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Russia: Social Networks Mobilise Society

More than a month has passed since the biggest Russian demonstrations of the last decade in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow. Here is a selection of accounts [ru] from bloggers who were at the demonstration, as well as some of their thoughts as to the next step.

In this article, which will describe the influence of social networks on Russian society, it is worth noting several important technological moments that are linked with these recent events. I would like to describe how these tools worked to influence what happened before, after and during the events in Bolotnaya Square.

Debut of Facebook

Firstly, in Russia, this was the first time Facebook came out as the principal platform for mobilisation. For several years I have been following how social networks work as tools for mobilisation in society. The social network Vkontakte became one of the pioneers of this technology in our country, when the viewers of the TV channel 2×2 went out onto the streets, alarmed at the possibility of the channel's license being revoked.

Another platform which has served as a tool for mobilisation in Russia is LiveJournal (by way of example, it became the main platform in the mobilisation of the ‘Blue Bucket‘ movement). Facebook, however, had never played a significant role in this type of event until December 2011, when it helped the event develop in the following way.

The original demonstration should have taken place on the 10 December, 2011, in Revolution Square. It was planned earlier and a request for it to be carried out was made by the leader of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, his wife Anastasia and a representative of the Moscow Solidarnost, Nadezhda Mitjushkina. Surprisingly, the demonstration was approved by Moscow authorities, though of course, just for 300 participants.

Talk about this demonstration and permission to hold it began after the 6 December, when another demonstration took place and ended in arrests, on the 5 December in Chistye Prudy. No one had expected such a high turn-out, nor such an aggravated, intense display of emotions. Alexey Sidorenko wrote about this in detail in his article ‘The Revolt of the Net Hamsters.’

The following day, the 6 December, a large group of citizens, by way of protest against unfair elections, went out once again to Triumph Square, which has become a symbol of opposition to the Putin regime in recent years. This protest was suppressed by the police who detained many of the participants.

Immediately after the crackdown on the meeting on Triumph Square on the 6 December, a group [ru] appeared on Facebook calling for people to sign up for and take part in another demonstration on Revolution Square. Interestingly, this group was created by a blogger with no relationship to political groups or structures – Ilya Klishin – head of the online resource Epic Hero [ru], a publication for ‘hipsters’, i.e. fashionable, creative urban youth.

The group for the demonstration very quickly started to acquire popularity. Just over 24 hours following its creation, on the 8 December, almost 25,000 people had declared their intention to take part in the campaign for fair elections. Furthermore, about 8,000 people, who had signed up for the event, made their own status “Participation is possible.”

In a similar group [ru], created on the site Vkontakte more than 12,000 signed up to participate.

‘Countability’ of the upcoming protest

Until the day of the demonstration, the 10 December, the number of those who had declared their intention to take part was around 40,000 people. In my opinion, this is the second important observation to be made; that it was only thanks to ‘countability’ and the possibility of seeing a real number of people with a desire to participate in the demonstration, that the authorities were forced to compromise with the demonstration by way of serious and never before seen concessions.

Earlier, no one knew how many people would turn up to this or any other protest. The success of one of the first mass ‘Dissenter's Marches’ which took place in Saint Petersburg in 2007, was as unexpected for the authorities as for the organisers.

Now, social networks allow us to see a real number of participants wishing to take part in the demonstration, a number which grew with every passing day and hour. And in this case the powers that be understood that these calculations on Facebook and Vkontakte had not been “manipulated” in anyway or by anyone and that the protest had acquired a real, mass potential.

And, of course, the government feared these predictions of mass protest. They compelled the demonstration to be held further away from the Kremlin and other official buildings. At the same time, however, they strived for it to be carried out peacefully; it was organised to move calmly following a line from Revolution Square to the demonstration at Bolotnaya Square. Although, many people were prepared to be arrested, the police didn't detain anyone and it was carried out without violence.

Simply by calculating participants through a Facebook event, people were saved from police truncheons. This isn't a bad precedent for Russia to follow.

Internet-inspired slogans

The third important observation that can be made about these events was that this was the first mass protest where people arrived with slogans taken from the Internet. And so, it was LiveJournal, incidentally, which had already set the tone. In the square, we saw the same topics on the demonstrators’ placards as the ones we first saw on LiveJournal.

In particular, on the placards Gauss’ distribution was visible – mathematical evidence for the falsification of votes in favour of the United Russia party:

Gauss' distribution on a placard from a demonstration on Bolotnaya Square. The slogan reads "We believe Gauss". Photo from Norweigen Forest on Live Journal.

Gauss' distribution on a placard from a demonstration on Bolotnaya Square. The slogan reads "We believe Gauss". Photo from Norweigen Forest on Live Journal.

Russian bloggers analysed the distribution of percentages in the 4 December elections according to official data across the country. The results of the analysis were published [ru] on Maksim Pshenichnikov's page on LiveJournal. It is perfectly clear that before the day of voting only very few people had heard of Gauss and his theory of distribution but by the 10 December it was all over the placards.

In addition, of course Churov the magician, the head of the electoral commission, became one of the most popular topics of these homemade placards. This stems from Medvedev who called Cherov a magician, by way of a complement as to how well he carried out the elections. The head of the Central Electoral Commission modestly replied to this saying “I'm not a magician, I'm just learning”.

"Where is my vote, magician?" A banner on Bolotnaya Square. Photo taken from Liver Journal user mamouse. 

"Where is my vote, magician?" A banner on Bolotnaya Square. Photo taken from Liver Journal user mamouse.

Gadgetized protest

And the fourth observation which should be noted from this recent demonstration, was that an Internet-audience which actively uses modern newspapers and mobile devices became apparent.

While it is certainly unknown what share of the participants had smartphones, there is data on which smartphones came out on top. Research [ru] showing this, has been carried out by the analytical group Smart Marketing. According to their data, on the 10 December in Bolotnaya Square, users of Apple devices led the way: of all gadgets the share of iPhones and iPads was 46.6 percent, as noted in the course of their monitoring,

It is interesting that participants in the demonstrations used their mobile devices not only to broadcast information on ongoing events on the Internet but also as a medium for campaigns and slogans.

Subsequent events show that the influence of the organising force on Facebook was created for the next demonstration which was scheduled to take place on the 24 December, on Sakharov Prospect in Moscow. As of the evening of the 19 December, 30,000 people were planning to take part in this demonstration.

2 comments

  • Could this outpouring be in any way related to the millions of dollars that the CIA, via its NED agency, has been pouring into Russian politics?

    Putin is an effective and much-admired democratic leader who has dragged Russia out of the post-Soviet mire.

    In so doing he has reestablished Russia as a major, independent force in the world.

    The USA will not tolerate independence and has launched an attack on him through the agency of the usual dissidents that inhabit every country.

    When Putin wins election this year, these demonstrations will be used to justify the notion that he cheated–in the same way that George Bush cheated in his election against Al Gore. But Mr. Putin is too proud and honest to stoop to such chicanery.

  • Hi, I have a question: What does the “modern newspaper” mean?

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