Russian Instagram users woke up this week to an app that would not load and feed empty of the content they had grown to love, after Moscow decided to ban the social media site over its parent company Meta’s policies on the war in Ukraine.
The photo-sharing app has 80mn users across Russia – around half of the country’s population. Many wrote farewell posts over the weekend and directed their followers to other social media platforms, as the clock ticked down on the 48 hours the government had given people to wind down their profiles before the app was officially blocked on Monday.
The loss of the beloved service for Russians is symbolic of the increasing isolation of their nation, as US internet companies join a western corporate exodus from the country. The war in Ukraine has placed Silicon Valley companies in the middle of a geopolitical battle for influence, given their position as gatekeepers to information seen by billions.
“I didn’t believe it until the last minute,” said Yulia Telnova, 36, who has run her baking business from her home kitchen in Novosibirsk since 2018, sharing photos of elaborate icing sculptures on Instagram and building her client base on the app . “Today, when my Instagram stopped working. . . then yes. Then I believed it. ”
Telnova is one of many millions of Russians who rely on the app to make a living, using it to run small, at-home businesses, or to promote themselves as influencers with large numbers of followers.
Like others, Telnova has now opened a page on the Russian domestic platform VKontakte, a Facebook lookalike that recently came under state control. Though now to see Instagram go, as it was the source of “99 per cent” of her customers, Telnova said she was not panicked, adding that she would just “have to build up a client base once again”.
Some Russian influencers have made hundreds of thousands of dollars – if not millions – from advertising sold against their Instagram posts. Singer Olga Buzova posted a tearful farewell video to her more than 23mn followers after the ban. “I’ve been here with you since the end of 2012,” she wrote in the caption. Now, “what we created over the course of seven years might be snatched away from us”.
Many Russians have responded to their new digital isolation, which has accelerated sharply in recent days, with sadness and resignation.
Whereas attempts to block the Telegram messaging app in 2018 provoked mass protests in the street, moves against international social media giants since the start of the war have triggered a muted response, amid a broader and more intense political crackdown.
Focus instead has been on workarounds, with people exchanging advice about using virtual private networks – software that masks the location of an internet user – and sharing links to their profiles on Telegram, which remains unblocked.
According to data from VPN tracker Top10VPN, demand for VPN services in Russia skyrocketed 2,088 per cent on Sunday, compared with the average daily demand in the week leading up to the invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s hard to overestimate the role of Instagram in my life,” said Inga Meladze, a prominent jewelery designer based in Moscow.
Meladze used the app to promote Aperon, her business and brand, as well as find ideas, inspiration, projects and suppliers. “I never had any desire to be an influencer, but it turned out that I had 12,000 followers,” she said, adding that this brought interest to her profile from other brands.
“I also find it hard to imagine my personal life without this app,” she added. Her father, pop icon Valery Meladze, was the first Russian celebrity to speak out for peace and diplomacy, recording a video message the day war broke out.
Since then, a wave of measures has been introduced against western social media platforms as well as independent media outlets, as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin lowers a digital iron curtain between Moscow and the rest of the world.
Earlier this month, Moscow blocked Facebook, after claiming it was discriminating against the country by adding fact-checking labels to posts by Russian state media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik and removing them in the EU following demands from officials in the bloc. Twitter has also been restricted, with similar threats sent to both Google’s YouTube and TikTok.
On Friday, Russia announced its most significant move yet: a plan to cut off access to Instagram. The country also launched a criminal investigation into its parent company Meta, potentially ruling it “extremist” on a par with terrorist groups, after it changed its moderation policies to allow for certain violent speech such as “death to the Russian invaders” to be posted by Ukrainian users.
Meta has defended the controversial move as “focused on protecting people’s rights to speech as an expression of self-defense in reaction to a military invasion of their country”.
Around “80 per cent of people in Russia follow an Instagram account outside [of] their country ”, Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri wrote on Twitter. The move to block it would not only cut Russians off from each other, but also “from the rest of the world”, he added.
Instagram has to date reached 166mn installs from Russia’s App Store and Google Play since January 2014, according to estimates by Sensor Tower. Russia is the fifth-largest market globally for Instagram and the 20th largest market for Facebook.
Meta has announced that it will no longer accept ads from Russian advertisers targeting Russian users. David Wehner, Meta’s chief financial officer, said last week that this accounts for 1.5 per cent of its global revenues, worth nearly $ 118bn in 2021.
Within Russia, the social media crackdown has prompted some macabre humor. One meme joked that today people might be sharing their Telegram profiles, but next it would be the postal addresses of their Gulag cells: “Please let’s still keep in touch!”
But the cost of protest in Russia has left many feeling powerless to criticize the state. Thousands of antiwar protesters have been detained since the war began on February 24.
Activists report that 164 court cases have already been launched over social media users’ so-called “discrediting” of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, under a new military censorship law that came into force on March 5. Tens of thousands of more opposition-minded Russians fled the country after it was introduced.
“I don’t think anyone is going to risk going to jail over their Instagram account,” said Graham Shellenberger, global team director at Miburo Solutions, which tracks online extremism.
But he added: “It’s one thing to control a population’s information flow from day one, like a China or North Korea. It’s another to give them access to western culture and internet freedom and. . . then take it away. ”
Illustrator Anastasia, a Moscow resident, said the ban on Instagram could mean losing access to the platform where she developed and shared her artwork and had started to receive orders from around the world. It was painful, she said, but “nothing we experience is comparable to what is happening in Ukraine”.
Feeling powerless, many young, urban Russians have left the country. Anastasia listed the cities where her friends have dispersed to: Istanbul, Tbilisi, Yerevan.
“I feel like a small fish that, before, was swimming in a big shoal towards a bright future,” said Anastasia. “But instead, we got caught in a net and now we’re being dragged” towards a very different future.