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Russia Debates The Online Challenge Of 'Turning Off' Its 'Culture Of Violence'

Parents and children in Kazan wait to leave flowers and stuffed animals at a memorial to the victims of the May 11, 2021 attack on School No. 175.
Parents and children in Kazan wait to leave flowers and stuffed animals at a memorial to the victims of the May 11, 2021 attack on School No. 175.

The fatal May 11, 2021 attack on School No. 175 in Kazan, Russia has prompted Russian officials and politicians to consider accelerating ongoing efforts to “control” the Internet. But some digital professionals warn that these measures could only further stifle freedom of speech -- without addressing the underlying causes of school shootings, according to one sociologist.

A former graduate of School No. 175, 19-year-old Ilnaz Galyaviyev has acknowledged he carried out the attack, which killed nine people, including seven schoolchildren, and wounded over 20 people, primarily students. Galyaviyev now faces a potential life prison sentence for multiple homicides. On May 12, he was sentenced to two months of pre-trial detention.

Duma speaker Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov, a member of the ruling United Russia Party, has urged the Russian parliament to focus on social media as the alleged “inspiration” for Galyaviyev’s attack.

The “atmosphere” in social networks and social-media groups “directly encourages inadequate people to commit such attacks,” Milonov posited.

Yet, so far, prosecutors have presented no evidence of Galyaviyev’s motivation or of his online habits. Former teachers described him as “fairly well-balanced,” polite, and neat – “an ordinary student,” according to Irina Volynets, the children’s rights ombudswoman for Kazan’s region, Tatarstan.

A Kazan court on May 12, 2021 sentences Ilnaz Galyaviyev (center) to two months of pre-trial detention for the May 11, 2021 armed attack on the city's School No. 175.
A Kazan court on May 12, 2021 sentences Ilnaz Galyaviyev (center) to two months of pre-trial detention for the May 11, 2021 armed attack on the city's School No. 175.

Before the May 11 attack, the young man, recently expelled from a college, posted a photo of himself, entitled “God,” on the messaging app Telegram. In the post, he warned about his intentions to shoot “an enormous amount of biomass” and then himself.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov has commented that the content went public 15 minutes before the attack on School No. 175 began. Even if law enforcement could monitor such posts in real time, Durov posted on Telegram, “they would hardly have been able to prevent the tragedy in such a short time.”

Telegram subsequently disabled Galyaviyev’s account, but several Telegram channels that use his name have since emerged. One displays the young man’s “God” photo, while another shows a supposed classroom scene from School No. 175 after the attack.

Russian advocates for stricter Internet regulations likely see such content as justifying their wariness about the influence of social media.

A 2017 study by Google and opinion researcher Ipsos found that 27 percent of Russians between the ages of 13 and 24 spend more than five hours a day on social media, and 24 percent check their updates every half hour.

In May 11 remarks to Current Time, Tatarstan children’s rights ombudswoman Volynets called for social networks to grant access to youngsters between the ages of 14 and 18 only if they have written permission from their parents.

Children under the age of 14 should be banned altogether, said Volynets, a 2018 presidential candidate who chairs the National Parent Committee, a movement that collaborates with the state on “the defense of families and preservation of traditional values.”

She insisted that Russia employ a Chinese-style system of rigorous verification of the identities of Internet users before allowing online access. In March, Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor, which oversees a list of banned sites, proposed that Russians provide passport data to use social media and messenger apps, but the draft law was eventually scrapped.

As yet, the agency has not issued fresh proposals in response to the Kazan attack.

In recent months, though, Roskomnadzor has subjected U.S.-based social-media networks (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) to the threat of heavy fines and, potentially, exclusion from the Russian market for not complying with demands to remove content deemed inappropriate for children or for discrimination against Russia-origin content.

In March, Roskomnadzor launched a slowdown of access to Twitter to encourage the network to comply with its demands.

Now, pro-government politicians apparently want to take these measures further.

On May 11, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin commented on Telegram that parliament should discuss a ban on Internet anonymity to “reduce the volume of content propagandizing violence, glorifying extremism.” A date for the debate has not yet been announced.

Volynets also supports such a ban. “If we’re talking about the freedom to express your opinion, about some of your behavior in this space, then we should know who is who, right?” she asked.

Apart from this measure, a member of the Federation Council’s Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building, Aleksandr Bashkin, has proposed creating official categories of “desirable” and “undesirable” online content.

Like other politicians, he also urged restrictions on video games “glorifying violence.”

Sociologist Nadezhda Nartova believes, however, that banning online anonymity or regulating online games will only spark a counter-reaction,

The primary problem is that young Russians “see that power asserts itself through violence,” cautioned Nartova, a senior researcher at the Higher School of Economics’ Centre for Youth Studies in St. Petersburg. “The problem is how they view injustice, how they view power, how they view violence, including how they view unwarranted violence.”

“Looking at yourself in the mirror” on these issues “is more complicated than saying that we need to restrict young people more,” she added.

One digital-rights advocate asserts that the proposed Internet restrictions are simply an excuse for another rollback on freedom of speech.

“The tragedy of May 11, 2021 will again be used by the authorities to tighten the screws and fight against Internet freedom,” the Internet Protection Society predicted on Facebook on May 12. “Remember, they don't have an ounce of compassion. These child deaths are just a tool for them.”

Telegram’s Russia-born Durov did not echo that charge, but stressed that “tragic” events like the Kazan attack “should not serve as a pretext for organizing a witch hunt or turning society into a concentration camp.”

But some, indeed, are looking to the Soviet past for responses to Kazan. Volynets, who blames “the absolute absence of a state ideology” for the May 11 shooting, contends, that tighter control of youngsters via government-organized youth activities -- “the way it was in the USSR,” she commented on the pro-Kremlin YouTube show Solovyov LIVE – would prevent such violence.

Russian psychologist Denis Davydov, a professor at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, who co-authored a 2018 study on mass shootings in schools, endorses group activities as a way to anchor youngsters in a "web of social ties," but believes, though, that the problem lies elsewhere: a lack of detailed information, whether online or offline, about mass shootings in Russia and how best to respond.

“Yes, unfortunately, there is a culture of violence” in Russia, he commented. “It’s difficult to take it and turn it off.”

-With additional reporting from the Associated Press, Interfax, and TASS


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