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Social Media and Russian Civil Society

One of the reasons that Vladimir Putin has managed to secure such a strong following in Russia has been the state’s control of most television news. Under Putin, TV news is, in the words of former Moscow correspondent David Remnick, “exquisitely monitored and unwatchably bland.” The Russian state directly or indirectly controls all three of Russia’s national channels. Eighty-five percent of Russians use TV as their primary news source, yet only 17 percent believe TV provides a complete and objective picture of the world, and 63 percent believe it is censored by the government. The most popular newspapers also tow the Kremlin’s line.

However, unlike places such as China or Iran, the Russian government does not censor the Internet (though it has threatened to, and doubtlessly monitors it for dissent). The result is that online dissidence thrives. Despite Vladimir Putin’s dismissing the Internet as “50 percent pornography,” social media has become the cement of Russia’s budding civil society. RuNet, the name for the Russian-language domain of the Internet, is the primary source for diverse, well-informed, accurate news. It is also highly political and interactive, often inspiring public activism and dissent, and serving as a forum for political organization.

As many as 60 million Russians (out of a population of 140 million) have Internet access in their homes (more than any other country in Europe except Germany), and this is expanding at 10,000 people per day. They come from diverse backgrounds, with almost one-third residing in towns and villages, and pay as little as $10 – $30 per month for their Internet connection.

More people use social networking sites in Russia (43 percent of the population) than in France, Germany, or Japan. Russians also spend more time on social networks than any other nationality. This is perhaps due to the cold climate and poor infrastructure, which fosters isolation, but also because Russians have traditionally relied upon informal information networks, due to the traditional bias of “official information.” Social media is used as the modern-day samizdat.

The Voice of America looks at social media and dissent in Russia

In addition to the popularity of social networking sites such as VKontakte (30 million users), Odnoklassniki (20 million users), and Facebook (5 million users), many Russians love to blog. LiveJournal, the most popular blogging site in the country, has about five million Russian users. What differentiates Russian blogs from western ones, is that they are much more political.

Other forms of social media, such as YouTube, also tend to have a much more political slant in Russia than in the West. As analyst Vadim Nikitin says, “In the West, YouTube is a place for cat videos. In Russia, YouTube is a place where you see videos about police corruption and traffic abuses.”

Social Media Used for Political Organization

The recent protests in Russia in response to electoral fraud were by and large organized online, mostly through social networking sites. Tens of thousands of people signed up to the pages before protests were held. Twitter was used during protests to provide people with up-to-the-minute news, and to inform them where detained leaders were being held. The protests were also live-streamed online, while initially being completely ignored by the mainstream media. Social media was used for fundraising, and people could donate using Yandex Money, which is similar to PayPal.

Sign-up page for the December 10 Protest on VKontakte.ru

Russia’s most famous dissident blogger, Aleksei Navalny, darling of the recent protests who is followed by close to a million readers, encourages ordinary citizens to anonymously report suspicious government deals and post corporate documents in an attempt to shed light on elite-level corruption. Navalny, with the help of a crowdsourcing website he created, has caused millions of dollars worth of bad government contracts to be annulled.

A video, originally posted by Navalny, criticizing Putin and urging Russians to vote for anyone but United Russia. It was viewed over a million times in a few weeks.

The role of social media in the protests

Yevgenia Chirikova, who started a campaign to protect the Khimki Forest in Moscow from being destroyed, has also used social media, such as YouTube videos, to attract people to her cause.

During the massive wildfires in Russia in the summer of 2010, the government’s fumbled response led to a grassroots campaign to help the victims. The campaign was organized by a sophisticated and efficient system of websites (such as Pozhary.ru), including countless blogs, providing information about how to help.

Social Media as a Form of Reliable News

There are many examples of YouTube being used to inform Russians of things the mainstream media ignores. Even if they know about political malfeasance in general, and have heard rumours about specific disturbing incidents, social media can be used to concretely substantiate their suspicions.

YouTube was used to inform millions of people of a number of incidents during which Putin and the ruling United Russia party were booed at public events.

During the recent parliamentary elections, Russians posted numerous incidents of election fraud on YouTube, social networking sites, Twitter, and blogs.

In late 2009, Novorossiysk police major Aleksei Dymovsky posted two YouTube videos talking about systemic corruption (the likes of which makes The Wire look like The Commish) in the Russian law enforcement community. The videos cost him his job, and he was even arrested, but millions of people in Russia and elsewhere found out the extent of police corruption in the country.

Aleksei Dymovsky talks about massive corruption in the militsiya

Another example is when in early 2010 a young Russian man named Stanislav Sutyagin posted a YouTube video in response to being forced by the police to become part of a “human shield” to try and physically stop a fleeing suspect from escaping in their car. The video resulted in Moscow’s police chief apologizing and firing the head of the traffic police regiment responsible for the incident.

Social Media as a Forum for Dissent

When prominent rapper Noize MC made and posted a video to YouTube in early 2010 castigating LUKoil vice president Anatoly Barkov when his driver crashed into and killed two women (one of whom was the rapper’s close friend) in Moscow. The incident became a scandal because the police initially blamed one of the victims for the crash and covered up evidence showing otherwise, but eyewitnesses said Barkov’s Mercedes was driving in the oncoming lane to avoid traffic, a practice common among Moscow’s elite drivers. The video also helped spurn blue bucket protests against the migalka flashing lights and sirens that many government officials have on their cars to circumvent traffic.

One of Noize MC’s protest videos

Even a group of Russian ex-paratroopers (VDV) made an oppositional music video and posted it to YouTube, accusing Putin of destroying the military and telling him to leave.

Russian paratroopers call Putin a tyrant

Political satire, which has been virtually extinct on Russian television since the show Kukly was cancelled for making fun of Putin, and barren in newspapers since famous political cartoonist Mikhail Zlatkovsky was told not to make fun of Putin, has also flourished online.

Russia has a long and rich history of political satire. Chastushki, short folk songs often used to ridicule Russian politicians, were popular for hundreds of years. Lubki, graphic folk prints that were also popular in Russia for hundreds of years, often poked fun at the politically elite. In the 19th century, writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Ivan Krylov all wrote political satire, and during the Soviet period satire went underground with the tradition of telling countless anekdoty, which poked fun at anyone and everyone.

A recent example of the revival of satire is the popular YouTube video “Our Nuthouse Votes For Putin,” accosting Putin for not responding to the real needs of Russia, and making fun of his supporters. The original version has a million views on YouTube.

Our Nuthouse Votes for Putin

One of the more interesting forms of satire is Mr. Freeman, an incredibly clever animated web series which criticizes many aspects of modernity, Chuck Palahniuk-style, and has also taken a critical position towards Putin.

Mr. Freeman’s “Open Letter to the President,” which has nearly 2 million views on YouTube. He urges President Medvedev to stop Putin from becoming president again, because he “plunged Russia into a medieval gloom.”

Another example is the fast-talking Dmitry Ivanov (online nickname Kamikadze_d), who expresses his opinion on the political scene in a humorous way. His videos have been seen by millions.

Ivanov encourages his followers to come to the December 10 protest

Finally, there is this clever video, with two and half million views, adapted from a Simpson’s scene to make fun of Putin’s never-ending rule:

As we can see from the numerous examples provided, boldly free online social media offers perhaps the best hope towards developing a more robust, organized, and enlightened Russian civil society. We can only hope that the more critical and independent Internet activists stay a step ahead of the state and pro-government forces, as they have so far.

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