia has also affected the income of Latvia-based YouTuber Stas Davydov, as most of his nearly six million subscribers live in the country.
Before the war, the 34-year-old said he earned about €2,500, equivalent to about $2,700, a month from YouTube. In March he made only about €600. While his viewer numbers haven't dropped significantly, he said many Russian advertisers have halted ad spending.
Mr. Davydov, who started his YouTube channel 12 years ago, mostly discusses pop culture, technology and other topics he finds online, though a few weeks ago he spoke out against the war. The topic didn't go over well with all his viewers, some of whom unsubscribed.
He took a week off from posting any videos to YouTube and then shifted his focus back to entertainment. He did make one minor exception: He posted a video on how to set up a VPN to evade the Russian government's firewalls.
"It's the thing everyone in Russia wants right now," Mr. Davydov said.