'Independent news': initiative uses programmatic ads to bypass Russian censors

A team of more than 20 digital marketing experts have created the ads, which lead locals to responsible news outlets.

(Getty Images/Anton Petrus)
(Getty Images/Anton Petrus)

Members of the ad industry from countries including the UK are countering misinformation in Russia by buying digital ads that lead locals to trusted news sources.

A team of more than 20 digital marketing experts from three countries has created the ads, which include politically neutral titles such as “What’s happening in Ukraine?”.

Having launched at the end of February, the ads have so far reached more than three million people in Russia and led 42,000 people to click on the ads as of last week.

Rob Blackie, founder of the voluntary project, which has currently raised more than £30,000 on Crowdfunder, is a digital advertising expert with more than 25 years' experience in the industry. The rest of his team remains anonymous.

Speaking to Campaign, Blackie said they were well versed in all the “weird places” that ads can be bought to bypass Russian censorship, via programmatic advertising and self-service websites that do not have a person checking suitability.

He added: “Everyone's assumption is that there's no way to get independent news into Russia. But our assumption, and so far we appear to be right, is that they won't be very good at censoring stuff in terms of advertising.

“If you have a sense of a newspaper, and you're posting, it's very easy to send the police to beat everyone up and shut down the newspaper. It’s quite hard to do that with advertising because it doesn't appear on a fixed website.”

So far, the target demographics have been biased towards people in larger Russian cities, including Moscow, St Petersburg and Krasnodar, as well as reaching people in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine. 

However, Blackie said the ads had also reached people in the far east of Russia.

He added: “I am hoping the concept gets picked up by someone who scales it to being even bigger. There’s a real opportunity to reach the people of Russia because I think they’re waiting to find out what’s going on.”

Since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Russian news outlets have been heavily censored or are disseminating outright lies and propaganda. 

On 26 February, the country’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, warned that content would be restricted if media used “false information”, or terms such as “invasion”, “attack”, or “act of war”. Journalists who report so-called "fake news" can face 15 years in prison.

So far, US Congress-funded Krym.Realii, Radio Free Europe’s Current Time TV, independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and independent news channel Dozhd have had access blocked or shut down.

On state-controlled Rossiya 1 and Channel 1, Russia’s attack is referred to as a "special [military] operation to defend the people's republics".

Despite the struggle for information, Blackie is reassured by the willingness to help those in need.

He said: “This is a sign that the technology industry in rich countries and in democracies can be a force for good. We often fixate on the bad things and they’re true. 

“But it's also true that we can use them for good and it’s reassuring how many people have contacted me wanting to be involved.”

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