Russia’s crackdown on news media, and specifically sites that present the country’s government in a critical light, has been well documented, but less so the impact that this censorship is having in other areas like education. Now that appears to be shifting.
Brainly, the Polish startup best known as a popular platform for crowdsourcing homework help from other students and trained tutors, says that Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications, information technology and mass media regulator, has blocked Znanija, the company’s local site.
The move comes after Brainly refused to remove content from Znanija describing the Ukraine war earlier this week from the Knowledge Base, Brainly’s big directory of questions and answers that people can search across specific general knowledge, current affairs, or tips on how to solve, for example, a quadratic equation. (It’s the current affairs bit that has riled the Russians.)
“Clearly, we will not comply with this demand,” the company said in a statement today. “Removing such content from our Knowledge Base would be against our mission and violate Brainly’s promise to our users, who rely on the platform to find proven information to accelerate their understanding and learning.”
Brainly said that Znanija — Russian for “knowledge” — says it has 350 million montly active users globally, with 45 million monthly active users across Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It doesn’t break out the number of users in Russia specifically but said that, as one example, a specific page answering the question, “What happened in Ukraine after 2/24/2022?” has had tens of millions of views.
This was, of course, the day that Russia initiated an unprovoked assault on a number of cities in Ukraine, setting off a chain reaction of responses: a mass exodus of people from the country, fleeing to neighboring countries (like Poland, Brainly’s home base), and then further afield; a huge amount of destruction, injury and death in the country itself; and strong condemnation and eventually sanctions against Russia from the international community (along with support to Ukraine to fight for its sovereignty).
The crux of the problem has been that a lot of the typical places that Russians might have gone to get information about the invasion has been bled dry of perspectives that run counter to Putin’s government. What has happened is that ordinary people have instead flocked to less likely platforms both to present those other perspectives, and to look for them.
Brainly saw that shift and freely admits that it started to boost those pages in search results and more general discovery.
“Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we decided to increase the visibility of answers related to this war on our platform, providing enhanced access to uncensored information about the conflict, its historical context, and the ongoing international response,” it said. It notes that it’s not seeking to profit from this: since early March, Brainly has switched off all ads and payments on Znanija.
Now it seems that Russia has caught on to that shift, too.
As with other services that are getting blocked by the national firewall, those who are using VPNs might still be able to access Brainly, both to read these kinds of entries, and also to, of course, get that quadratic equation tip. Long may those loopholes continue.