Russia: Internet Freedom As Cold War 2.0

Hillary Clinton at George Washington University, photo by Gregory Asmolov

On February 15, 2010 Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, shared her vision of the Internet’s role in the modern world. New remarks emphasized  the definition of the cyberspace as “the public space of the 21st century” and the U.S. commitment to promote Internet freedom.

It seemed that this kind of speech would be supported by bloggers all over the world. Surprisingly, Russian bloggers and, not surprisingly, Russian media were mostly skeptical about Clinton's speech. Article titles vividly illustrate the framing of the address: “Top-Level Trolling: U.S. Government Plans To Enlighten Russian Citizens Via Twitter” (Vzglyad [RUS]), “Strategic Twitter Offensive: the U.S. Claims Authority Over Defending Free Internet All Over the World” ( [RUS]), “Enemy Voices In 140 Symbols” ( [RUS]) .

Two elements of the speech attracted most attention. The first one is the launch of State Department Twitter account in Russian. And the second one is the  decision of the U.S. to invest $25 million in the “Internet freedom” initiatives.

Twitter as the Ultimate Information Weapon

Despite the fact that Russia wasn’t the main topic of the address and was mentioned only twice (one mention included reference to Help Map project as an example of the Internet's potential), the majority of blog posts were much more critical than mainstream media.

There were two major points of criticism. The first group of bloggers accused the U.S. in intents to use the Internet for triggering revolution inside Russia. Other bloggers protested against the U.S. involvement in regulation of the Internet and suggested that the “Internet freedom” speech automatically makes any blogger a U.S. collaborator. Liberal bloggers themselves tried to make fun of the speech and discussed who would receive $25 million. Some of the bloggers questioned to what extent the U.S.-based Twitter can make any impact on Russian audience.

Cenzor1998 titled his post: “The State Department wants to Feed Russian bloggers” and wrote [RUS]:

Началось. Та же катавасия, что в 90-ых. Нельзя Западу верить. Нужно срочно создавать альтернативные источники информации.

It has began. The same story that in 90s. We shouldn't trust the West. We have to create alternative sources of information urgently.

LJ blogger socialism_vk in a post titled “Cold War 2.0 in Twitter” explained [RUS] that “obviously treacherous Americans want to make fools and subjugate people from other countries by managing public opinion through the major Internet evil – Twitter.” With some irony, the blogger expressed his hope that “the progressive and innovative president Medvedev” who knows how to use the “malicious Western tool,” would be able to protect his own people by hypnotizing them with tweets about governmental discussions and sending “proper messages.” The blogger, however, predicted [RUS] the escalation of “The Cold War 2.0”:

Возникает закономерный вопрос: придут ли Госдеп и Пентагон […] в “Одноклассники” и “В контакте”, дабы и оттуда на русском языке вести новую холодную войну, приводя в действие все те же планы по разрушению нашей страны? Какой ответ помимо наших главных защитных интернет-бастионов – твиттера Медведа, блогов кибер-нашистов и Лиги безопасного интернета – может дать Россия?

The obvious question comes up: will the State Department and Pentagon […] come to “Odnoklassniki” and “Vkontakte” [popular social platforms in Russia – G.V.] and wage there a new Cold War in Russian language as part of the plan to destroy our country?  What response can Russia provide, except our main Internet-bastions – Medvedev's Twitter, blogs by “Nashi” activists and the League for Secure Internet?

An anonymous commenter at explained [RUS] noted efficiency of Twitter compared to Pentagon:

информационное оружие экономически выгоднее… 25 млн. против 300 млрд. бюджета пентагона :) Поражает только циничная откровенность заявлений…

The information weapons are more profitable from economic point of view… $25 million comparing to $300 billion of the Pentagon's budget. But the cynic frankness of the statement is astonishing… commenter Olesya Semenova suggested [RUS] to use the same “weapon” against the U.S.:

интересно можем ли мы так же воздействовать на американцев. У них ведь далеко всё не так уж радужно. Демократии нет .Дур дом с образованием ,корупция и т.д. и т.п. Американский народ должен знать как его дурят, насилуют и уничтожают зарвавшиеся амриканские же политиканы.

