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An Internet army of truth-tellers

Despite Russia's attempts to control the Internet and manipulate opinion, especially over events in Ukraine, the truth seeps out. Social-media activists help ensure the free flow of ideas and facts.

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Russian journalists finish their last working day at the news website Lenta.ru in Moscow March 14. The owner of the leading independent news website fired its chief editor following official complaints over the outlet's coverage of Ukraine.

AP Photo

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The lie couldn’t last for long, not in the Internet Age.

On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin admitted for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last month were Russian soldiers after all, not the local militia that he had claimed.

What made Mr. Putin fess up?

Perhaps it was the fact that many Russians are bypassing the Kremlin propaganda machine and turning to social media activists for the truth. One example is the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. It runs a fact-checking website called StopFake.org, which relies on dozens of volunteers to gather information that can refute the distortions and propaganda about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

In the continuing struggle over Ukraine, the use of the Internet to spread the truth remains a powerful tool to counter Putin’s attempts to paint a false picture of events. It may even have helped push Russia into an agreement at talks Thursday in Geneva that calls for all illegal armed groups in Ukraine to be disarmed.

Nearly two-thirds of Russians say it is important that people have access to the Internet without government censorship, according to a 2013 Pew poll. Among young adults, this embrace of Web freedom is even stronger. But over the past two years, Putin has sought to rein in the Internet and other media in order to manipulate public opinion.

In January, investors close to Putin took control of the largest social media network, VKontakte. And a law that took effect Feb. 1 allows websites to be blocked if they are seen as “extremist” or inciting antigovernment protests. More than 100 sites have been shut down so far in an attempt to stifle political opposition.

Russia is going down the path of other nations that either track dissent on the Internet or outright ban it. According to Freedom House, at least two dozen countries have added new laws or regulations restricting online speech since May 2012.

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The most rigorous censorship may be in China, which employs a virtual army to control cyberspace, especially since Xi Jinping became party leader two years ago. Last year, a rule took effect that a person who knowingly spreads “false” rumors online can be sentenced to as many as three years in prison.

Yet despite such controls, the Chinese continue to find digital ways to get around censors and claim their “right to connect.” In addition, censorship is starting to hurt China’s own Internet companies. On Thursday, Weibo Corp., a Twitter-like microblogging service, raised far less than expected in its US initial public offering of shares. One reason was its own admission that censorship “may adversely affect our user experience” and scare off potential users.

Digital freedom is a threat only to leaders who claim a monopoly on power and seek to control the flow of ideas. Yet to be strong and prosperous in the Internet Age, digital freedom is essential. And during a crisis like the one in Ukraine, it can be a powerful tool for truth. As the late Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”


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