ОД "Русская версия": Opinion

Inside the struggle to control Russia's digital volunteering sector

The desire for mutual support during a pandemic has led to a new wave of volunteer mobilisation across Russia. However, this mobilisation is being led from the top down – ​​and in the interests of the state. Meanwhile, independent projects are forced to fight for their existence and to resist attacks from the media.

Gregory Asmolov
8 May 2020, 1.13pm
"He who holds the steering wheel guides the team"

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of mobilising citizens to combat the effects of the virus has become one of the leitmotifs in the Russian media's coverage of the crisis. Volunteer activity, both in the capital and the regions, remains a central topic in all news releases (on Channel OneRen-TV, and also on regional channels). Volunteers are often called modern “Timurovites” (after the novel Timur and his Squad from 1940, by Arkady Gaidar, about a “good gang” of Soviet village kids who do good deeds), but the question of exactly who will organise them into a “team”, and how, is by no means the least important.  

The “Portal of Good”

The parallel between today's volunteers and Arkady Gaidar’s heroes can help us analyse volunteer movements, especially when it comes to self-organisation through online technologies. Timur's gang used a steering wheel which sent signals through rope wires. Depending on the number of turns, different team members could be called upon. Similarly, today's digital platforms are “steering wheels” at the centre of a network. Today, the wheel is increasingly in the hands of the authorities. The Russian ecosystem of volunteering and mutual assistance that has arisen around COVID-19 is characterised by a marked predominance of digital platforms with some relation to the state, and by the crowding out of independent projects.

The best example of this is the nationwide campaign to mobilise volunteers, under the hashtag #Myvmeste (Wearetogether) and aiming, according to its organisers, “to support older, less mobile citizens and medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic”. One of the main mobiliation tools is the Myvmeste2020.rf website, which is associated with the Dobroru portal, part of the “Volunteers of Russia” unified information system. This “Portal of Goodness” is supported by Rosmolodezh (Federal Agency for Youth Affairs) and by Rospatriot (Centre for Civic and Patriotic Education of Children and Youth), funded through the Presidential Grants Fund. This portal won the Runet Prize for 2018, a fact which was advertised through central media and online e-government portals. According to Dobro.ru, by the end of April more than 94 thousand volunteers had been registered for #Myvmeste; 266,000 requests for help had been received, 139,000 of which had been fulfilled.  

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The Russian volunteering ecosystem that has arisen around COVID-19 is characterised by a marked predominance of digital platforms with some relation to the state, and by the crowding out of independent projects.

On the one hand, the large-scale mobilization of volunteers in Russia cannot but be a cause for rejoicing. There is no doubt that the #Wealltogether campaign provides real help to real people who need it. On the other hand, the existence of large-scale mobilisation is not necessarily proof of the effectiveness of civil society: in some situations it may even indicate the opposite. How has this mobilisation developed over the past ten years, and what role has the Internet played in resolving crisis situations?

Crisis mobilisation: political risks

Crowdsourcing is a digital practice related to the mobilisation of Internet users’ resources to carry out a range of specific tasks (in this case related to the crisis). One of the first effective cases of crisis-related crowdsourcing was the mobilisation of Internet users during the fires of summer 2010. The Pozar-ru community on LiveJournal and the Help Map crowdsourcing platform became examples of horizontal mobilisation where those providing assistance independently determined the tasks and resources needed. In addition, the mobilisation process itself was transparent, and each user could choose his or her task according to capabilities. The internet was used both to provide assistance to victims and to acquire the resources necessary for fighting fires (for example, fire hoses). Thanks to the work of volunteers, it became possible to monitor the crisis and to create an independent picture of what was happening, which was clearly at odds with the mantra “everything is under control” heard on state media.

Such a phenomenon could not remain outside the political context. The scale and effectiveness of mobilisation demonstrated the inefficiency of the state. In addition, it showed how the crisis-related mobilisation of civil society could be transformed into other, more political forms of activism. For example, a few months after the advent of the Help Map, Alexey Navalny’s first crowdsourcing platform appeared – dedicated to monitoring potholes in the roads. And soon crowdsourcing technologies began to be used to create the “Violations Map”, a joint project of the NGO “Voice” (Golos) and the news website Gazeta.ru to monitor violations in the Russian elections in 2011-2012.

