Even without Facebook and Twitter, millions of Russians are making their voices heard online—if you know how to listen.
Shortly after its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government dropped a new digital Iron Curtain, blocking its citizens’ access to the BBC, Facebook, Twitter, App Stores, and others . On the other side of the curtain, American and European observers suddenly had no good way of answering a simple question: how were ordinary Russians feeling about their government?
It was hard to say. Available polling was either done before the invasion or being conducted by the Russian government itself, which could be biased for a number of reasons . Without other options, old-fashioned Kremlinology came back into style .
At Filterlabs.ai, we enjoy stories of palace intrigue as much as anyone, but we also think it remains important to know how everyday Russians are feeling about the war, the sanctions, China, and the upcoming military conscription.
Is this possible? Is there a way to slip through Putin’s firewall? We think so.
Shortly after the invasion, FilterLabs.AI partnered with Ukrainian IT professionals working to counter Russian online propaganda. With their help, FilterLabs used its artificial intelligence models to identify and analyze websites and forums where Russian people can still express themselves, talk about what matters in their day-to-day lives, and engage with others. These venues included popular online forums, local news sources, local organizations and businesses, and the online messaging platform Telegram. It is a far broader cross-section of public opinion than social media alone would capture. To date we have ingested 1,448,796 artifacts, and the results have been surprising.
On the whole, Russians seem to support the war, which is no surprise given the intense state propaganda. But doubts are starting to appear when the questions become more specific. Do they support the “special military operation”? Of course! How do they feel about reports of casualties. A little uncomfortable. And how do they feel about the recent announcement of a spring draft, which will call up 134,500 conscripts? 
Not good at all. Since the beginning of the invasion, popular sentiment toward the draft has plummeted. It appears to be almost as unpopular as Western sanctions. There are even corners of Reddit-like sites where the draft is significantly less popular. By monitoring dissident attitudes on these threads, it might be possible to see where opposition to Putin will come from if the war drags on.
In the coming months, FilterLabs plans to keep mining Russian data for insights you will find nowhere else.
In fact, Putin’s firewall may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. As a gauge of public opinion, social media has some real shortcomings. Studies and surveys have consistently shown that its users do not represent the population as a whole , generating subtle but considerable biases . The platforms are full of inauthentic accounts, and only a small slice of each platform’s user base is actually active.
As a result, relying on social media as a guide to public opinion was always a mistake. Any decision makers—from politicians to marketers or executives—who based their strategies on social media data were probably led astray.
But what’s the alternative? The truth is that there is much more happening online than meets the eye on a social media feed. It’s not only in Russia where people are talking on local news sites, messaging apps, and church message boards. It’s everywhere.
In the coming weeks, FilterLabs plans to use this newsletter to share its latest insights on Russian public opinion. But at the same time, we’ll be making the case that there’s a better way to learn about public opinion than scrolling through a social media feed.
In the News
FilterLabs.Ai's work was recently featured in The New York Times. Check out the excellent reporting by Julian Barnes and Edward Wong: U.S. and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble
Tune in today, April 14, 2022, to Don Lemon Tonight on CNN to see FilterLab's CEO, Jonathan Teubner discussing our work helping Ukrainians countering Russian propaganda.
 De Chant, Tim. “Putin blocks Russians’ access to Facebook, Twitter, App Stores [Updated].” Ars Technica, 3/4/2022, https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2022/03/putin-reportedly-blocks-russians-access-to-facebook-twitter-app-stores/. Accessed April 13, 2022.
 Kizlova, Kseniya and Norris, Pippa. “What do ordinary Russians really think about the war in Ukraine?” EUROPP: European Politics and Policy, 3/17/2022, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2022/03/17/what-do-ordinary-russians-really-think-about-the-war-in-ukraine/. Accessed April 13, 2022.
 Baturo, Alexander. “What the new ‘Kremlinology’ reveals about Putin’s motives and power.” The Washington Post, 4/1/2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/01/kremlin-putin-weak-power/. Accessed April 13, 2022.
 “Russia drafts 134,500 conscripts but says they won’t go to Ukraine.” Reuters, March 31, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-drafts-134500-conscripts-says-they-wont-go-ukraine-2022-03-31/. April 13, 2022.
 Ribeiro, et al. “How Biased is the Population of Facebook Users? Comparing the Demographics of Facebook users with Census Data to Generate Correction Factors.” arXiv:2005.08065v1. May 16, 2020.
 Leetaru, Kalev. “Does Social Media Actually Reflect Reality?” Forbes, February, 16, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2016/02/16/does-social-media-actually-reflect-reality/?sh=461f668e4e43 Accessed April 13, 2022.