I wonder if we can influence the Americans in the same way. Their situation is also not so perfect. The don't have democracy. They have a crazy situation with education, corruption, etc. The American people should know how it is fooled, raped and destroyed by reckless American politicians?

Some of the Kremlin-affiliated bloggers identified a linkage between the Internet Freedom speech and John McCain's interview a day earlier. Blogger Demidov-Anton published [RUS] a statement on behalf of “ Rossiya Molodaya” movement that said every efforts of the “American pseudo-democrats to impose the Egyptian scenario on Russia will be prevented.”

Bloggers also noticed that several hours prior to Clinton's speech, Sergey Ivanov, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, said [RUS] that the Internet was one of the major tools for terrorist and anti-social activities. Blogger ivn_derevnya compared [RUS] two politicians:

Говоря о разном, в результате они говорят об одном, что интернет из нерегулируемого и достаточно свободного и безцензурного пространства превращается в арену новой холодной войны XXI-го века…

They talk about different things. But, as a result, they talk about the same: the Internet from relatively free and unregulated space transforms into new arena of the 21st century Cold War…

We Don’t Want More Politics on the Net

Many liberal bloggers who don’t consider the U.S. an enemy were also extremely critical. Anton Nossik, famous liberal blogger, argued [RUS]:

Свежее выступление Хилари Клинтон про Госдеп, который выделит 25 миллионов долларов на помощь блоггерам во всём мире, иллюстрирует одно моё давнее наблюдение.
Любой чиновник, когда он лезет рулить Интернетом, национальным или зарубежным, должен быть посылаем нахуй в ту самую минуту. К американским чиновникам относится в той же мере, что и к российским, или египетским.

The recent speech by Hillary Clinton about the State Department's plan to invest $25 million in assistance for bloggers all over the world provides an illustration for my old argument. Every official that tries to rule the Internet, the national or international one,  should be sent to Hell immediately. It is relevant to the same extent for American officials, as well as for Egyptian and Russian ones.

Nossik reminded that crackdown on Wikileaks has been one of “the most vivid examples of the Internet censorship west to the Great Chinese Wall”. Plus, Clinton’s address could endanger liberal bloggers:

Даже если бы не было никакого Ассанжа, ее заявление находится по ту сторону добра и зла.
После таких дебильных выступлений любой Лукашенко, Ахмуди, Сурков и Назарбаев может смело объявлять любого критика власти “платным агентом Госдепартамента”.

Even if Assange didn't exist, her statement is beyond good and evil. After such stupid speeches, any Lukashenko, Ahmudi [Ahmedinejad – GV], Surkov or Nazarbayev can, without any doubt, declare that everyone critical of the government is a “paid agent of the State Department.”

ivn_derevnya developed [RUS] this argument:

…еще вчера я, ты, все,  были просто блогерами… А теперь мы стали агентами влияния США, и кто его знает может даже владельцами счетов с зеленью, за бугром. И навальный и гудков и все все все… И теперь на деньги иностранные – мы представляем угрозу безопасности страны – мы террористы и экстремисты… Мы враги государства и иностранные агенты…

…yesterday, I, you and we all have been just simple bloggers. Now we were turned into agents of American influence, and who knows, maybe even owners of overseas dollar accounts. It includes Navalny and Gudkov and all of us… And now with foreign money, we present a threat to national security, we are terrorists and extremists… We are enemies of the state and foreign agents…

Petroffvalerij wondered [RUS] if the Internet freedom speech actually served the interests of the Russian ruling party “United Russia”:

И теперь получилась “забавная” ситуация: любой автор ругающий в блогосфере политику правящей “Единой России”, в глазах читателя автоматически становится соискателем “Премии им. Хилари Клинтон”… “Подстава” вышла однако… Может её наша “Единая Россия” об этом попросила?

Now, we have a “funny” situation: anyone who criticizes online the policy of the ruling “United Russia,” automatically becomes a nominee for the “Hillary Clinton Award.” A set-up, I must say. Maybe “United Russia” asked her [Clinton – G.V.] for it?

