Russia’s Networked Activists Shift the Momentum Against Putin, 08/12/2011

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party were victorious in last Sunday’s parliamentary election. But an unprecedented level of online activism before and during the vote has contributed significantly to reducing United Russia’s majority. Moreover, the networked and viral nature of online activity, where Russians have turned to social networks and blogs to organise opposition and spread evidence of electoral law violations, has left Putin’s “Soviet-style” strategy of control and character assassination struggling to keep up.

In the run-up to elections the state cracked down on online forums, whose anonymity had seen them become a popular place for airing dissent. In the days and hours before the elections, hundreds of blogs and independent sites suffered DDoS attacks, overloading servers and forcing them offline. In response many mainstream bloggers and journalists began offering the use of their websites to broadcast content from the effected sites.

Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitoring organisation, created an online open source Violations Map where citizens could post evidence of electoral law violations before and during the election. Thousands of videos, documents and reports flooded in from around the country. When the map was forced offline by sustained DDoS attacks, Golos moved all the data to a GoogleDoc. The site subsequently managed to return online.

Throughout polling day videos and photos of election law violations were posted on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and Vkontakte, a popular Russian social network.

Singinau, a YouTube user from Moscow filmed an election official at the polling station apparently filling out ballots at his desk.

Another video posted by user Yupych demonstrated how pens in a polling station in East Moscow had been filled with invisible ink.

Several users filmed buses nicknamed “carousels” carrying groups of voters to multiple polling stations to repeatedly cast votes. Disturbing images were posted on a blog showing a polling station set up in a mental hospital, where patients were “helped” to vote. The hospital registered 93% support for United Russia.

Dmitry Surnin, an election monitor in Moscow, posted his count of the voting tallies for his polling station on social media. His tallies were vastly different to those later announced by the Central Election Commission.

This video posted by TheLakost86 shows an opposition official complaining that a cardboard ballot box is not sealed and could easily be stuffed with ballot papers.

Many bloggers posted live updates of events from around the country on popular platforms like LiveJournal, which were continuously hit with DDoS attacks.

As results emerged on Monday protesters began to gather in Moscow for an anti-government rally. YouTube user Bigvane posted this video of the early stages of a march in Moscow, showing protesters chanting ‘Fair Elections’.

Reports on the attendance at the rally varied greatly. Police put the number at 2,000, while journalists and others present put the number as high as 8,000. While many mainstream Russian media outlets failed to include it in their news bulletins, those that did described it as the biggest anti-state rally in recent memory. Blogger Drugoi posted this video giving a sense of the scale of the protest, which President Putin later dismissed as “ten people shouting.”

A popular anti-corruption opposition figure Alexey Navalny was arrested at the rally, along with a large number of other demonstrators. He tweeted this photo of protesters inside a police-van moments after his arrest, which quickly spread across social media networks. It was later used as the front page image for Novaya Gazeta, a popular Russian newspaper.

Navalny tweeted "I'm sitting with all the guys in the police bus. They all say hi."

As the Kremlin denied that the army was moving into Moscow in the wake of the protests, images began emerging on blogs and news sites that seemed to depict soldiers and military vehicles in the city. Many journalists also used social media to report phone service disruptions and police intimidation.

Live-streaming services like U-Stream were used to broadcast live video of a march on Tuesday, broadcasting images of battles between protesters and police to Internet users around the world.

Dmitri Merezhko, communications director for Golos, believes the group’s ability to organise and disseminate evidence rapidly online made an impact this election. “In fact Golos has always provided this service,” he explained over the phone from Golos’ offices in Moscow. “The difference is that this time we were able to allow people to send videos and copies of documents, sometimes from right inside meetings of local election committees, recording how members were essentially ordered to give advantages to the members of certain parties,” he said.

In the run-up to the election Golos’ offices were raided, their funding was questioned and a documentary was broadcast on state television that accused them of being agents of US interference in Russian domestic policy. “It was really a throwback to a kind of old-style Soviet propaganda, trying to tarnish someone’s reputation,” said Merezhko.

While the figures and final results from the election may not have been substantially different from those in 2007, Merezhko believes a significant shift in attitude and momentum has occurred, one which can have important consequences heading into next year’s presidential election. “Looking at the Russian Internet in the last few months, there was a noticeable intensification of civic activity,” he argued. “People, especially young people, were starting to discuss the elections, to discuss whether there will be fraud this time.”

You could see the election becoming a passion, for young people especially, who became engaged in the process for the first time, and started volunteering to be observers at polling stations for example. Because for the first time they felt that what they did could affect the entire process.

“This election the Internet has played a serious role as an amplifier and also as a channel,” believes Alexey Sidorenko, a social entrepreneur and Russian Internet expert. “Without it, United Russia would have achieved a much higher result. Unhappiness with Putin is high too, but as we saw in 2007 it can be dispersed right before the election. That didn’t happen this year.”

While it’s easy to overstate the impact of online activism in a country where just 40% of the population have access to the Internet, Sidorenko believes Internet adoption is growing, aided by Prime Minister Putin’s outwardly liberal policy of extending broadband and Internet access to as many as possible. Unofficially there appears to be another policy of attempting to control that Internet, by attacking centres of debate and dissent like Livejournal, forums and independent news sites.

“This particular election awareness of what’s happening online has reached quite a significant level of penetration,” Sidorenko explains. “I wouldn’t call it a tipping point, but it’s close. It’s been fueled by discontent with United Russia and Putin, and it’s going to get harder and harder for them from now on.”

“I think if Putin is smart, he’ll change his strategy towards the Internet, he’ll put a stop to the cyber-attacks. If he’s stupid he’ll continue with the current strategy.”

“Right now the situation is still very much in Putin’s favour,” Sidorenko continues. “But it will become harder and harder for him to control the Internet as a result of both the election campaign and the election results. He needs to embrace the Internet and civil liberties in general.”

Dimitri Merezhko of Golos agrees. “This fraud that has been being carried out on such a massive scale for so many years, this is the last time,” he concludes. “This is the last election where they can get away with it. I think you could say that until now Putin and United Russia have underestimated the Internet. But not any more.”

More anti-government demonstrations in more than 70 cities around the country are planned for next Saturday, with more than 16,000 already signed up to attend the demonstration in Moscow. A map has been posted online charting the locations and details of each protest. On Thursday officials in Moscow announced that the site of the proposed rally there, Freedom Square, was being closed in order to stage an impromptu ‘Ice Theatre’ on Saturday.

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