Taking Apart “RuNet”: Does the Internet Shape Russian Politics? (Part 2)
Over the last several months, the web has been used extensively to spread the word about meetings and demonstrations against Putin, but for all the successes that the Russian Internet community has had in organizing protests, it appears that the scale is still somewhat limited. The number of RSVPs on Facebook and other invites is often cited as a success in terms of moving people “offline” and into the streets, and has been considered a good proxy for the overall strength of the movement. As noteworthy as these figures are (and eye-opening to the authorities), they still belie the regional disparities I highlighted in my last post.
Internet activism has evolved into a potent force only in a handful of the major metropolises, and though the coverage over the expansive Russian territory is laudable, the numbers do not overwhelm. One is immediately reminded of the struggles of such movements as Occupy Wall Street or Anonymous in getting their outspoken supporters to shut down the computers and appear in person. If these online activists cannot fully mobilize their own community into displaying their private preferences against the regime, what will it take to move the masses? The overarching challenge, as we will see, is thus translating the energy and dynamism of the Internet into real results on the ground.
This is not to say that Russian oppositionists are not performing near-miracles of innovation in their attempts to organize. Over the last four years, Russian digital activism has reached a fever pitch; for a great introduction by Internet guru Alexey Sidorenko, see this piece. The line-up of online tools is staggering, beginning first off with the runaway success of Alexey Navalny’s Rospil.info, where he invites readers to submit potentially fraudulent state contracts and tenders—this monitoring has supposedly stopped millions of dollars worth of graft. Similar sites include Rosmiting (to coordinate demonstrations), RosYama (to inform authorities about infrastructure problems), and HelpMap (for assistance with wildfires). These sites essential harness crowdsourcing tools to provide public goods such as monitoring and accountability to compensate for either weaknesses in state capacity (or sheer neglect or malfeasance). Sidorenko has even started his own project to connect organizations and individuals with IT-specialists to build such tools for their own unique purposes.
Around election time, even more digital gatherings have been popping up like mushrooms. Anger over the electoral fraud in both the December 2011, and the upcoming March 2012 elections has found an online home in the famous “Karta Narusheniye,” or “Map of Violations,” which has been collecting user-submitted reports of pressure and law-breaking; I discussed the government’s alarm about this project in my last post as well as its success in shutting it down. This time around, activists have launched several more sites to gather real-time reports (through SMS) from electoral precincts that can be instantly analyzed and put online. The hope is that by sending and training thousands of electoral observers and equipping them with the proper technology, electoral fraud can either be deterred or immediately uncovered before being permanently entered. The idea is almost like a step beyond exit polls, another layer of independent information to be used in the fight against fraud.
Don’t get me wrong; the potential for such activism to achieve tangible results is immense. The mapped electoral violations and video evidence of fraud in December prompted real anger towards the regime and forced some acknowledgment of errors; Putin promised to install web cameras at every polling station across the country for Sunday’s election (and supposedly, he has delivered). Verified SMS monitoring of vote counts may bring to the surface real manipulation. However, besides the informational front, something still feels off about placing too much hope in the idea that the online community will deliver a knockout blow to the regime.
State-controlled television is still the medium of choice for over 70 percent of the population; the web is far from breaking that stranglehold. Moreover, the state has not gone quietly into that good night, helping to organize DDoS attacks that cripple the online tools so necessary for digital activists. The chances of a complete Internet blackout are slim, but the more reliant activists become on their own registered domain names, the more vulnerable they will be to attacks. Take the pre-emptive strike Putin delivered on Thursday in order to discredit the inevitable flurry of YouTube videos purported to expose the fraud that is sure to come during the election on Sunday. A strong and dedicated online constituency has provided a stage for the ideas of the opposition, but taking it to the next level will require similar innovation in getting people away from their screens and bringing them physically onto the streets.
Rest assured, the RuNet activity is not completely comprised of serious and action-oriented sites like the ones I mentioned above. The New York Times has run a number of nice pieces on YouTube humor and the use of satire to skewer Putin. iOS apps enable users to “build Russian democracy by developing ballot boxes, voters and the electorate”—represented by sheep—while fending off pro-Kremlin activists, bureaucrats and other baddies.” Satire was used to great effect in the Color Revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, but in those instances, it was primarily performed using dramatic live stunts. Outside of some witty campaign posters, much of the laughter in Russia has been happening online or in private conversations. But, to be fair, it has all been pretty hilarious.