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
explainer

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?

Material covering LGBTQ+ themes - from online language classes to e-books - is falling foul of censors, rights activists say

  • Duolingo app probed over ‘LGBT propaganda’
  • Video creators are in the spotlight, activists say
  • LGBTQ+ activism goes offline due to crackdown

Russia appears to be ramping up a crackdown on LGBTQ+ content online, rights activists say, citing an investigation into language learning app Duolingo and an e-bookstore's decision to stop selling more than 250 titles.

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 November, the country's Supreme Court banned "the international LGBT social movement" as "extremist".

Here's what you need to know.

Why do activists fear authorities are intensifying crackdown?

Last month, the country's federal censorship agency Roskomnadzor told state-owned news agency TASS it was investigating Duolingo, one of the world's top language learning platforms, over "the dissemination of information promoting LGBT people".

When teaching vocabulary on topics such as family and marriage in Russian, the app sometimes features same-sex couples, according to screenshots of its language lessons published by independent Russian media.

Duolingo did not reply to several requests for comment.

And last week, the Russian online store Megamarket, owned by Sberbank - a Russian majority state-owned banking and financial services company, said it had stopped selling more than 250 books to avoid breaching the country's ban on the promotion of "non-traditional" sexual relations.

The list of books, which Sberbank's communications department said had existed since 2022, includes titles by Oscar Wilde, Haruki Murakami, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Stephen King, among others.

The Russian government did not reply to a request for comment.

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Have there been prosecutions over online LGBTQ+ content?

In the first weeks of 2024, 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.

Last year, 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.

The couple fled Russia and now live in France.

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, executive director of 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.

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


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  • LGBTQ+
  • Content moderation
  • Social media

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