The existence of large-scale mobilisation is not necessarily proof of the effectiveness of civil society: in some situations it may even indicate the opposite

The Russian authorities quickly realised the risks posed by crisis-related mobilisation and information technologies in this context. Attempts to create their own information platforms or to co-opt existing ones were already noticeable in 2010. At the same time, fake technologies began to be applied purporting to show the effectiveness of mobilising activists associated with Kremlin projects. Another means of reducing political risks was through attempts to create opportunities for cooperation between non-systemic volunteers and government agencies. However, antagonism and mistrust between volunteers and the state made this impossible. Each of the parties accused the others of lack of professionalism, inefficiency and a desire to use the crisis for self-promotion. These mirror discourses made cooperation almost impossible. A similar situation was repeated two years later during the floods in Krymsk, although there successful cooperation between state and non-systemic volunteers was also more apparent.

Control, not collaboration

It seems that the cooperation model has not been effective enough to minimise the political risks associated with independent crisis mobilisation. Since 2012, the Russian authorities have made repeated efforts to take control of the resources of volunteers at the legislative level. However, a law on volunteers involving strict regulation of the activities of those wanting to participate in the provision of assistance met with serious resistance from the third sector. The law “On Charity and Volunteering ” which was adopted after several years of discussion in 2018 did not include harsh measures such as the introduction of a mandatory certificate for volunteers.

At the same time, Russian government agencies began to adapt more actively to the new information environment and to develop new forms of political innovation. Along with this, there was growing understanding that effective control of volunteer resources – especially during crises – requires, first of all, not a legislative framework, but new types of tools including that same “digital steering wheel”. One of the first such platforms was the Dobrovoletz.rf site (Dobrovoletz means “volunteer” in Russian). Initially this site was planned as a platform allowing different organisations to combine their efforts during an emergency. However, the development of the site passed into the hands of Rossoyuzspas, the Russian rescue organisation affiliated with the Ministry of Emergencies, which did not hide the fact that its goal was to provide technical support for the law on volunteers being discussed at that time and to create a digital certificate for volunteers. Now, the Dobrovoletz.rf domain actually leads directly to the Dobro.ru portal.

Effective control of volunteer resources does not require a legislative framework but new types of tools, including that same “digital steering wheel”

Analysing the creation of the Dobrovoletz.rf site allows us to identify the first stage of the Russian authorities’ struggle to control crisis mobilisation resources. The architecture of the site was fundamentally different from that of independent crowdsourcing platforms. Volunteers had no opportunity to choose between activities and could not see the full range of tasks around the crisis, and managing the mobilisation of those who registered was exclusively in the hands of the platform’s administrator. The classification of mobilisation categories was also determined not by the volunteers themselves, but by the administrator (more about the role of resource classification in the framework of crisis mobilisation can be read here).

This analysis allows us to identify a new type of political innovation, the essence of which is an attempt to integrate the horizontal mobilisation of the volunteer community into Russia's vertical power structures. The lack of transparency around the platform made it possible both to create a semblance of mobilisation and to neutralise independent mobilisation. Even if mobilisation takes place, its structure is completely determined by the platform administrators. So the concept of “vertical crowdsourcing” appeared – a digital practice whose purpose is not to mobilise human resources, but primarily to take control of them.

The struggle for the steering wheel

To understand the essence of vertical crowdsourcing a little better, it is worth mentioning two concepts introduced by researchers into the political aspects of information technology. The first is the separation between collective and connective actions proposed by Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. According to their concept, while traditional collective actions are made possible thanks to the support of some organisations, connective actions rely solely on digital platforms and do not require coordination by institutional structures. The mobilisation of Internet users through LiveJournal groups and crowdsourcing maps was an example precisely of connective action, where people were united by common mobilisation tools, rather than of organisational affiliation.

The second concept distinguishes between thick (substantial) and thin (superficial) forms of civic participation, as proposed by Ethan Zuckerman. In the case of horizontal crisis mobilisation – in the form of connective action – users could choose how to participate in the fight against the crisis. This, in turn, led to “thicker” forms of mobilisation such as direct participation in extinguishing fires. The goal of vertical crowdsourcing is not only to “assign” people to specific organisations (to return volunteering to the mainstream of collective action), but also to ensure that they are given only “thin” tasks within narrow parameters - thereby keeping them away from essential aspects of the crisis.  

