The common notion that the Internet empowers those with democratic and liberal values is occasionally challenged by stories coming out of Russian online communities. The blogosphere can certainly be a place where people share valuable content with wide audience, but it can also become a platform for attacking virtual identities. Unfortunately, availability of information and growing connections between virtual and real personalities make online harassment as real as it gets.
Maria Gromakova, a young blogger from St. Petersburg, experienced the evil potential of the Internet first hand. Constant attacks of Russian radical nationalists on her blog turned Maria's life into a living hell and made her and her small family leave Russia.
Maria studied philology at St. Petersburg University where she concentrated on teaching Russian to foreigners. She also played at a local theater and worked as an anchor at a local TV station. In 2007, Maria started teaching Russian at one of the universities in China. There she met Bo, a professional athlete and her future husband.
Maria has been keeping a blog on Livejournal.com [RUS] since 2005. Colorful posts about life in China quickly made her online diary popular with more 1,500 regular subscribers to the blog posts.
Maria and Bo came back to St. Petersburg in 2009 just few months before their son was born. Maria's blog was filled with joyful updates about their first child. This turned out to be a terrible mistake.
In one of her blog posts, Maria told readers that she and her son had been attacked on a city train. One of the passengers pushed Maria when she, Bo and their son were getting off the train. Maria nearly fell down but Bo caught her at the last moment. She also recollected that the person who pushed was loudly complaining to his friends about “Russian whores who make mutants with Asians.” Meant to expose an ugly face of Russian extreme nationalism, the blog post caused a different effect.
“It all started with a young man who openly supports fascists’ points of view,” Maria told in an interview to Global Voices. “He found my blog with this story and photos of my child. He put those photos on his blog with comments about “a bloody race prostitute who gave a birth to a defected product from the racial perspective.”
This motivated many supporters of rock_my_cock, the blogger who started harassing Maria online, to visit her blog and leave offensive comments and threats.
“I want our race to survive,” rock_my_cock wrote to Maria. “It’s not a question of personal desires, but eugenics. And you have wasted your genetic code. I am very frustrated by it.”
Rock_my_cock later deleted his account on Livejournal.com
But the harassment did not stop there. Few days later, Maria got an e-mail that contained a photo collage with a terrifying name “How to cook a baby.”
“They wrote that the only way I can get excuse for my guilt against the Russian nation for marrying Asian is to kill our ‘frog’ [the name Russian nationalists gave Marina's son – GV), since ‘he is not human,’ and make a soup according to instructions that were attached,” Maria said. “They also promised to visit me and taste the soup. I was also required to divorce my husband immediately or else they threatened to hurt him.”
Those people also said that they knew Maria's home address and phone number.
Unable to tolerate the harassment any longer, Maria published a blog post where she revealed her intentions to find the people behind the threats and report them to Russian authorities. The blog was hacked soon after the post and all blog content was deleted. The same thing happened to Maria's and Bo's e-mail accounts. The hackers later published “How to cook a baby” collage on Maria's blog and wrote that “the soup from the son was very delicious.”
Maria did not have any choice but to address the blogosphere [RUS]:
Это Мария Громакова строчит с аккаунта своего мужа.
Сегодня ночью наши отечественные фашисты взломали мне ЖЖ!
И удалили ВСЕ записи, начиная с 2005 года. […]
Поэтому очень прошу всех, кто может мне хоть чем-то информационно или по факту помочь – связаться со мной по мобильному телефону в виде смс. Или, не связываясь со мной, просто хоть что-то сделать, чтобы мне помочь!
this is Maria Gromakova typing from a blog account of her husband. Tonight our local fascists hacked my Livejournal. They deleted ALL blog posts starting from 2005. […] That is why I ask everyone who can help me somehow in terms of information to get in touch with me via mobile phone or send me a text message. Or, without getting in touch with me, do something to help me!
