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Russia: Is Internet Guilty of Organizing Nationalistic Riots?

Guilty Internet

Russian media and blogosphere ponder who is responsible for the nationalists’ riots in Moscow [RUS] in mid-December. Some claim the radical nationalists exploited the anger of the football fans, others look for the guilty among the fans themselves and bloggers suspect [RUS] the Kremlin in initiating the violent events. But the authorities found their own scapegoat – the Internet.

“The Internet-based unrest spilled out to Moscow streets, […],”  the article [RUS] of RIA Novosti, state-sponsored news agency, reads. This narrative is also echoed by Russian security forces.

A source in the security forces told RIA [RUS] that after the riots they intensified the practice of e-mails and social networks monitoring to identify nationalist messages. Moreover, the technical departments of FSB (Federal Security Service) and the Ministry of Interior tried to identify Internet users who “spread the provocative rumors in regard to the recent events in Moscow,” the source said.

RIA Novosti also noted that unconfirmed rumors and social media coverage of the events shared the responsibility for the riots together with those who spread hatred and incitement. This reaction of the major news outlet resembles the reaction of the mainstream media to the coverage death rate increase in Moscow [ENG] during the summer wildfires when bloggers were blamed for spreading panic.

Managers of Russian social networks reacted accordingly. Vladislav Tsiplukhin, a spokesperson for Russian social network Vkontakte.ru, said [RUS] the platform had 600 moderators responsible for monitoring and removing hate speech groups. Tsiplukhin also said that Vkontake.ru closely cooperated with Russian security services.

Unlike Vkontakte.ru, Livejournal.com, the most popular blogging platform in the country, was more reactive than proactive in removing hate speech. The administration did not moderate the posts, but relied on the “Abuse team” that made decisions based on users’ complains. Few days after the riots, Livejournal.com has introduced stricter rules [RUS] for hate speech and emphasized their intolerance of any content targeted against ethnic minorities. At the same time, Livejournal.com suspended blogs of at least three popular political bloggers (pilgrim_67, rakhat_aliev, sadalskij).

False scent

Besides blaming the Internet itself – which is very convenient for Russian authorities both in terms of justifying the Internet censorship and identifying the main provocateur of the events – the official discourse suggested that the Internet became a organization tool for a group of radical nationalists who manipulating the crowds. The opposition, on the contrary, suspected the Kremlin in organizing the riots. But both explanations can be misleading.

Even if some particular organization has been involved, the major actor still were the crowds themselves. Viral distribution of messages took place in horizontal environment.

According to the complexity theory [ENG], one of the characteristics of a complex system (e.g. a social network) is that interactions inside the system are non-linear. That means that small causes (and not necessarily expressed from the initial coordination center) can have large results. In other words, to start a fire, one doesn't need much power but the proper conditions for the fire.

Once the networks have a high enough rate of xenophobia, anger and hostility, this network provides a fruitful environment for a wildfire of hatred. For instance, Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich described [ENG] the role of mobile text message in Kenyan violence in 2008 as a tool of “viral hatred.”

Many new media experts talk [ENG] about advantages of the leaderless networked organizations. Paradoxically, the leaderless protests create a significant challenge: the state has no one to negotiate with and it has to create a representative of the other side. During the Manezh riots we could see the chief of Moscow police having a negotiation with a person in mask, person with no face, and, to some extent, his facelessness was very representative. In this case, the authorities deliberately invented the other side ignoring the fact the protest was caused not by fake leaders or communication tools, but by the network society.

Nationalism as a virtual spectacle

Detective novels tell us that every crime has to have a motive. Among the motives of the Manezh riots are “usual suspects:” migrants from former Soviet republics, low quality of life, social instability and ethnic stereotypes. The increase in “popularity” of the riots, however, can be caused not only by a desire to participate in xenophobic mobilization, but rather by a common  human boredom, curiosity and a need for entertainment.

Online space is not only a platform of communication, but an arena of a virtual spectacle. Social networks are not only a space for interaction, but also entertainment. Many communication experts explain that even  hard news can be a source of entertainment and can be described as “infotaintment”[ENG]. From this point of view, the fact of participation in public action might be more important than its nature.Visiting soccer fan forums, chatting on social network or going out to the streets are parts of the same interactive entertainment process.

Ilya Varlamov, a popular photoblogger, observed [RUS] this on December 15, the next public protests following the Manezh riots:

Что удивило, так это большое количество детей. Такое впечатление, что информацию распространяли по школам. Почти половина задержанных – несовершеннолетние.<…> Если молодые люди понимали, что происходит, то девушки веселились, часто провоцируя парней.Толпа весело поднимала вверх руку. Лозунги стандартные: “Россия для русских!” “Ебать Кавказ, ебать!” “Отсоси у всей России!” “Слава России!”

- Девушки, а зачем вы сюда пришли?
– Посмотреть, как хачей бить будут!
– А вам не страшно?
– Нет! Смотри, сколько нас!

What I was surprised by is a big amount of children. I have an impression that the information has been spread in schools. Almost a half of the detained are minors. If young men understood what was going on, young women just had fun and often provoked the guys. The crowd would cheerfully raise their hands [showing “Ziga” – Russian name for a Nazi salute “Zig Heil”-GV] Slogans were standard: “Russia are from Russians!” “F..k the Caucasus!” “Blow Russia!” “Hail to Russia!”
-Young lady, why did you come here?
-To see how they beat up “hachis” [derogatory term for inhabitants of the Caucasus – GV].
-Aren't you scared?
-No! Look how many of us are here!

The relationship of “actors” and “spectators” is based on the logic of “demand and supply.”  The problem is not those who beat people, but those who come to watch. Indeed, the Internet makes the border between watching and participation vague. The Web simplifies participation in the virtual spectacle thus increasing the exposure of marginal initiatives.

The fact that online hatred entertains is not a problem of technology but of an education. If the authorities want to avoid this type of events in the future, they should focus not on restricting the Internet or finding the particular people who allegedly started the riots, but on educating Russian “networked” youth. So far, the only one who was fighting the reality of entertainment and hatred was Mr. Freeman, an online cartoon character, but his voice wasn't heard during the Manezhnaya square events.

2 comments

  • Stephen Ennis

    “Tsiplukhin also said that Vkontake.ru closely cooperated with Russian security services.”

    I’ve just looked at the RIA article you linked to and, as far as I can see, all he is quoted as saying is that the network’s administrators receive requests to delete accounts from the “relevant services”. I am not sure this amounts to “close cooperation” as such.

  • […] Facebook and Twitter. It is when various networks become initiators of violence (e.g. the way it happened on Manezhnaya square a month ago). In other words, the real threat to networks are the networks itself. Written by Gregory […]

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