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April 6, 2022, 10 a.m.
Audience & Social

Russian influencers scramble to maintain their followers — and livelihoods

Increasingly isolated, creators are moving to Russian platform alternatives like VK, Yandex Zen, and RuTube.

On March 7, the Moscow-based creator Greg Mustreader posted a video from a hotel room in Istanbul, Turkey, on YouTube. In the 12-minute clip, he explained to his 200,000-strong, mostly Russian subscriber base that he had fled Russia for fear of political retaliation. Days earlier, Russia’s Parliament had passed a new law punishing anyone who spread “false” information about the Russian military with up to 15 years in prison.

Greg, who requested to be referred to by his first name for his security, typically posted about literature, philosophy, and art before he started denouncing the war. He said the last month had upended his life. “The shock connected with the events of the war was more significant than the realization that I will have financial losses,” Greg said. “Of course, once I started thinking about the repercussions for my projects, the realization dawned that, yeah, I am going to be in some trouble.”

As waves of wartime sanctions by foreign governments and private companies hit Russia, the country’s creator economy is in flux. The state ban on both Instagram and Facebook, Google’s ban on most YouTube monetization in the country, and restrictions on the ability of Russian users to upload videos to TikTok have instigated a mass platform migration among Russian creators and audiences. To salvage their online followings, and incomes, some creators have started moving their audiences to new platforms.

Some creators, like Greg, have left Russia and pivoted their content to target international viewers. Greg said that he previously spent close to 90% of his time on his Russian-language channels but has dedicated most of energy in the last few weeks to his English-language accounts. He launched an English-language TikTok account that amassed 100,000 followers after he started posting about the war earlier this month. “Many creators that I know are desperately trying to create an English-language [account] or at least have an English-language mirror of their [account],” he said.

Meanwhile, many creators are moving to alternative Russian-grown platforms like Yandex Zen, RuTube, and VKontakte (VK) — all part of a constellation of platforms that offer a government-approved alternative to services like Facebook, YouTube, and even Netflix. Others are moving to Telegram, a messaging service with an established reputation in Russia as a relative safe haven from government censors.

The mood in the industry has been “shock and awe,” according to Boris Omelnitskiy, the former president of the Russian chapter of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a global trade association that has helped set standards for influencer marketing. “Western advertisers and platforms, payment systems, infrastructure players, backbone telecom operators are all leaving Russia at the same time.” The IAB cut ties with the country shortly after the war began.

Data confirms that Russian creators are scrambling to rebuild their followings on Russian-owned social media. In a March survey of 500 Russian content creators by marketing agency Twiga, 69% of creators interviewed, ranging from micro-influencers to those with millions of followers, said they plan to increase their presence on domestic platforms. Several creators who spoke with us said they were wary of this shift, which poses new threats of censorship, limited monetization, and the prospect of losing much of their audience in the transition.

Russian users are also on the move. An analysis of more than 3.3 billion social media messages by data analysis firm Brand Analytics from February 1 to March 10 showed that users in the country have already migrated to domestic social media in large numbers, particularly to VK, often labeled the Russian version of Facebook. On March 14, VK announced it set a new record for daily users, reaching more than 50 million, an increase of almost 9% since January.

“Today, everyone is adapting to the new reality,” said Yulia Pohlmann, co-founder of marketing agency Market Entry Atelier. “It is still very early to make a prognosis of how the social media landscape will look in Russia. But everyone is launching or unfreezing their accounts on VK, Telegram, Yandex Zen, and others.”

Alexey Markov, a YouTuber located in the Moscow suburbs who posts personal finance and economics-related content under the name Hoolinomics, is one of the many creators attempting to migrate his 200,000-plus YouTube followers to platforms less liable to be shut down. Reports indicate that Russia’s federal media regulator, Roskomnadzor, is pursuing a full ban of the site.

Markov’s early attempt to grow a following on Yandex Zen, a personalized reader platform launched in 2015 that resembles Flipboard but allows individual authors to post, has been slow. He has roughly only 1,000 subscribers there. Instead, he’s focusing on Telegram, which has more appeal to his international followers. Markov now has 67,000 followers on his main Telegram channel, where he posts his takes on crop prices, trade surpluses, and exchange rates at least once a day. In March, the number of active authors on Telegram increased 23% and, in Russia, surpassed WhatsApp by monthly web traffic.