The word about the story spread around Russian online community and led to angry reaction from ordinary bloggers. LJ user Pushba wrote:
Где мы живет и о чем мы думаем – уже не важно. Важно то, что меня трясет, когда я думаю о фашизме, особенно в контексте нашей страны.
Я, конечно, понимаю, что этот ублюдок просто повышает себе гребаный рейтинг подобными постами, но не могу не написать об этом. В данном случае – жестокость выживается только жестокостью – кто бы его сварил?
At the same time, some people were afraid to actively defend Maria. They did not want to turn into the next victims of the nationalists. In his post “Nationalists hack accounts on Livejournal,” LJ user desp-immigrant wrote:
Разумеется, это можно сделать, если вы не боитесь, что с вашим журналом сделают то же самое, что с журналом Марии. Это риск, реальный, не такой уж маленький. Но если не реагировать никак, потому что вас лично это не коснулось, то вы знаете, во что это может в итоге перейти. Уже было.
Several bloggers blamed Maria for revealing her true identity online. “The reaction of the majority of people was ‘it's your fault,'” Maria told Global Voices. “They told me that I shouldn't have kept the blog. I shouldn't have posted photos online and shouldn't have talked about my family. They said if I wrote about birds and butterflies, nobody would have harassed me. But since I am not ashamed of my Asian husband and my child, I have attracted all that.”
Tatyana Tihomirova (a.k.a. LJ user Tanchik) is one of the most active defenders of Maria. She blamed [RUS] boggers for being passive and dismissed any allegations that Maria was the one to blame for what happened to her.
Когда ж до вас до всех дойдет, что вся эта мразота резвится и в реале, и в интернетах только и исключительно потому, что вы, лично вы “не кормите троллей”, молчите в тряпочку, даже в ситуации, когда на ваших глазах такое происходит и раз за разом советуете “не обращать внимания”. Если вы не обращаете внимания в ЖЖ, то вы же не обращаете внимания в реале. Только не удивляйтесь потом, что на вас же не будут обращать внимания тогда, когда жертвой станете вы сами. В реале или в ЖЖ.
Indeed, many bloggers tried to assist Maria in her online struggle. Some helped by spreading the word around the blogosphere and making the topic one of the most discussed online. Others helped to restore Maria's e-mail account. A special collective effort was targeted at identifying the attackers. Maria shared IP addresses and nicknames of bloggers who harassed her and the online community helped to reveal the attackers’ real identities.
But the online attacks on Maria continued. She would get text messages with fascist content on her mobile phone. The threats against her and her son also did not stop. At some point, the hackers cracked her personal profile page on a popular Russian social network Vkontakte.ru. They also stole $35 from her mobile phone account.
Maria was desperate. She wrote a blog post [RUS] where she alleged that she became a victim of not only fascists and radical nationalists, but also many ordinary and respectable people who usually prefer not to show their xenophobia in real life. Maria suggested that those people use anonymity online to hide their real identities and their hatred of foreigners. She warned that those online actions can easily grow into something real and more dangerous that could affect everyone:
Да, меня, как и всю эту историю, через день-два забудут. Жизнь продолжается.
Невозможно всё время жить на баррикадах. Глупо. Да и не нужно.
Просто не забывайте, что на моём месте легко можете оказаться ВЫ.
Ваша семья. Дети. Внуки. Друзья и близкие.
Maria currently lives in Beijing with her husband and son. She said that the online harassment had unfortunate consequences that made her leave Russia. A story about Maria in one of Russian newspapers attracted the attention of local immigration officers. They refused to issue a permission for Maria's husband to stay in the country. They later came to Maria's apartment at night to check Bo's immigration status and ordered him to leave the country withing 24 hours.
Maria's blog continues to be a target of online attacks.
“I can’t say the story has ended,” Maria said. “I know that people who previously harassed me monitor my blog and occasionally write some ugly things on their blogs and online communities. But at least they didn’t try to hack my blog and e-mails or steal information since the middle of December 2009.”
