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Duolingo to vlogs: Russia's crackdown on LGBTQ+ content online

People gather outside the building of Russia’s Supreme Court following a hearing to consider a request by the Ministry of Justice to recognize the LGBTQ movement as extremist in Moscow, Russia, November 30, 2023. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

People gather outside the building of Russia’s Supreme Court following a hearing to consider a request by the Ministry of Justice to recognize the LGBTQ movement as extremist in Moscow, Russia, November 30, 2023. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

What’s the context?

From online language classes to film streaming services, censors are targeting references to LGBTQ+ themes, rights activists say

  • Duolingo deletes LGBTQ+ material at Moscow's request
  • Video creators also in the spotlight, activists say
  • LGBTQ+ activism goes offline due to crackdown

BERLIN - Language learning app Duolingo has cut LGBTQ+ references from its classes in Russia after a warning from authorities, the latest step in a state crackdown on online references to what Moscow calls "non-traditional sexual relations".

President Vladimir Putin signed a law widening Russia's ban on "LGBT propaganda" in late 2022, effectively outlawing public discussion of LGBTQ+ issues, and in 2023, the Supreme Court banned "the international LGBT social movement" as "extremist".

Here's what you need to know.

How is the crackdown affecting online content?

The country's federal censorship agency Roskomnadzor said on Tuesday Duolingo "had deleted materials promoting non-traditional sexual relations from its training app", Russian news agencies reported.

Duolingo's decision followed a warning from Roskomnadzor, the report said.

When teaching vocabulary on topics such as family and relationships in Russian, the app sometimes features gay couples or sentences like "Ben and Peter love each other" and "Clara met her wife Maria at a lesbian bar", Russian media reported.

A spokesperson for Duolingo said the company supports LGBTQ+ rights and believes "in normalizing LGBTQ+ representation in our content".

"Unfortunately, local laws prohibit us from including certain content in Russia," the spokesperson added in comments to Reuters.

In February 2023, the Russian online store Megamarket, owned by financial services firm Sberbank, said it had stopped selling more than 250 books to avoid breaching the country's restrictions on "LGBT propaganda", includes titles by Haruki Murakami, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Stephen King.

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Have there been prosecutions over online LGBTQ+ content?

In May, two Russian online film distributors and streaming services were charged under the country's "LGBT propaganda" ban, while earlier this year at least three Russian courts made the first convictions in connection with the Supreme Court ruling that designed LGBTQ+ activism as "extremist".

Two of those cases - in the southeastern Russian cities of Volgograd and Saratov - involved pictures of rainbow flags posted to social media platforms, according to reports by Reuters and other media.

In 2023, a young Russian-Chinese gay couple with hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok and YouTube were arrested in the southwestern city of Kazan for allegedly violating the country's "LGBT propaganda" ban, media reports said.

How are LGBTQ+ Russians being affected?

Russian activists say LGBTQ+ voices are going silent online, either through censorship or to protect themselves from state repression.

"The lives of ordinary LGBTQ+ people in Russia have changed - they now need to lower their profiles, to censor themselves," said Aleksandr Voronov, an activist at the Coming Out LGBTQ+ group, who moved to Lithuania following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

This preventive self-censorship has manifested itself in different ways, from transgender sex workers having to stop advertising their services online to dating apps removing non-heterosexual options, activists said.

Mikhail Tumasov, a former director of the Russian LGBT Network who was granted political asylum in Germany in 2020 after receiving personal threats, said this precautionary self-censorship has particularly impacted bloggers and content creators on platforms such as YouTube.

How is internet censorship impacting LGBTQ+ activism?

Censorship of LGBTQ+ topics online is also limiting the ability of human rights' groups to advocate for sexual minorities in Russia - even if the organisations are based abroad, campaigners said.

"We are outside Russia, so our mission is to be as loud as possible – but again, we need to do some censorship in our communications work, because we still work on legal cases supporting LGBTQ+ people in Russia," Voronov said.

Coming Out has seen a sharp increase in requests for help since the extremism ruling last year, but the charity has had to launch a crowdfunding appeal to stay afloat amid growing legal threats back home, he added.

At least three groups supporting LGBTQ+ rights have shut down their operations for fear or prosecution, according to Human Rights Watch.

The ban on the promotion of "non-traditional" sexual relations has also led to growing restrictions on social networks such as VKontakte, a popular platform among Russian-speakers, with LGBTQ+ groups moving to Meta's Instagram and the Telegram messaging app instead.

On the ground, LGBTQ+ activism has mostly shifted to offline activities and local, grassroots initiatives where people know each other and can more easily avoid the risk of being tracked by security forces.

"Advocacy is impossible, particularly national advocacy groups," Tumasov said.

In May, police arrested Artyom Fokin, the head of a local LGBTQ+ group in the southwestern city of Samara, for his alleged involvement with an "extremist organisation", according to OVD-Info, an charity monitoring human rights in the country.

(Reporting by Enrique Anarte in Berlin; Editing by Helen Popper.) 

This story was updated at 15:35 GMT with Duolingo's decision to remove LGBTQ+ references from its classes in Russia and to add other new developments.

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