“If an authoritarian regime can crumble under the pressure of a Facebook group, whether its members are protesting online or in the streets, it’s not much of an authoritarian regime. The real effects of digital activism would thus most likely be felt only in the long term rather than immediately.”
This is what Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, said about the Internet’s power to topple regimes. Subtitled “The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” Morozov’s book focuses on the challenges facing states confronting digital threats and the Web’s unfortunate empowerment of fringe groups that sometimes spills into the real world as hatred and violence. This he presents as the untold story of online activism — the overlooked “dark side.” The good sibling to this nastiness is the more familiar story of Twitter-organization, flash mobs, and color revolutions. The Net Delusion is a useful counterweight to the loads of fluff that’s written about the democratizing wizardry of digital social networks. But there are reasons to wonder whether or not Morozov is only inflating popular delusions about the Web by overlooking the regular ineffectiveness of online mobilization. (For instance, the word “ineffective” only appears six times in the entire book, and always in the context of government attempts to control the Internet.)
Last month, Vladimir Milov in his Gazeta.ru column wrote an article titled “Apolitical Internet.” He argued, like others before him, that the RuNet is mostly the domain of entertainment-seeking young people generally uninterested in politics. Milov goes on to offer a few interesting examples of digital activism’s failures, including Evgeny Roizman’s fundraising troubles and the sad fate of a blogger from Perm who tried to build a political campaign relying solely on assistance and advice collected online. For more context about the Roizman example, it’s useful to go back to June 26th, when Milov blogged disappointedly about an unexpectedly low attendance for a PARNAS rally the previous day.
In that post, Milov lashed out at Nemtsov and Limonov for arranging doomed-to-fail demonstrations and promising unlikely turnouts: “The rally once again confirmed my old core position: it’s better not to have a rally at all than have a bad rally.” When a reader took issue with Milov’s argument and encouraged liberals to place their hope in figures like Navalny, Milov fired back:
So what about Navalny? In April, Navalny promoted the ‘Khvatit kormit’ Kavkaz’ rally. The turnout was 700 people. In June, Navalny promoted ‘Anti-Seliger,’ and the turnout was less than 1,500 people. There were more people than that at yesterday’s [failed] rally.”
Milov also cited a Slon.ru report, where Svetlana Romanova assessed the success-rate of digitally organized real-world activism. The study explored the blogging community’s attention-span on issues that have galvanized Russia’s electronic intelligentsia (tracking how long, but not necessarily in what capacity, certain stories continued to be discussed). Romanova focuses on seven such cases, each of which is worth reviewing here. Some of the incidents will be familiar to Western readers. For instance: Andrei Sychev and the hazing that allegedly cost him his legs was a shocking enough scandal that there was even some English-language coverage in early 2006, when it happened. Other stories, like Viktor Borisov — a homeless man who moved to the forrest and survived wearing military camouflage and ranting against the government, are presumably less well known outside Russia.
Let’s briefly run through Romanova’s research (carried out in March 2011):
Disclaimer: I’ll point out that Yandex’s blog search engine includes ‘notes’ and media reposts from social networking sites (mostly from Vkontakte). In other words, the graph’s results incorporate online attention that isn’t always as in-depth and dedicated as a public blog might be. It’s my experience that people use services like Vkontakte and Facebook to speak mostly to real-life friends about issues of personal importance. Reposting an article from the mainstream media does indicate an interest, but it clearly requires less energy and commitment than someone who writes his own article for a LiveJournal post.
On February 25, 2010, Lukoil Vice President Anatoly Barkov’s car collided with a smaller vehicle on Leninskii Prospekt, ultimately killing the two women inside the other car. The RuNet spent months debating whether it had been Barkov or the other car that had crossed into oncoming traffic. (Most blamed Barkov.) Russian rapper “Noize MC” (aka Ivan Alexeev) released a song attacking the Lukoil VP titled “Mercedes 666: Give Way to the Chariot.” A YouTube music video of the song (which is admittedly ‘catchy,’ if one enjoys or can even stomach a moment of rap) now has nearly 500,000 views.
Despite all this energy and excitement, frustrations on the Internet have not had a measurable impact in the real world. Romanova points out that, while they were enraged enough to write 23,000 different posts about the car crash, bloggers only assembled in reality once, outside Lukoil’s building in Moscow, with a fairly low turnout. The last significant spike in online attention was in September 2010, when the police concluded their investigation without any charges against Barkov.
As 2010 came to a close, Anastasia Ermakova, a 24-year-old mother living in Balashikha (just outside Moscow), took to the street to protest a new law that would reform the way that mothers’ social benefits are determined. (The law would make it so that welfare calculations are based on five years of employment history, instead of just two.) A LiveJournal community, “Ru-perinatal,” picked up the story, and became a forum for Russians dissatisfied with the state’s support for and attitude toward motherhood. The pickets spread to twenty different cities.
