This autumn, a debate on whether the Internet cures or harms democracy is a hot topic—and not only in the United States. While in the US context “cyber-pessimists” seem to be more vocal than “cyber-optimists,” the situation is Russia is reversed, at least for the time being. Aside from the usual debate on the negatives and positives of technology's impact on activism, there's something more happening around the notion of “cyber-optimism.”
Direct Internet Democracy – new term, old meaning
Russian politicians, for their own reasons, have joined the “cyber-optimist” side. Alexey Chadaev, leading ideologist of the ruling party, “United Russia,” has proposed the continuation of Dmitry Medvedev's thesis on “direct Internet democracy,” in a program document [RUS] called “Direct Internet Democracy as an Instrument for Modernization.“
According to Chadaev, Internet Democracy, “the next step of evolution of democratic institutions”, is “a means to re-formulate the question of democracy once again, to point out the key problems of any democratic structure, to understand what dangers the mass digitilization of communications brings, and what perspectives are possible for the democratization of the mass politics, including by the radical reorganization of such traditional institutions like parties.”
“Internet democracy” is the successor to such Kremlin-produced terms as “managed democracy” (proposed in 2005), and “sovereign democracy” (proposed in 2006). Both terms were used to justify the ongoing processes of strengthening the authoritarian/hybrid regime in the country. Chadaev proposes electronic voting for the next Duma election in 2011, electronic evaluation of officials’ performance, as well as battling the digital divide, the development of open software, VOIP services and de-monopolization of online products. None of the initiatives he proposes, however, provide for the creation of sustainable political institutions for citizens.
Even before Chadaev's document was released on November 17, 2010, Luke Allnutt, in a Christian Science Monitor Op-Ed entitled “Russia's “Youtube democracy” is a Sham”, explained the idea behind the Russian government's excitement about “Internet democracy”.
According to Allnutt, the Kremlin was “using the Internet to create a parody of a real political process.” Russian officials were using online tools like Twitter to demonstrate they were close to the people on a personal level, while at the same time avoiding real political change. NGOs and journalists are harassed and threatened, but at least everyone can blog about it. Internet activism, Allnutt writes, is permitted by authoritarian regimes like Russia as long as it serves as a “pressure valve for the opposition to let off steam.”
Mikhail Men, the governmor of the Ivanovo region and a prolific Twitter user (@mikhail_menn), could not have offered a better illustration of Allnutt's point than during the recent RuNet Award ceremony [RUS]:
I sincerely try to communicate as much with the inhabitants of my region and with Twitterers from other regions all over the country. And I consider it an absolutely normal dialogue, a normal communication.
Digital Civil Society – an emerging environment
The idea of the positive role of technology, however, shouldn't be dismissed, especially in the Russian context. Despite the government ideologists’ efforts to sell the idea of preserving of the hybrid regime by introducing superficial—though hi-tech—innovations, the Internet provides a new environment that no one, not even the government, can fully control. Below are several reasons to believe the digital environment can still be a game-changer in Russia.
Anrdei Loshak, a prominent Russian journalist, made this point in his Op-Ed “[We] Will Survive Without a State” [RUS] (English version here): “Our main cause for optimism is for the moment in the virtual space of the blogosphere”. Loshak's argument is that self-organization and mutual support, empowered by the Internet, represent a new strategy for engaged citizens (aside from the two “traditional” strategies: emigration and street protest).
The internet has long since become a parallel reality that has everything so lacking in ordinary life: freedom of expression, lack of window dressing or propaganda, the possibility of civic engagement..
Thus far, online civic activism has been limited to the re-posting of sensational stories about injustice. But re-posting, Loshak argues, is an essential first step indicating that a person is no longer indifferent. The energy born of dissatisfaction and a sense of injustice accumulates, and become a real power in the fight against injustice.
In a number of articles dedicated to the volunteer movement that arose around the management of this summer's Russian wildfires, Gregory Asmolov has shown how a civic structure can yield a independent, networked community that can not only carry out social functions efficiently, but also, if needed, take a political stand.
An investigative journalism tool
Global Voices has been covering the role of the blogosphere in investigating a number of corruption scandals (e.g. here and here). The Russian blogosphere, however, brings up new examples every month. On November 16, 2010, Alexey Navalny, the most outspoken Russian investigative blogger (read a GV interview with Navalny here), is the best example of an individual who, empowered by the Internet, is making a change. His recent post about a corruption case in Trasnneft, the Russian oil pipeline company, created a sensation on the Russian Internet (RuNet) and attracted the attention of more than 1 million readers, including some top Russian officials. Navalny found [RUS], verified and released documents confirming the theft of 4 billion dollars in the construction of the ESPO pipeline. In his post, Navalny encouraged readers to re-post his findings and write to the government demanding an investigation. His materials were re-posted by thousands of users on Facebook, LiveJournal and Vkontakte, making the story available to a much wider audience.
An alternative source of information
Miriam Elder at GlobalPost points out that, unlike TV and print media, the Internet is the only source of information free of state regulation and control. Elder presents two examples of new types of mass media based on online content. One of them, Dozhd, an online TV station, offers an alternative news agenda. The creators use three slogans which attempt to restore viewers’ trust in television as a medium: “TV is not our profession”; “Give TV another chance”; and “Don’t be scared to turn on the TV.” The web portal besttoday.ru, headed by Marina Litvinovich, a popular Russian blogger and an activist, represents another example of alternative media in Russia. It aggregates exclusively information from blogs.
Elder quotes Zoya Svetova, a Russian journalist and a blogger, who compares the Russian Internet to samizdat, the Soviet-era underground literature movement, due to the fact that it is “self-produced and distributed.” Unlike samizdat, however, the Internet has a much greater reach and influence.
A growing audience
It is worth noting that the speed with which Internet penetration is increasing in Russia among the highest in the world. Over the Putin-Medvedev period, television lost its credibility as a reliable source of information. According to an article [RUS] by Rumetrika, over the past year the audience for the leading Russian television channels has decreased, whereas the number of Internet users has increased significantly, with the main websites enjoying the same level of popularity as major TV channels. And it is not only the young people who prefer the Internet over other forms of media: the older generation is starting to use it on a daily basis as well.
Not every Internet investigation and online campaign ends in success, and there is much room for improvement. Yet Russian authorities cannot ignore the moves of civil society online and are forced to respond to online critique.
We can witness how the RuNet becomes an arena for competition between at least two concepts relating to the use of cyberspace: “United Russia”‘s spurious formulation, “Internet instead of democracy”, and the independent, grass-roots idea of the Internet as a free environment. So far, both models appear to have equal chances of success. The final outcome, however, will depend on the blogosphere's ability to fulfill its role and mission. As Maxim Trudolyubov in his Vedomosti Op-Ed notes [RUS]:
Internet allows to imitate activism. And that's what, I'm sure, structures like “United Russia” will do […] They will not and they can not achieve the main thing – institutional change. Such change is not granted – it is won.
The post was prepared in collaboration with Masha Egupova.