In Russia, political engagement is blossoming online

Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny hold signs saying “Navalny” at a rally in Moscow last December protesting a court verdict against the anti-corruption blogger. Navalny received a suspended sentence for embezzling money, but his brother was jailed in a case seen as part of a campaign to stifle dissent. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)
Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny hold signs saying “Navalny” at a rally in Moscow last December protesting a court verdict against the anti-corruption blogger. Navalny received a suspended sentence for embezzling money, but his brother was jailed in a case seen as part of a campaign to stifle dissent. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

In late November, the number of websites being blocked in Russia reached 1 million, according to Roskomsvoboda, the country’s independent Internet censorship watchdog. This did not surprise the Russian online community, which is used to bad news. The Kremlin’s offensive against Internet freedom has intensified dramatically over the past three years, including the creation of website blacklists, the updating of an advanced national system of online surveillance and increased pressure on international Internet companies to share data with Russian security services.

The failure of the 2011-13 Moscow protests, Russia’s version of a “Twitter Revolution”, to ease Vladimir Putin’s grip on the country, along with all the depressing news from the Middle East, has led many to question the idea that online technology can be used to facilitate political change.

But is it correct that the protests achieved nothing in Russia?

Some argue that those who maintain their faith in the power of technology overlook long historical experience. Well, Russia’s historical experience tells the story of a country that for centuries was defined by hierarchy and vertical power. During the Soviet period, the people were kept at maximum distance from decision-makers — it was for mysterious party bosses to decide their fates, while the population was left to wait until the party line was disseminated over government-controlled media and through local party cells.

During the Cold War, the state also clearly understood the threat posed by communications technology, which could allow citizens to spread information on their own. In 1954, the first Russian photocopy machine was smashed to pieces when the secret police realized its potential. The automatic system of international telephone communications that was launched in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics was cut off mere months after the games to stop ordinary people from making calls abroad without first going through KGB-monitored operators.

The result was a Soviet people politically passive and ignorant of how government operated — though, to be sure, KGB-inspired fear helped to keep them that way.

After the brief thaw of the 1990s, Putin sought to refashion this system for a new era. Employing a combination of old and new tactics based on coercion and intimidation, he accomplished many of his goals by the mid-2000s. But Putin’s regime relied on the population’s passivity; few wished to protest, but even fewer wished to actively support Putin.

This all changed when the Moscow protests erupted in 2011. The ideas circulating among the protesters may have been strikingly naive — they wanted to form a party of honest politicians, to ensure fair elections without destabilizing the system, and so on. Simply wielding the white-blue flag of Facebook does not automatically make protesters harbingers of democratic practices and principles. But one thing was clear: Thousands of outraged Muscovites shed their passivity, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter facilitated widespread debate about issues that had not been publicly discussed in years.

Social media are difficult to control. Because these new networks are horizontal in nature and content is generated by real users, the Russian government cannot impose its agenda on them as it did so successfully with traditional media organizations in the early 2000s. True, so far the Kremlin has outsmarted the protest movements by manipulating the newly mobilized public. While the opposition mumbled about fighting corruption, Putin offered a resurgence of national pride, first with the Sochi Olympics and annexation of Crimea, now with Syria. His message appeals to many Russians who resent the West, which they blame for failing to bring prosperity in the 1990s. Putin’s success in this respect is hardly surprising, given 15 years of decline in Russian political debate.

Nonetheless, the centuries-old model of rulers governing a politically passive population has come to an end in Russia. Russian society may be divided, but it is no longer apathetic. Increasingly, people discuss topics such as Ukraine, Syria, terrorism and the hypocrisy of the West. Many of them may have been brainwashed by propaganda, but the fact that they are now talking about political news — not just their cars or apartments — is important. For the first time in a long while, there is political engagement. And much of it is occurring online.

The Kremlin is trying its best to intervene in this conversation, but Russia’s Internet community is pushing back. Outraged by the arbitrary blocking of thousands of websites, more and more Internet service providers are defiantly placing messages on the blank pages of blocked sites saying, “We are not supporters of the Internet censorship but should comply with the requirements. To bypass the censorship, click here”. The link then takes users to a site providing circumvention tools. Russia ranks second in the number users of the Tor network, which allows people to communicate anonymously. Last month Russian Internet users, worried about Kremlin pressure on global Internet companies to move their servers into the country, launched a petition on pleading with the tech giants: “Don’t move personal data to Russia”. The petition has amassed more than 40,000 signatures.

This is a direct result of the digital revolution, which is something entirely new in our history. While the Russian authorities, so comfortable in dealing with hierarchies, have never hesitated to intimidate editors or the bosses of the Internet companies, the Kremlin has been hesitant to outlaw the Tor network and other circumvention tools. Doing so would mean dealing directly with ordinary users, who are a potentially unstoppable force.

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are authors of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.

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