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Meet The Kremlin's Young Army Of Cybersnitches

  • Tom Balmforth

"Any virus must be crushed instantly! LGBT, drug dealers, and the propaganda of perverts are calling for the destruction of our future!"

"Any virus must be crushed instantly! LGBT, drug dealers, and the propaganda of perverts are calling for the destruction of our future!"

MOSCOW -- A long-haired bearded man clutching a rainbow flag is splattered like an insect by a giant hand as a little boy in green overalls looks on.

This violent image recently appeared on Russian social networks in an effort to seek recruits for MediaGvardia, or The Media Guard, a new pro-Kremlin youth organization aiming to purge the Internet of "dangerous" content, often in the name of protecting children.

"Any virus must be crushed instantly!" proclaims the caption, apparently exhorting readers to stamp out "gay propaganda" online. "LGBT, drug dealers, and the propaganda of perverts are calling for the destruction of our future!"

It's a mission that has propelled the group into the spotlight -- and not only because of its homophobic agitprop.

MediaGvardia's activists fashion themselves as the foot soldiers of the Kremlin's Internet crackdown, trawling the web to ensure sites obey a series of laws regulating online content passed since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012.

The group's modus operandi might most simply be described as cybersnitching.

Founded in 2013, the group now draws on an army of almost 4,000 volunteers across the country. Stationed at their computers, they receive and verify complaints, apparently submitted by concerned citizens, about offending websites.

And if the group concurs that the site contravenes Russian law, it files a formal request to the authorities for it to be placed on a blacklist and blocked.

According to figures published on the group's webpage, they have filed complaints against more than 18,767 sites and successfully had 2,475 of them closed. And their field of operations is broad.

'Dangerous' Support Group

By "dangerous," MediaGvardia in part means the web content state media watchdog Roskomnadzor can blacklist extrajudicially, according to legislation signed by Putin in July 2012: online child pornography and sites promoting suicide or drugs.

But the group also has its sights trained on other Kremlin bugbears: so-called "homosexual propaganda," calls for unsanctioned antigovernment protests, "extremism," and even websites selling sanctioned foreign foodstuffs.

Their latest scalp appeared to come on March 19 after MediaGvardia had swamped the prosecutor's office with complaints about Deti-404, an online lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teen support group that appeared in the wake of a controversial 2013 law prohibiting the propagation of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.

That day, Russian prosecutors said they were launching proceedings against Deti-404 and would seek in court to block its presence on the popular VKontakte social network.

In written comments to RFE/RL, Kirill Grinchenko, head of MediaGvardia, said his group took up arms against Deti-404 after receiving over 200 complaints about the group from the public.

LGBT activists say Deti-404 is a unique online platform for counseling marginalized gay and lesbian teenagers -- whom they claim have a higher risk of committing suicide than heterosexual teens.

Grinchenko, however, insisted the group was clearly in contravention of the law on "gay propaganda" and expressed doubts about its "real" assistance to LGBT teens.

'Just Snitching'

Grinchenko presents MediaGvardia as a crowd-sourcing bridge between the state and the people. The group, he says, helps the authorities regulate the Internet while at the same time providing a "simplified channel through which" ordinary citizens "make complaints."

Last year, the group was honored by the authorities with two RuNet awards, for The Internet Without Extremism and Best Internet Project. The RuNet awards were founded in 2004 by the Russian Communications Ministry.

Grinchenko said his group also had representatives on Roskomnadzor's expert commission on enforcing a controversial law regulating bloggers that came into force in August 2014.

The groups critics say it is reviving the Stalin-era practice of citizens informing on each other. "Unfortunately, the bad traditions of the 1930s are being restored in this way," says Pavel Rassudov, a member of Russia's unregistered Pirate Party, which advocates Internet freedom. "This is pure snitching. People simply call this snitching."

Rassudov and other online-freedom activists say laws purporting to protect minors online are a smokescreen to legitimize deeper state regulation of the web.

MediaGvardia is a branch of the Young Guards, the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party. It's one in a small constellation of recently formed Kremlin youth groups that include Stopkham, which targets those violating traffic rules, and Network, which appeals to young, middle-class Putin aficionados.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at