The essence of this political innovation is to integrate the horizontal mobilisation of the volunteer community into Russia's vertical power structures

During the 2010 fires, crowdsourcing platforms and social media groups became the main digital “wheels” and were run by the volunteers themselves. The state, lagging behind in the area of ​​crisis mobilisation, has since embarked on the development of new technologies. These were intended to return control of volunteer resources to the state and to minimise the political risks associated with volunteering. Ten years later, the coronavirus crisis is the first serious and large-scale test of vertical mobilisation and the crowding out of horizontal platforms.

Systemic and non-systemic platforms in the coronavirus era

The architecture of the volunteering information system Dobro.ru corresponds to the basic principles of "vertical crowdsourcing". A person who wants to become a volunteer is registered, fills out a questionnaire and waits to be called upon to fight the crisis. Some volunteers say that after registration they had to wait a few days until they received an answer, and they complain about the minimal number of tasks. All those registered go through the training process, after which they receive a “certificate, badge and vest”. Evidence from a number of sources suggests that volunteer curators are associated with the Russian ruling party United Russia. The coordination of those who have registered and been approved for certification is carried out through closed district chats, in which curators share existing applications for help. After quarantine was introduced, an additional element of the control of volunteers was that only those who had registered through the official portal could get volunteer passes to move around.   

This kind of vertical crowdsourcing happens not only in Russia. For example, in the UK, the recruitment of volunteers for the NHS (National Health Service) took place through a portal that also required registration. Many of those who registered said that for a long time they did not receive any response. As a result, at the end of March, after more than 750 thousand people had shown a desire to become volunteers, the portal froze acceptance of applications.

However, it is important to consider such initiatives in the context of a wider ecosystem for mobilising volunteer resources. In the UK, in addition to the NHS volunteer portal, several thousand mutual-aid groups for people living on the same block or street have appeared on Facebook and WhatsApp. In these hyperlocal groups, neighbours directly exchange information and coordinate assistance to those who need it, without any requirement for registration. Such groups are an example of connective action, with anyone able to choose a task according to their own strengths. A special online resource, Covidmutualaid.org, helps everyone to find their nearest hyperlocal group through a special map. As pointed out by Dr Simon Kaye from King’s College London “these mutual aid groups emerged more quickly and remain a more advanced response than any of the centrally coordinated volunteer organisation efforts that have been started in parallel.”

The coronavirus crisis is the first serious and large-scale test of vertical mobilisation, as well as of the potential crowding out of horizontal platforms

In Russia, individual hyperlocal groups have also arisen on the basis of instant messengers. An initiative attempting to support the development of horizontal neighbourhood mutual-aid groups is COVIDarity. This project was launched in mid-March by a former employee of the Memorial Centre in St. Petersburg, Alexandra Krylenkova. Her motivation echoes the arguments heard among the volunteers ten years ago during the fires. “In a situation where the state does not make decisions [to act against the crisis – G.A.] or makes the usual ones, civil society should act”, Krylenkova wrote on her Facebook page. The goal of the project is to form and to organise information about local mutual-aid communities. In addition to the website, a COVIDarity group chat was created on Telegram, as well as chat bots on Telegram and Vkontakte, designed to give users information about whether there is a local mutual-aid chat in their building and to help them create such a chat if there is not one in their area. Unlike the British project, which has become an aggregator of information about existing groups, COVIDarity seeks to inspire the creation of groups in the field. “Most of the participants in COVIDarity are not directly included on the platforms of neighbourhood chats, but, having met through the project, they organise a lot of useful help. Different things appear in different cities, including, thanks to us, our texts and consultations, but this is not necessarily directly related to our database“, said Alexandra Krylenkova in an interview with oDR .

Another non-governmental initiative with a high degree of transparency is the Memedic.ru project. Its goal is to offer opportunities for medical volunteering and to help hospitals. The main page of the project has a list of hospitals that need volunteers and shifts that one can sign up for. In an interview with the ”Such Matters” portal, the organisers explained the need for the project by saying that the official website for mobilising volunteers for the medical field, owned by the “Medical Volunteers” organisation and recognised by the Ministry of Health, cannot satisfy the requests of all medical institutions: “Our goal is to unite all the medical volunteers in the capital, but this is difficult to do because we are small and unknown to anyone. The health department ignored our proposal. At the same time, Medical Volunteers is a large organisation, but completely bureaucratised. They simply do not have time to respond promptly to requests emerging from hospitals.”

asmolov 2.jpg
"You'll definitely get help!" reads this cartoon
Facebook. Художник: Ника Водвуд.