What bothers Maria is that the people behind those online attacks are still unpunished. Bringing legal actions against them requires Maria to be physically present in Russia and she is not sure she wants to experience the story all over again.
“The story proves that everything is possible on the Russian Internet,” Maria said. “We just found ourselves on the edge. And we had to leave the country. It’s good that we had an opportunity to leave. It would be worse if we didn't.”
Maria's story raises few important points about nationalism and hatred on RuNet. The phenomenon of trolling [ENG] is not new and very popular in Russia. There are some well-known examples when bloggers were forced to stop a certain kind of online activity or even commit so-called “online suicide” (erase their blogs). It also not surprising that online attacks against Maria had a clear racist connotation.
The thing that attracts attention here is how the attacks unfolded. It is clear that all this started almost by accident. The blogger who initiated an attack wrote [RUS] later that stumbled upon Maria’s blog by chance when he was looking for his friend with the same last name. He also tried to explain [RUS] the nature of his attack:
Я цинично поржу над любой темой. Вообще над любой. Вообще делать из чего либо -=святое=- это бред. Мне, честно говоря, решительно насрать на этого косоглазого уродца, его папу и маму. Ну согрешили, с кем не бывает. Кто-то с резиновой бабой спит, кто-то – с расовонеполноценным, каждый дрочит как он хочет. Я примерно догадывался о результатах и эффекте своего действия. Меня всё устраивает.
However, in this case, we can point out few factors that go beyond the phenomenon of trolling. The nature of attack might be approached as “cruelty of anonymity commons.” The attack has a self-emerge and swarming nature.
The first post attracted attention of people who had a variety of reasons to follow it. Those reasons ranged from mere curiosity to racism and fascism. The further development of attacks went far beyond the control of their initiator. This case showed how the Internet empowers the most radical elements of society and gives them new tools to fulfill their goals without accepting any responsibility for results. To some extent, we can treat this phenomenon as a “long tail” of political identity when a radical minority has as strong impacts as majority. As we could see, the only effective response here is self-emergence activity by the majority that might stay passive and cautious about responding to the attack.
The self-emerged transformation of radical elements into attacking crowds can take place not only online. In 2009, Russian security officials claimed [RUS] that few dozens of people were killed in Moscow area at the so-called “criminal flash mobs.” It is especially common with hate crimes committed by Russian radical nationalists.
“Following networked distribution of message with a detailed instructions, people who don’t know each other gather at meeting points with one purpose – commit a crime,” Igor Sundiev, an expert at the Russian Ministry of Interior, said. According to Sundiev, people who participated in the flash mob agreed to kill the first non-Russian that they see and run away.
There is another significant difference in Maria's case. Previously, the most of “crowd based online” attacks targeted people who were considered public figures in online or offline world. These attacks usually were limited to a blog itself and used primarily trolling methods. In the case of Maria, the victim was a private blogger.
Moreover the attacks had the most comprehensive nature than ever before. Not only the blog, but all the possible online platforms that were related to identity of the victim including e-mails, social networks and private content pages turned into a target for violent hacking and destruction. So, this case should be addressed as a multiplatform attack against online identity.
The effect of this kind of comprehensive attacks is growing due to increase in importance of online representation. An online identity is not a luxury but a crucial element in personal and professional development.
The story of Maria Gromakova is not the only story that proves it. Recently, few dozens of blogs in Livejournal were erased by unknown attackers. Most of bloggers who lost their blogs kept them for 5-7 years. The stories of these bloggers show clearly that loosing a blog is not just an unpleasant accident, but something that might cause a psychological trauma.
In the current information reality, blogs are not just a reflection but a part of one’s identity. That is why the multiplatform attacks or acts of online vandalism should be approached not just as private cases of hacking but a new category of crimes – crimes against online identities. Consequently, a special strategies and measures are required for defense and protection of online identity representation as well as for facilitation of online community response to this kind of crimes.