Foreigners quickly noticed the new closer relationship with the government. “To date, no other social network in Russia has cooperated so comprehensively and unquestionably,” said a 2017 report by the digital rights group Article 19. Under Rogozov’s leadership, reports that VK users also intensified they were being arrested for posts or memes they shared on the net. platform. Until 2021, the majority of VK users punished by Russian anti-extremism laws were targeted for sharing xenophobic publications, says Maria Kravchenko, head of the anti-extremism board of the Russian NGO SOVA. But activists were also affected. In 2015, Darya Polyudova, 26, was sentenced to two years in prison for three VK positions. One said, “There is no war in Ukraine, but a revolution in Russia!”
In response to the arrests, VK introduced privacy changes in 2018, hiding details about which accounts had shared posts and allowing users to make their profiles private. An employee working at VK at the time said these changes were introduced partly to protect the audience, but partly to protect VK’s reputation. At the same time, VK became more compatible with the government, with American services such as Instagram and WhatsApp becoming more popular in Russia. The developers working at VK at the time described the feeling that they were constantly being updated. “Every time Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp or anyone else invented some new feature, we tried to replicate it,” says Alexey Storozhev, who was an iOS developer between 2014 and 2018.
But the damage to reputation caused by the arrests was nothing compared to what was about to happen in Ukraine. In May 2017, the Ukrainian government banned VK as well as other online services such as the online network Odnoklassniki for “carrying out news attacks and propaganda against Ukraine.” Overnight, VK lost about 14 million users, Rogozov says. “I think it affected us a lot more than all the regulations that later took place in Russia.”
By the end of 2021, VK had merged with Mail.ru, which changed its name to VK Group, and the company was crunching under pressure to grow fast enough to compete with US alternatives. VK had been overtaken by WhatsApp in user number charts by the end of 2021, according to Statista. Instagram was not far behind. In the months leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, the company again “fought”, according to Rogozov, and was looking for investors. A former employee who knew the financial position of the company said that what happened next was inevitable. “You have to choose investors to work with, and not so many of them can really invest that kind of resource,” they said. “The bigger you are, the more connected you are to the government. That’s how business works in Russia.”
“In retrospect, [Kiriyenko’s appointment] It was probably a preparation for war, “said Enikolopov. pro-Russian forces intervened in Crimea, pro-Kremlin oligarch Usmanov took control of VK Two months after Kiriyenko took office, Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, both of which also occurred because The company was in financial trouble, and in the week after Durov was ousted in 2014, Sony, Universal and Warner filed separate lawsuits against VK for pirated music.Before Gazprom took control of the platform in 2021, experts told WIRED that the company was once again struggling to compete with U.S. competitors and was looking for investors.
A former employee compared the fate of VK to the (scientifically dubious) fable of the boiling frog: if a frog is dropped into boiling water, it will jump, but if you put it in slowly boiling water, the frog will not he realizes. until it’s too late. “I think the Russian people and everyone connected to the internet are like this frog in normal water,” he says. “It started with a law to save our children from offensive information, and now people in Russia are in a situation where they can write the word ‘war’ on VK and spend 15 years in prison.”