Yegor Zhukov’s team also launched an independent project, #mutualhelp, through the Telegram bot @mutualhelp, which allows people either to ask for help or to become volunteers. In terms of its structure, this project is vertical, since the role of the chatbot is to attract volunteers to join the team or to collect donations, while requests for help are only available to project administrators. 

Various NGOs also play a role in mobilising volunteers through horizontal digital platforms, which, according to Novaya Gazeta, “in the era of the coronavirus is becoming more effective than the Ministry of Emergencies”. NGOs often enjoy a high level of trust, have their own target audience of potential volunteers, and can focus on those areas in which they have the greatest expertise. In addition, they can support horizontal networking initiatives. For instance, Perm, a coalition of NGOs, launched a neighbourhood mutual-aid action. In addition to the Sosediperm website, mutual-aid groups were also created on Vkontakte and on Telegram messenger. In these groups one can observe an open dialogue about requests and the opportunity for everyone to participate in helping.

Mobilisation and the media

The decision that unregistered volunteers would not be allowed access to move freely around Moscow was a blow to independent volunteer projects and local self-organisation. Traditional media also contributed to limiting the role of independent projects. 

The media always play a crucial role in attracting volunteers. No matter how effective the mobilisation tools are, these cannot work unless a wide audience learns about them. However, the media can also be a tool for demobilisation. While government projects received massive support from most media outlets, a number of informal mutual-aid projects became the subject of information attacks designed to challenge the legitimacy of independent mobilisation tools. For example, an article in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta published under the heading “COVIDarity turned out to be an opposition project”, pointed out the project’s connection with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s “Open Russia” and emphasised that mutual-aid projects could help the opposition gain political capital. In a number of pro-government online media, materials appeared headlined  “Zhukov urges volunteers to violate the quarantine regime for the sake of donations and panic in society”  and “Zhukov, in the guise of delivering food during quarantine, is preparing clashes with the police”. The article noted the political nature of the volunteer projects, and also suggested that financial fraud might be hidden behind a screen of mutual aid.

A number of informal mutual-aid projects have become the subject of media attacks

In addition to covering existing projects, a number of media outlets launched their own tools for mobilising volunteers. For example, Novaya Gazeta created the Corona-Info telegram bot (@corona_tgbot), developed together with the CoronaHack hacktivist team and acting as an aggregator and navigator for existing volunteer initiatives. This project does support the ecosystem that has emerged from various mobilisation tools.

The Russia Today (RT) TV channel went the other way. It launched in the first half of April, as part of the RT charity project “We Will Continue to Act”, a Mutual Aid Map. The map allows anyone to register themselves as a volunteer by indicating their place of residence or to post a request for help. The RT project lies outside the "vertical" logic typical of projects affiliated with the state. It allows each user to see requests and to make a decision about participating in the provision of assistance, that is, it follows the principles of horizontal architecture. At the same time, there are a number of restrictions in the service rules, for example, only citizens of the Russian Federation can become volunteers. It can be assumed that the goal of the project, created by a mass-media outlet, is not only to provide assistance, but also to find stories to cover. The creation of pro-government platforms with supposedly horizontal structures can also be a method of controlling and crowding out independent projects. But it is still difficult to judge whether the RT’s “Mutual Aid Map” has become an effective tool for horizontal mobilisation or is only a simulation of this. According to the Map, on April 23 there were 1,732 volunteers and 22 applications for assistance.

A fight in three dimensions

The crisis mobilisation of civil society is not only about mutual aid. Another area remains the creation of tools necessary to combat the crisis. This mobilisation field is practically untouched by government initiatives. The most striking example of mobilisation in this area is the emergence of a community of “makers”. The concept of “makers” was proposed eight years ago by American visionary and entrepreneur Chris Anderson in his book Makers. According to Anderson, the advent of 3-D printers would lead to the democratisation of production and a new industrial revolution. The revolution did not happen, but the so-called “hackerspaces” – workshops where enthusiasts create and “print out” new types of objects – appeared worldwide. Due to this phenomenon, digital mobilisation may be concerned not only with mutual aid, but also with the production of “crisis-related critical items”. In the case of a pandemic, we are talking about various personal protective equipment, as well as items of medical equipment (which have become the new “fire hoses”). 

