The Russians evade censors with emojis

The Russia-Ukraine war has yet again brought to attention a trending image spreading on social media revealing a picture of the Russian poet Pushkin, the number seven and rows of the “person walking” emoji.

The meaning was apparent to those who are familiar with the location – (Pushkin Square, in Moscow), a time and a call to revolt against the government’s actions.

According to human rights group OVD-Info, the emojis made citation to a code used for years in Russia to refer to protests – one so well known to the authorities.

Since 2014, unauthorised protests have been outlawed in the country and breaches of the rules can lead to up to 15 days detention for a first offence. Repeat offenders can receive prison sentences of up to five years.

It has since become common for activists to use numerous coded phrases to organise online.

“It’s like, ‘Let’s go for a walk to the centre,’ or, ‘The weather is great for a walk,'” Maria tells BBC. This is what she will text her friends to let them know she plans to attend a protest.

What began as a way to avoid government censors has almost become an inside joke or a meme, Maria added.

However, the consequences of not using this language can be serious.

Nearly 14,000 people have been detained across Russia since the conflict started a fortnight ago, primarily for attending protests according to OVD-Info – which provides legal advice.

Most have been held for a matter of hours or days so far

Is the situation taking a turn?

On Friday 4 March, a law was launched in Russia with the aim of battling “fake news” about the military but it is anticipated to be used to crack down even further on anti-war protests – including prison sentences of up to 15 years, significantly longer than previous sanctions.

For young people such as Maria, this has “already changed things, because now I’m afraid to go to protest and also I’m afraid to post about this ‘special operation’ [Russia’s invasion of Ukraine]”.

And there are clear evidence arrests have risen since the new law was introduced, OVD-Info says.

Where are Russians posting now?

The shut down of independent media outlets, banning of Facebook and constraints on Russians posting on TikTok have taken away key routes to access information, OVD-Info co-ordinator Leonid Drabkin says, and people will self-censor out of fear.

“Now if you go to your Instagram, there are like 10 times fewer posts,” he says.
Many of his contacts have deleted their social-media profiles altogether.

Added with the rigid penalties, this has already affected the number of people “brave enough to protest”.

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