Russia’s virtual: the new reality?

Russia's blogosphere has until recently been largely written off as a politically blunt parallel space. The Facebook mobilisation of 50,000 protestors has challenged such assumptions, writes Julien Nocetti.

On 3-4 December, an unprecedented wave of cyber-attacks hit independent websites on the parliamentary elections days in Russia, including LiveJournal, the most popular blogging platform in the country, and “Karta Narusheniy”, a crowd-sourcing platform reporting election violations. Despite the attacks, the RuNet is full of reports and videos of election irregularities.

A fortnight earlier, on November 20, the RuNet also played a crucial role in circulating videos of the catcalls Putin received at a wrestling tournament in Moscow. The videos went viral, and were viewed almost 3 million times in just one week; many internet viewers left sarcastic comments. That very evening, the Russian state-controlled television masked the audience’s boos in broadcasts of the event. The main newspapers did not cover the event.

Both episodes are a strong signal that political debate in Russia is moving on to the Internet. Traditional media like television, radio and most of the press are tightly government-controlled or affiliated, and do not challenge the current regime. On the other hand, as of December 2011, nearly 60 million Russians use the Internet on a regular basis. In September, Russia overtook Germany as the country with the highest level of unique Internet users in Europe.

Networks and the public space 

In some ways, the Internet has become a full public sphere where citizens can exchange increasingly critical ideas and implement “citizen” projects. During the Egyptian revolution in 2011, people were using blogs and microblogs such as Twitter to form networks, reassuring them that they were not alone in their views. There are certainly signs that this happening in Russia⎯— the collective action groups that sprung up during 2010 summer wildfires were perhaps the first real example of this; organisation ahead of Saturday’s demonstration would be another one. Networks such as these create a common consciousness of public affairs, eventually leading to the creation of a public voice.

'The Russian government has tried to impose its authoritarian style of governance on the horizontal space which is the Internet. This reflects their misunderstanding, not only of the emergence of a networked society, but also of the very nature of the Internet.'

Before Saturday, the “power of networks” in Russia was used mostly at a local level. Blogs were the only way to attract the attention of the authorities and make them act, when usual means do not work due to the total lack of attention of politicians to the population’s daily problems and the level of corruption. To some extent, pragmatic localism better reflects the worries of ordinary people, who place corruption, abuse of privilege and lack of accountability well above authoritarianism on the list of the country’s biggest problems.

Russian authorities are increasingly occupied by the potential for disruption that the Internet embodies.

The Internet has been first of all a factor of differentiation between Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. The “iPhone President” Medvedev has been using the Internet to promote his own modernization agenda; to a certain extent, Medvedev’s enthusiasm for the Internet is a branding exercise. Whereas Putin’s image is closely tied to industry and energy, Medvedev has used technology to distinguish himself and his image from that of his mentor. Indeed, some of the people I have interviewed in the course of my research suggest that the president used the Internet in order to bypass a system of governance in which he has no confidence.  Putin, on the other hand, has insisted on the still strong dichotomy between traditional media, and new media. During the Arab Spring, the association of Web 2.0 with a TV channel like Al Jazeera created the ferment of the popular mobilization. The Prime Minister is keen to avoid such a development.

Chinese-style controls

Beyond the two leaders, the Russian government has tried to impose its authoritarian style of governance on the horizontal space which is the Internet. This reflects their misunderstanding, not only of the emergence of a networked society, but also of the very nature of the Internet. 

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Rashid Nurgaliev was for a while the most prominent government minister to speak in favor of restrictions on the Internet, but just yesterday FSB  chief Nikolai Patrushev echoed his calls, much to the dismay of human rights activists. Likewise, chief prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has also declared that control over social network activity was “necessary in the interest of the protection of civic liberties”. Even Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus Kirill has said that state control over the Internet should be stiffened. 

'There is still a big question mark over the political maturity of the Russian population. While in the course of the last month or so, there has been a small shift to more political use, Russians generally remain profoundly indifferent towards politics⎯which is perpetuated online.'

Authorities have been very concerned about the internet communication tools over which it has no control. Earlier this year, for example, the FSB announced that Skype, Gmail and Hotmail ought to be banned in Russia simply because they were beyond the control of the secret services. The government’s reactivity is also visible on a legal level, with an abundance of tenders from state organs. In April, the government’s spokesman instructed experts to study foreign experience in Internet control. In October, the Ministry of Justice made public a tender for the acquisition of an online monitoring system that would compile reports on the information posted about the Minister, the President and the Prime Minister. Finally, Roskomnadzor, Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision, announced a public tender for developing an Internet monitoring system.

These declarations and initiatives at the highest level of the state would indicate that tougher regulation of web content is already underway. That said, the authorities’ nervousness towards the Internet should possibly be read more as the expression of anxiety and misinterpretation of what the Internet is, rather than a will to establish wholesale online censorship.

The Russian spring?

Many parallels have been made between the Arab Spring revolutions and Russia’s domestic situation at election time. Personally, I would regard enthusiastic arguments about the Internet as a means for driving political change in Russia with some skepticism. The increasing polarization between TV audiences and Internet audiences tempers this idea. Most Russians who follow political reporting and debate online are part of the young urban elite, the politically engaged, and journalists who work for the independent press. On the other side, an offline mass of older, poorer and largely conservative people consume state-controlled TV. The latter segment of the population goes en masse to the ballot box. While there are individuals who have become famous through Internet activism in Russia, this is restricted to a small number, whose real political impact can be questioned. Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner has become a cause célèbre in the West, yet before the election, only 6% of Russians know his name. However, more than 30% of those asked had heard his most famous maxim: United Russia, the party of swindlers and thieves. [data from the Levada Centre]

'It is likely that in the months ahead we will be witnessing more in the way of a counter-influence campaign online by pro-Putin cohorts and the increased use of “extremist” laws to harass critically-minded bloggers.'

There is still a big question mark over the political maturity of the Russian population. In Russia, like in most of the world, the Internet is above all used for entertainment and/or professional purposes. While in the course of the last month or so, there has been a small shift to more political use, Russians generally remain profoundly indifferent towards politics⎯which is perpetuated online. Before the elections, this indifference was cultivated by the authorities, who considered that Internet users inhabited a politically blunt “parallel universe”. Even opposition politician Vladimir Milov talked about an “apolitical Internet”. The authorities prioritized a policy of containment, restricting dissenting opinions to the Internet, first by favoring the development of new digital technologies, then by deploying proactive efforts to steer online conversations.

Anxiety over the elections seems to have triggered a change in approach, and it is certainly likely that in the months ahead we will be witnessing more in the way of a counter-influence campaign online by pro-Putin cohorts (e.g. Nashi), and the increased use of “extremist” laws to harass critically-minded bloggers. How social networks which “gave the floor” to oppositional voices on the day of voting at the parliamentary elections (LiveJournal, VKontakte) will respond to the inevitable increased pressure from FSB will also be of great interest. 

About the author

 

Julien Nocetti is a Research Associate at the French Institute for International Relations, Ifri, Paris. He published “Digital Kremlin: Power and the Internet” in Russie.Nei.Visions, Ifri’s electronic collection dedicated to Russia and the post-Soviet space, in April 2011: http://www.ifri.org/?page=contribution-detail&id=6557&id_provenance=97&lang=uk 

Julien's Twitter feed is @JulienNocetti

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