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Investigative Stories from Ukraine: Russia's state censor to track Putin memes with help of AI

by Anna Myroniuk and Alexander Khrebet February 14, 2023 8:01 PM 5 min read
Employees of Roskomnadzor, Russia's federal agency responsible for censoring, are tasked with tracking memes and criticism of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. (Courtesy of iStories/Speliy Arbuz)
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Top investigative stories

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Media: Russia's state censor to track Putin memes with the help of AI

Russia's federal agency responsible for censoring, Roskomnadzor, is planning to use AI to track online posts, comments and memes critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a report by Russian investigative outlet iStories.

The information comes from #RussianCensorFiles, a leak of more than 2 million documents of Roskomnadzor, obtained by iStories, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and other partners.

The leak reveals that Roskomnadzor is tasked with being Putin's personal watchdog, dedicated to tracking down anyone criticizing the president online. Information from the agency is then passed to Putin's administration and Russian law enforcement bodies.

Over 1,000 employees within Roskomnadzor specialize in tracking content, ranging from speculations about Putin's health to memes that mock the Russian leader, according to the report.

However, even this number of staffers appears to be not enough to monitor public criticism of Putin on the Internet. According to iStories, Roskomnadzor began training neural networks to recognize such content.

Roskomnadzor was banning criticism of Putin based on hundreds of keywords, among them all possible curse words, and key markers such as “major corrupt,” “thief,” and “palace.”

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Roskomnadzor has also blocked 125,000 pieces of content about Russia's war against Ukraine and adjacent topics as of January, according to the report.

This investigation came out in Russian as a series.This story shows what Russian investigative journalists and opinion leaders Roskomnadzor surveilled. This story looks into Roskomnadzor’s monitoring of critical content about Putin. This one focuses on the agency’s ambitions to use AI for tracking criticism on the internet more efficiently.

RFE/RL identifies Russian commanders, FSB supervisors responsible for tortures in Kharkiv Oblast

Schemes, an investigative project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has identified Russian soldiers who had allegedly tortured civilians in the city of Balakliia in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast under the supervision of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

According to Schemes, when retreating from Kharkiv Oblast during Ukraine’s September counteroffensive, Russian troops left behind a USB flash drive that helped journalists identify some of them.

According to RFE/RL, the flash drive belonged to Nikolay Klimanov, deputy commander of Russia’s 11th Army Corps, a unit allegedly committing atrocities in Balakliia.

He reportedly identified locals with “negative attitudes” toward the Russian troops in Balakliia and neighboring Savyntsi in Kharkiv Oblast.

For that, he received the Order of Courage, a Russian award for courage and heroism in the military.

After Ukrainian troops liberated Balakliia, they found two torture chambers.

One was located at the premises of a police station, another one was set up in a printing house.

Detainees “were kept in terrible conditions, they were abused and tortured,” according to Ihor Klymenko, then-chief of the National Police.

Balakliia residents told RFE/RL that FSB operatives had been present when Russian troops tortured locals.

Among the leadership of the Russian 11th Army Corps, journalists identified commander Major General Andrey Ruzinsky. Since 2018, Ukraine’s military intelligence has suspected him of committing war crimes in Donbas.

In the summer of 2022, Ivan Popov succeeded Ruzinsky as the new commander of the unit, according to the report.

Find the full story in Ukrainian here.

Bihus.Info identifies Russian riot police officers deployed to then-occupied Kherson

Russia had deployed servicemen of the Zveroboy unit of OMON, a Sochi-based special riot police unit, to suppress civilians and maintain control over the occupied Kherson, according to Bihus.Info.

Journalists were able to identify some members of the unit thanks to the leaked Telegram chats of Russian lieutenant colonel Nikolay Tissen from September to December of 2022.

Tissen sent his friends and family members multiple photos and videos from Kherson. One video features his comrades, who journalists identified as Aleksandr Kislov-Kovalskiy, Boris Snitko, and Ivan Mozgov.

Tissen’s unit was sent to Kherson in September 2022, which was Tissen’s second deployment to Ukraine.

Among the unit’s tasks was to suppress criticism of Russia among locals and to help hold the so-called “referendum” that Russia staged in an attempt to justify the invasion of Kherson.

Watch the full story in the Ukrainian language here.

Slidstvo.Info identifies collaborators helping Russian troops abduct orphans from Kherson

Ukrainian investigative outlet Slidstvo.Info identified the collaborators who assisted Russian soldiers in abducting and deporting Ukrainian orphans from the children’s hospital in the southern city of Kherson.

Russian troops have abducted almost 14,000 Ukrainian children from the occupied territories, Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s presidential advisor for children’s rights and rehabilitation, said on Jan. 18. Only 127 of them have been returned to Ukraine.

Russian troops abducted five orphaned children, including three infants from the Kherson hospital, the journalists reported.

Viktor Burdovitsyn, the acting chief medic of the hospital, allegedly helped Russian troops to take the children away, according to the report.

Burdovitsyn also allegedly granted Russian troops access to the medical records and personal data of local Ukrainian police officers. After that, Russian soldiers threatened the police officers with detention and torture, according to the report.

When Russian troops occupied Kherson in the early days of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Burdovitsyn appeared on Russian television “thanking Russian troops for the help.”

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General's Office opened a treason probe into Burdovitsyn.

Find the full story with English subtitles here.

Impact

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Corruption case against MP sent to court following journalist investigation

An illicit enrichment case involving Artur Herasymov, a lawmaker with ex-President Petro Poroshenko's European Solidarity party, was sent to court on Feb. 8.

Herasymov was charged with reporting false information in his 2020 online asset declaration, according to the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO). He allegedly failed to declare almost Hr 8 million ($218,000) in assets.

The statement by SAPO doesn’t include the lawmaker’s name. However, the case description fits Herasymov’s previous encounters with law enforcement.

The NABU has been investigating Herasymov since April 2021, after journalists from Schemes, an investigative project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, revealed that the lawmaker has a house in Spain, which he never mentioned in his asset declaration.

If found guilty, Herasymov could be facing either a fine of up to Hr 85,000 ($2,300) or imprisonment for up to two years, as well as a ban on holding certain public offices for three years.

Kyiv judge charged with illicit enrichment years after journalists found undeclared assets

Antonina Martyniuk, a former judge of the Northern Economic Court of Appeal, was charged with illicit enrichment for providing false information in her 2020 asset declaration.

According to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), Martyniuk failed to declare two apartments and a garage in Prague and Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic. She also allegedly omitted to mention around $250,000 in profit from selling real estate.

Law enforcement does not refer to Martyniuk by name in their announcement, but the Anti-Corruption Action Center suggests that she fits the description.

The total sum of Martyniuk’s undeclared assets amounts to almost Hr 14 million ($540,000).

A 2016 journalist investigation by Bihus.Info found that Martyniuk’s assets didn’t correlate with her official salary – just Hr 252,000 in 2015.

In 2021, the Supreme Council of Justice fired Martyniuk.

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