The mobilisation of “makers” has become a global phenomenon and Russia is no exception

The mobilisation of “makers” has become a global phenomenon and Russia is no exception. Dozens of regional groups of makers appeared on Telegram, where activists discuss the production process, exchange experiences and coordinate the transfer of the items they have created to medical institutions. For example, the Makers vs. COVID channel has nearly two and a half thousand members. Its goal is “to produce and donate plastic products to medical workers upon request”. In addition, a special portal was created for the community of makers (more information about mobilising the community of makers can be found here).

Another group that has mobilised to create tools to deal with the crisis is software developers. For instance, the “Greenhouse of Social Technologies” project has created a virtual platform for IT volunteers against COVID -19. Its goal is to help grassroots initiatives and non-profit projects fighting against the crisis with programming and technical development.

Mobilisation of surveillance

It would be wrong to reduce the understanding of civil mobilisation in the coronavirus situation to an analysis of Russian mobilisation technologies. An equally important factor determining the nature of crisis mobilisation is the structure of trust both within society and between society and the state. Horizontal mobilisation cannot be effective and large-scale if people – and especially neighbours – do not trust each other. Therefore, vertical crisis mobilisation is especially effective in a crisis of horizontal trust.

In such a situation, instead of mutual aid, mobilisation may take the form of digital vigilantism (informal persecution of persons accused of real or imaginary misconduct – ed.). In the eyes of the vigilantes, neighbours are not a subject of mutual aid, but an object of observation and a potential threat. In an interview with the Russia-1 TV channel, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said that Muscovites are reacting to their neighbours who violate the regime of self-isolation even more toughly than the police themselves. In place of the “Help Maps” we see a kind of “Tracking & Surveillance Maps”. For example, this kind of map, with addresses where a virus carrier has been discovered, was created by the Mash project. Journalists from Medusa spoke in detail about the persecution of the sick and their relatives by neighbours, often through local city forums, especially on the VKontakte social network.

In an epidemic, unlike in natural disasters where people are not themselves carriers of potential danger, the conflict between horizontal mutual assistance and horizontal vigilantism, and therefore between relating to others as subjects or as objects, is most acute. And here comfortable conditions are created for the authorities to switch the blame for what is happening from the inefficiency of the state to the irresponsibility of society.

In place of the “Help Maps” we now see “Tracking Maps”

According to the Levada Center survey, in response to the question “In an epidemic situation, what will happen to relations between people in our country?”, half of respondents chose the answer: “People will only care more about themselves and their loved ones”. At the same time, as noted by sociologist Alexei Levinson, only 17 percent supported the answer: “People will support each other more”. Levinson also draws attention to the fact that among young respondents there were even fewer who believed in the growth of mutual aid (12 percent). According to the sociologist, such statistics can be explained by the fact that, during a pandemic, social contacts are not only a potential response to the crisis, but above all a form of its spread. Moreover, according to a survey published by the Knife website, 40 percent of respondents relied only on themselves, 37 percent relied on people’s collective responsibility, and only nine percent believed that you can count on help from the state. These polls show a kind of vacuum of trust where people trust neither their neighbours nor the state.

One way or another, the predominance of vertical mobilisation is associated not only with the success of technological platforms, but also with the weakening of the social horizontal. This can be explained both by the natural decline of sociality in the context of the epidemic, and by the support of the authorities for vigilantist forms of relations. However, should civil society hide in a pandemic situation, leaving space only to public services, including for the mobilisation of citizens? It is worth recalling examples of other countries, including the UK, where vertical and horizontal models of civil mobilisation peacefully coexist and complement each other.

Of course, vertical mobilisation can itself bring significant results, as we see in the case of state mechanisms for recruiting volunteers in Russia. However, the effectiveness of such a model is limited. It is the integration of vertical and horizontal models, implying a dialogue between the state and civil society, rather than an attempt by the first to take the latter under control, that can offer the most effective model for mobilising human resources in a crisis situation.

The successful creation of the digital vertical that we see today in Russia is fraught with serious risks. The monopoly of a single “steering wheel” may lead not only to a decline in the effectiveness of crisis-related mobilisation, but also to a weakening of the stability and social immunity of society during future crises. However, avoiding such a monopoly is hardly possible when independent forms of mobilisation are perceived not as an additional resource, but as a political threat.

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