chapter  10
18 Pages

Imprisoned for a ‘like’

The criminal prosecution of social media users under authoritarianism
WithFreek van der Vet

Most states, including Western democracies, use the internet and social media as tools for the surveillance of citizens. As of 2012, Russia passed an extensive package of laws expanding the secret services’ surveillance apparatus and state authorities’ capacity to censor online content. On paper, these amendments were passed to constrain the spread of ‘extremist’ content online. In practice, they are also used to arbitrarily prosecute Russian citizens for what they say and do online. Between 2012 and 2017, more than 80 Russians faced criminal charges for ‘liking’ or sharing third-party content on social media. In examining a sample of these cases, this chapter complicates our understanding of how and why states prosecute citizens for their online behaviour. Although we would assume that Russia prosecutes citizens for ‘likes’ and ‘reposts’ to incite fear and restrain the freedom of expression, nevertheless this chapter finds that criminal prosecution of online behaviour is not specific to Russia or other authoritarian contexts. Moreover, it confirms earlier findings that the increasing number of prosecutions is the likely result of a bias towards convictions in Russia’s criminal justice system and competition within the secret services.