For Markov, a creator who relied on long-form video formats and YouTube’s livestreaming features to build his career, the shift to Telegram has already been disruptive. So he continues to update his YouTube channel, where he invites subscribers to join him on wine-and-chess-night livestreams, in which he laments the state of the Russian economy. Markov said he wanted to convey a sense of stability to his followers on YouTube, despite reports that a blanket ban on the platform could be passed any day. Losing YouTube, Markov said, would be a significant blow.

“YouTube is not only for Russians, it’s for Russian-speaking followers,” he said. About 35% of Markov’s viewers come from former Soviet Union states, such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. “I cannot move them to Yandex Zen or RuTube or other platforms because they just don’t want to be there.”

“We are used to Instagram’s technology, TikTok’s organic reach, and large-scale monetization on YouTube,” said Olga Berek, the president of the National Association of Bloggers in Russia. As a platform developed first and foremost as a messenger service, Telegram offers a vastly different user experience, ideal for building small but active communities. Currently, though, users rarely subscribe to more than 25 channels because of notification overload, she added. “Telegram copes with the load, but some measurements show that well-known bloggers can only transfer a small proportion of their subscribers to Telegram, less than 10%,” said Omelnitskiy, the former IAB Russia president.

Meanwhile, Russian homegrown platforms are trying to entice creators to join. Two weeks ago, VK, which now has 97 million monthly users, announced its largest support program for content creators yet and suspended fees for monetization tools for a month. Yandex Zen launched educational courses on how to grow a community on its platform. On March 28, Russian entrepreneurs opened up Rossgram, a clone of Instagram, for creator registration.

Some creators, however, have chosen not to migrate to Russian platforms like VK because of its close ties to the government. “You can’t be safe. And you can’t say what you want,” said Karolina K, a Belarusian lifestyle and travel creator who has nearly 400,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Karolina, who asked to be referred to by her first name for her security, has a majority Russian following on Instagram and YouTube. She was traveling in Turkey when she heard the news of the invasion and decided not to return to her home in St. Petersburg. While she previously used VK to keep in touch with friends and family and to promote her YouTube content, she said the platform has grown increasingly out of fashion and tends to skew to older audiences. But it’s VK’s reputation as a platform rife with state and self-censorship that cemented her decision not to return. “Of course people go to VK, but for me, I don’t see the future there.”

Creators like Karolina are contending with the growing politicization of influencers. Last week, the Russian Investigative Committee targeted socialite and Instagram lifestyle influencer Veronika Belotserkovskaya, under its new censorship law, for her posts denouncing the Russian invasion. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Russian influencer networks and supporters of the Putin government are being mobilized to spread disinformation on the war. One Ukrainian blogger has started a website called They Love War, with a running list of Russian-speaking influencers who have been silent on the war or have allegedly posted state propaganda.

Those who do take up state-backed platforms may still face some technical limitations. For YouTubers like Karolina and Markov, the most natural alternative to reaching audiences inside Russia would be RuTube, which is owned by Russia’s largest media conglomerate Gazprom-Media. An investigation from outlets IStories and Agentstvo in February revealed Russian authorities have been investing heavily for over a year in reviving RuTube to rival YouTube.

Three creators told us that RuTube is still plagued by a shoddy user experience, lack of monetization programs, and underdeveloped recommendation algorithms. Karolina recounted how it took a fellow creator 10 tries to upload a video to the platform recently.

“It’s awful. I’m sure that many of my colleagues would rather shoot themselves in the leg than upload a video to RuTube because it looks very painful,” said Greg, who has been discussing the program in a Telegram group of fellow Russian YouTubers. But as the number of platforms available continues to shrink and their income streams remain frozen, many creators still in Russia are left with little choice but to onboard to state-backed social media. “I think some of us are saying, Well, if we have to do it, we have to do it.”

Andrew Deck is a reporter at Rest of World. Masha Borak is a journalist covering the intersection of technology with politics, business, and society. This piece was originally published by Rest of World, a nonprofit newsroom covering global technology, and is being republished with permission.

Cover illustration by Glenn Harvey is being used with permission from Rest of World.

POSTED     April 6, 2022, 10 a.m.
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