Want to know what the future of digital activism looks like? Then follow the developments in Russia. I argued a few years back that the fields of digital activism and civil resistance were converging to a point I referred to as “digital resistance.” The pace of tactical innovation and counter-innovation in Russia’s digital battlefield is stunning and rapidly converging to this notion of digital resistance.
“Crisis can be a fruitful time for innovation,” writes Gregory Asmolov. Contested elections are also ripe for innovation, which is why my dissertation case studies focused on elections. “In most cases,” says Asmolov, “innovations are created by the oppressed (the opposition, in Russia’s case), who try to challenge the existing balance of power by using new tools and technologies. But the state can also adapt and adopt some of these technologies to protect the status quo.” These innovations stem not only from the new technologies themselves but are embodied in the creative ways they are used. In other words, tactical innovation (and counter-innovation) is taking place alongside technological innovation. Indeed, “innovation can be seen not only in the new tools, but also in the new forms of protest enabled by the technology.”
Some of my favorite tactics from Russia include the YouTube video of Vladimir Putin arrested for fraud and corruption. The video was made to look like a real “breaking news” announcement on Russian television. The site got millions of viewers in just a few days. Another tactic is the use of DIY drones, mobile phone live-streaming and/or 360-degree 3D photo installations to more accurately relay the size of protests. A third tactic entails the use of a twitter username that resembles that of a well-known individual. Michael McFaul, the US Ambassador to Russia, has the twitter handle @McFaul. Activists set up the twitter handle @McFauI that appears identical but actually uses a capital “i” instead of a lower case “L” for the last letter in McFaul.
Asmolov lists a number of additional innovations in the Russian context in this excellent write-up. From coordination tools such as the “League of Voters” website, the “Street Art” group on Facebook and the car-based flashmob protests which attracted more than one thousand cars in one case, to the crowdsourced violations map “Karta Narusheniy“, the “SMS Golos” and “Svodny Protocol” platforms used to collect, analyze and/or map reports from trusted election observers (using bounded crowdsourcing).
One of my favorite tactics is the “solo protest.” According to Russian law, “a protest by one person does not require special permission. So activist Olesya Shmagun stood in from of Putin’s office with a poster that read “Putin, go and take part in public debates!” While she was questioned by the police and security service, she was not detained since one-person protests are not illegal. Even though she only caught the attention of several dozen people walking by at the time, she published the story of her protests and a few photos on her LiveJournal blog, which drew considerable attention after being shared on many blogs and media outlets. As Asmolov writes, “this story shows the power of what is known as Manuel Castell’s ‘mass self-communication’. Thanks to the presence of one camera, an offline one-person protest found a way to a [much wider] audience online.”
This innovative tactic lead to another challenge: how to turn a one-person protests into a massive number of one-person protests? So on top of this original innovation came yet another innovation, the Big White Circle action. The dedicated online tool Feb26.ru was developed specifically to coordinate many simultaneous one-person protests. The platform,
“[…] allowed people to check in at locations of their choice on the map of the Garden Ring circle, and showed what locations were already occupied. Unlike other protests, the Big White Circle did not have any organizational committee or a particular leader. The role of the leader was played by a website. The website suffered from DDoS attacks; as a result, it was closed and deleted by the provider; a day later, it was restored. The practice of creating special dedicated websites for specific protest events is one of the most interesting innovations of the Russian protests. The initial idea belongs to Ilya Klishin, who launched the dec24.ru website (which doesn’t exist anymore) for the big opposition rally that took place in Moscow on December 24, 2011.”
The reason I like this tactic is because it takes a perfectly legal action and simply multiplies it, thus forcing the regime to potentially come up with a new set of laws that will clearly appear absurd and ridiculed by a larger segment of the population.
Citizen-based journalism played a pivotal role by “increasing transparency of the coverage of pro-government rallies.” As Asmolov notes, “Internet users were able to provide much content, including high quality YouTube reports that showed that many of those who took a part in these rallies had been forced or paid to participate, without really having any political stance.” This relates to my earlier blog post, “Wag the Dog, or Why Falsifying Crowdsourced Information Can be a Pain.”
Of course, there is plenty of “counter-innovation” coming from the Kremlin and friends. Take this case of pro-Kremlin activists producing an instructional YouTube video on how to manipulate a crowdsourced election-monitoring platform. In addition, Putin loyalists have adapted some of the same tactics as opposition activists, such as the car-based flash-mob protest. The Russian government also decided to create an online system of their own for election monitoring:
“Following an order from Putin, the state communication company Rostelecom developed a website webvybory2012.ru, which allowed people to follow the majority of the Russian polling stations (some 95,000) online on the day of the March 4 presidential election. Every polling station was equipped with two cameras: one has to be focused on the ballot box and the other has to give the general picture of the polling station. Once the voting was over, one of the cameras broadcasted the counting of the votes. The cost of this project is at least 13 billion rubles (around $500 million). Many bloggers have criticized this system, claiming that it creates an imitation of transparency, when actually the most common election violations cannot be monitored through webcameras (more detailed analysis can be found here). Despite this, the cameras allowed to spot numerous violations (1, 2).”
From the perspective of digital resistance strategies, this is exactly the kind of reaction you want to provoke from a repressive regime. Force them to decen-tralize, spend hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of labor-hours to adopt similar “technologies of liberation” and in the process document voting irregularities on their own websites. In other words, leverage and integrate the regime’s technologies within the election-monitoring ecosystem being created, as this will spawn additional innovation. For example, one Russian activist proposed that this webcam network be complemented by a network of citizen mobile phones. In fact, a group of activists developed a smartphone app that could do just this. “The application Webnablyudatel has a classification of all the violations and makes it possible to instantly share video, photos and reports of violations.”
Putin supporters also made an innovative use of crowdsourcing during the recent elections. “What Putin has done is based on a map of Russia where anyone can submit information about Putin’s good deeds.” Just like pro-Kremlin activists can game pro-democracy crowdsourcing platforms, so can supporters of the opposition game a platform like this Putin map. In addition, activists could have easily created a Crowdmap and called it “What Putin Has Not Done” and crowdsource that map, which no doubt would be far more populated than the original good deed map.
One question that comes to mind is how the regime will deal with disinformation on crowdsourcing platforms they set up? Will they need to hire more supporters to vet the information submitted to said platform? Or will they close up the reporting and use “bounded crowdsourcing” instead? If so, will they have a communications challenge on their hands in trying to convince that trusted reporters are indeed legitimate? Another question has to do with collective action. Pro-Kremlin activists are already innovating on their own but will this create a collective-action challenge for the Russian government? Take the example of the pro-regime “Putin Alarm Clock” (Budilnikputina.ru) tactic which backfired and even prompted Putin’s chief of elections staff to dismiss the initiative as “a provocation organized by the protestors.”
There has always been an interesting asymmetric dynamic in digital activism, with activists as first-movers innovating under oppression and regimes counter-innovating. How will this asymmetry change as digital activism and civil resistance tactics and strategies increasingly converge? Will repressive regimes be pushed to decentralize their digital resistance innovations in order to keep pace with the distributed pro-democracy innovations springing up? Does innovation require less coordination than counter-innovation? And as Gregory Asmolov concludes in his post-script, how will the future ubiquity of crowd-funding platforms and tools for micro-donations/payments online change digital resistance?