The government’s early response was clumsy. Yuri Voronin, the Deputy Minister of Public Health, first intervened unsympathetically. Shortly thereafter, however, the Ministry reversed its tone and promised to rework the changes to benefits calculations. In January 2011, Putin announced that any reforms to the subsidies program were being delayed by at least two years. Perhaps only temporarily, the activists appear to have won unambiguously.
Early last decade, Natalia Zarubina was traveling in Portugal, where she decided to give up her daughter, Sandra, for adoption. Natalia was an alcoholic at the time, but five years later, she declared herself fit to reclaim Sandra, who had been growing up in Portugal since her mother abandoned her. Natalia won the ensuing legal battle, and Sandra returned to the village outside Yaroslavl, where her mother lived. During an interview on NTV in 2009, Natalia caused an uproar among Russian bloggers when she rather viciously slapped Sandra on-camera and complained to her interviewer, “This damned Portuguese upbringing!”
The online discussion focused mostly on the apparent damage to Sandra, who had been living a materially superior life in the West, presumably without an abusive, drunkard mother. Bloggers’ interest quickly faded, however, and the attention during the summer of 2009 was short-lived. By now, Sandra has reportedly lost all knowledge of Portuguese and assimilated into Russian society quite normally.
Viktor Borisov is a homeless man living in the forest outside Moscow. For the last year, he has enjoyed declining attention from Russian bloggers, who like to read into his actions various kinds of political and social protest. Borisov’s story is not unlike the character Doc Daneeka from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. After he made his way to Moscow from Kamchatka, Borisov tried to renew his documents, only to find that his hometown had long ago registered him as deceased. When Moscow officials refused to issue Borisov the paperwork necessary for legal residence and employment, he made his way to the city’s outskirts and set up permanent camp in the forest. A sympathetic local soon visited and supplied him with basic goods like a sleeping bag and materials to build an oven. Bloggers arrived shortly thereafter, gifting him a cell phone and bicycle rigged to charge various small electronics. Borisov soon had his own website, crude and rarely updated, to which he posted entries from his mobile phone.
Russians have maintained some interest in his site, but Borisov himself quickly soured on the nature of blogging. Almost instantly, he denounced what he thought was a preponderance of “wickedness and shit.”
On November 24th last year, Aleksei Smirnov was on his way home from work, driving on Moscow’s Ring Road in heavy traffic around midnight. The congestion was so bad (even at the late hour) that Smirnov was unable to move his car out of the way to let pass an ‘elite car’ flashing its siren behind him. When he didn’t clear a path, several young men exited the rear car and approached Smirnov, threatening him with their fists, trying to enter his vehicle and even smashing his headlights and driver’s side window. Things might have gotten significantly more violent, but the other drivers in the surrounding cars intervened and the assailants retreated.
The Blue Buckets Society took up Smirnov’s case, organizing its investigation through its LiveJournal community. Soon, the owner of the migalka-car was revealed to be Tel’man Ismailov’s private security firm “ACT Shield.” The blue bucket group offered Smirnov legal help, and even submitted an official report to the police on his behalf. Russian activists were clearly hoping to repeat their success in provoking criminal charges against Vadim Boiko, a (now former) Petersburg police officer still in court for using excessive force during the dispersal of a rally in the summer of 2010.
Smirnov’s case, however, did not go anywhere. Police investigators simply didn’t show up for scheduled meetings, and the GUVD’s Moscow spokesperson, Viktor Biriukov, ignored the issue entirely. At one point, Rashid Nurgaliev seemed poised to take personal control of the case, but nothing ever came of it. In March 2011, when Ismailov was called in by the police for questioning, he denied ever having been present in Moscow at the time of the attack. It was implied that his son might have been in the car during the incident, but the police never attempted to question him.
On New Year’s Day in 2006, Andrei Sychev, a new conscript at a military academy in Chelyabinsk, was reportedly subjected to several hours of hazing (known in Russian as “dedovshchina”) that days later led to the amputation of his legs. Sychev claims that he was forced to squat for three hours, while other soldiers kicked and beat his legs. When treatment was delayed, Sychev developed gangrene and soon ended up on the operating table. Some argue that he would likely have died, had one of the hospital’s doctors not contacted ‘The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers,’ which brought the case its initial attention.
On February 14, 2006, a small but visible crowd (organized largely through LiveJournal) gathered for an unsanctioned rally outside the Defense Ministry in Moscow to protest Sychev’s treatment. At first, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov tried to dismiss the case, saying publicly that “nothing serious happened.” This provoked bloggers into collecting over four thousand signatures calling for Ivanov’s dismissal. At the height of the scandal, even Channel One covered the story.