The liberal top-bloggers themselves tried to make a joke of the story. One of the most popular bloggers Ilya Varlamov tweeted [RUS]:

Someone just called me and said that the State Department is going to pay bloggers for popularization of democracy in blogs.  Finally!!! Twitter in Russian?

@ClintonRussia: Fake account of the Secretary of State. Screenshot

The State Department didn’t tell where the $25 million would go. Russian Netizens, however, had different information. Fake @ClintonRussia account has been registered (a reference to real @MedvedevRussia and fake but popular @KermlinRussia) that was actively tweeting [RUS] in deliberately misspelled Russian :

Пожалуйста, скажите мне, Twitter-счетов политических деятелей в вашей стране, разделяя принципы свободы и прав человека.

Please, tell me Twitter accounts of political activists who share freedom of ideas and human rights in your country.

Later, the account started to address the most popular liberal bloggers:

"@Navalny we will contact you!"

Some of the Russian bloggers wondered [RUS] if the real account would able to do the same:

Ежели твиттер Госдепа будет вестись с такой же периодичностью, что и ЖЖ-аккаунт посла США в России Дж.Байерли, то революции в России по типу египетской можно не опасаться как минимум до конца текущего столетия:)

If State Department's Twitter is updated with the same frequency as John Beyrle's (U.S. ambassador in Russia) LiveJournal account, we shouldn't be afraid of Egyptian-style revolution in Russia at least till the end of the current century :)

The efficiency of Twitter as a medium was also questioned [RUS] by Svetlana Romanova, blogger at

Неизвестно, ставил ли Госдеп своим сотрудникам в соцмедиа какие-либо показатели эффективности, но в России этим сервисом микроблогов пользуется в лучшем случае 0,4% населения. […] Так что шансов у twitter-аккаунтов Госдепа получить звание «прожектор новой перестройки» мало.

It remains unknown if the State Department had any indicators of efficiency for its social media employees, but in Russia, Twitter is used  by 0.4 percent of the population. […] So the chances of the State Department's Twitter account to become a “Searchlight of Perestroika” are insufficient.

It should be mentioned that the State Department’s Facebook Account in Russian is one of the 10 most popular fan pages on Russian Facebook [RUS]. It has 42, 672 fans and increases every month.

Surprisingly, I was able to find just one positive reaction to the “Internet Freedom” speech. An anonymous commenter responded [RUS] to article:

Удивительно, какой наш народ зашоренный… Ему побоку, что политики сша в кои то веки выступили с верной мыслью, актуальной и для нашей страны, а в ближайшем будущем – актуальной вдвойне. Нашему народу важно, что “а х-ли говорят за меня? а я так не считаю! сша опять лезут в мою жизнь! Не дают спокойно и гордо существовать!”

It's astonishing to what extent our people have limited perspective… They don't care that once in a while the U.S. eventually expressed a good and very relevant idea for our country, and in the nearest future it will be especially timely. What our people care is “Why they talk on my behalf? I don't think so. Why the U.S. again penetrates my life? They don't give me to live quietly and proudly!”

Lost in translation

One may assume that the reaction of Russian bloggers could be an unexpected surprise for those who had developed the new U.S. Internet freedom strategy. Hillary Clinton, however, wasn’t the first one to approach Russian citizens online. In 2008, the undersecretary for public diplomacy James Glassman announced creation of Russian language “Digital Outreach Team”, that would engage in RuNet discussions about American politics. The initiative was badly received.

There are probably a number of explanations for this type of reaction. One of them is offered [ENG] by Steven Corman and his colleagues. They suggest the U.S.  communication failures in other countries are caused by the lack of understanding that “a meaning cannot simply be transferred, like a letter mailed from point A to point B,” but it depends primarily on ”interpreting one-another’s actions and making attributions about thoughts, motivations, and intentions”.

Corman writes: Interpretation by a receiver is influenced by an array of factors that are outside the control of—and may even be unknown to—the sender” and concludes that “A message might increase understanding, but it might also create misunderstanding.”

It looks like Russian reaction to the Internet Freedom speech by the Secretary of  State is an example for the latter. Maybe clever foreign policy should take into account the other’s systems of interpretation and not just send the message from A to B.

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