How Ukrainian Entrepreneurs Bypass Russian Censors
As the Kremlin has tightened its grip on the world’s biggest tech companies and its own media, Ukrainian startups have turned to hijacking their own apps and tools to tell people in Russia and Belarus about the war.
Over the weekend, Kiev-based stock image company DepositPhotos sent its customers links to two photo collections, one showing what is happening in Ukraine and the other showing Ukrainian supporters around the world during anti-war demonstrations. DepositPhotos, which was acquired in October by US company Vista, called on Russian customers to read outside of the country’s propaganda-dominated state media.
“Right now, a full-scale war is going on in Ukraine,” said Vadim Nekhai, Vice President of VistaCreate and DepositPhotos. Forbes. “Russia is bombing residential areas, hospitals, orphanages and schools in our cities. Russian government-controlled media continue to lie about a “special military operation in Donbass” as civilians across the country are killed and thousands have already lost their homes.
In Russia, the invasion of Ukraine has been called a “special military operation,” while the few remaining independent Russian media have been threatened for reporting on the invasion and civilian casualties, according to Human Rights Watch. Moscow has also moved to curb social media, which has been strangled inside Russia due to Meta’s crackdown on public media Facebook pages. Russia has for years sought to pressure tech companies with fines for “illegal content,” but a new law requiring companies to open an office in Russia will give the Kremlin even more leverage.
When asked if Kekhai had heard from anyone who had received the DepositPhotos email, he said the company had received “mixed feedback,” but said about half of people understood, but others complained that what was being said in Russia contradicted the reality of the situation.
“Even if a small percentage of our customers or users will actually listen, it will help,” he said.
The Ukrainian team behind the viral face-swapping app Reface has decided to exploit its 200 million downloads to circumvent war censorship in Russia. The app sent push alerts to around 2 million users in Russia with the message “Russia has invaded Ukraine”, with photos and information about the conflict, and the videos created using the app. app are now watermarked with the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine.
“We understand that Russia has limited access to reliable media sources, so we sent push notifications to all Russian users showing the real situation and encouraging people to protest,” said Dima Shvets, CEO and Founder of Reface. , based in Kiev, which was supported by Andreessen Horowitz.
Shvets says the app – which has been used by Elon Musk, Snoop Dog and Dua Lipa to superimpose their faces over others in videos and photos – had earned a wave of 1-star reviews for its campaign, but the alum Forbes 30 Under 30 was fearless. “We risk everything, we already have a lot of 1-star reviews, but it’s such a small price to pay compared to our lives and our freedom,” he says.
The war in Ukraine has also inspired startups from other countries to take a stand. MessageBird, a Dutch rival to Twilio, cut off its Russian customers, as well as British email marketing startup Omnisend, while money transfer service TransferGo also plugged the plug into Russia.
Apart from startups, other help has come from tech giants and volunteers. And after a group of volunteer hackers began forming to help the invaded nation, websites for Russian websites including the Moscow Stock Exchange and the Kremlin began going offline, leaving some wondering who might to be responsible. Over the past few days, Ukraine has also called on companies such as Apple, Facebook, Netflix and Google to do more to help, including cutting business in Russia. Meanwhile, some supporters donated cryptocurrency as Ukraine’s official Twitter account asked for donations.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk is among those who responded to Ukraine’s request. When officials asked the billionaire over the weekend to activate his Starlink satellite internet dishes, he agreed. And today, less than 48 hours later, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, published Pictures indicating that a shipment had arrived.
“The first batch of StarLink satellite Internet stations has arrived in Ukraine,” Fedorov wrote on Facebook. “Thank you Elon Musk and all partners of Free Ukraine! We continue to fight on all fronts!