Soon, bloggers’ advocacy helped pressure the authorities into moving Sychev to a better hospital in Moscow. Later, he was moved back closer to his hometown, to a facility for disabled veterans located in Ekaterinburg. In the years following the tragedy, Sychev has maintained a fairly low profile, occasionally lobbying on behalf of wheelchair ramp installations for various municipal buildings. He stays mostly inside during the winters because of snow, and Romanova notes that he seems to take less interest in the ramps after they’ve been installed. Aleksandr Siviakov, the man convicted of leading the assault on Sychev, was released from prison in February 2011, after roughly five years behind bars.
One of the most lasting effects of Sychev’s dedovshcina is a related scandal involving journalist Oleg Kashin. In early February 2006, when Kashin was still in his ‘conservative phase,’ he authored a report for Expert, where he accused protesters and bloggers of ignoring the truth that Sychev had never really suffered a brutal beating — that the real cause of the infection in his legs had been a preexisting vascular disease. According to Kashin, the public was only using Sychev to express otherwise justifiable anger against the army and the Ministry of Defense.
Though his piece was apparently based on extensive research that included interviews with doctors and suspects (as well as a thorough review of the investigators’ records), the online public denounced Kashin for seemingly defending Siviakov and disrespecting Sychev. Last year, when Kashin was himself brutally beaten nearly to death, more than a few bloggers taunted him (quite hysterically) for having invited this fate with that 2006 Expert article.
In March 2010, Stanislav Sutiagin and several other drivers passing down Moscow’s Ring Road were stopped by police and told to park their vehicles across the middle of the highway. Moments later, a speeding car crashed through the barricade and the officers (all except one) left the scene, in hot pursuit of the getaway criminal. Sutiagin, along with others who included a pregnant woman, had been unknowingly used as a human shield.
Bloggers flooded the Web with posts about the incident, including Sutiagin himself, who published public appeals on LiveJournal and YouTube. Prominent blogger, activist, and journalist Marina Litvinovich frequently addressed this case, sometimes recirculating Sutiagin’s videos. Sergei Kanaev of the Russian Drivers’ Association offered legal aid to victims. The GIBDD paid for the auto repairs of the damaged vehicles. On November 30, 2010, Inspector Oleg Sokolov was convicted of going beyond his authority and a court sentenced him to a year in prison. Sokolov was also barred from ever again working in law enforcement. Channel One interviewed Sutiagin and others involved.
Whether or not the ‘human shield’ case was a success for digital activism, however, remains unclear. Despite Sokolov’s conviction, he was released early on parole, and some reports allege that he might actually rejoin the police next year in March. Litvinovich argues that Sokolov was merely a scapegoat, and that other, higher-ranking cops got off scot-free. Sutiagin, for his part, has since deleted his LiveJournal and YouTube accounts.
So What’s It All Mean?
Romanova concludes her study by comparing RuNet activists to Randle Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “At least I tried,” that character told a disappointed audience, after he foolishly promised and then failed to lift a drinking fountain. Her sentiment is clear: the blogosphere’s potential is spirited and exciting, but its inability to deliver real results ensures defeat and irrelevance. Is that the fate of online activism? Is the true ‘dark side’ of the Internet that its warriors are inconsistent and ineffective?
Though it will be difficult to measure, next month’s Duma elections will be an interesting test of one of Russia’s most prominent online-based campaigns: the “Vote For Anyone Except the Party of Crooks and Thieves” movement, spearheaded by Aleksei Navalny. Navalny first used the ‘crooks and thieves’ phrase in a Finam.FM radio interview on February 2, 2011, in the following context:
Yuri Pron’ko: Do you have your own political sympathies? How do you feel about the party “United Russia”?
Aleksei Navalny: I have very negative feelings about United Russia. The party United Russia is a party of corruption — it is a party of crooks and thieves.
The slogan (abbreviated in Russian as “PZhiV”) went viral and now produces over 1.7 million hits on a Google search. Since early 2011, the blogosphere’s discussion of PZhiV has eclipsed all seven of the above incidents examined in Romanova’s report. ‘Navalny’s Option,’ as the electoral strategy has come to be known, has the advantage of a noteworthy leader and a single date on which coordinated activism is planned to take place. While it will be difficult to gauge to what degree non-United-Russia votes are cast (a) in concert with Navalny’s Option, or (b) in support of those other parties’ actual platforms, a large spike in votes for minority parties will likely be seen as a victory of the PZhiV campaign.
In any event, the coming elections will be an interesting test of Russian bloggers, offering us a chance to judge if Milov’s and Romanova’s pessimism about digital activism is well-placed. If Navalny and his supporters fail to make a noticeable impact, it could become the most conclusive evidence yet of a RuNet delusion — unlike the one Morozov warned against in his book, but perhaps more ominous for civil societies across the world’s authoritarian states.