Tag Archives: Russia

Innovation and Counter-Innovation: Digital Resistance in Russia

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?

Cyclones in Cyberspace? How Crowdsourced Cyber Warfare Shaped the Russian-Georgia War

“Cyclones in Cyberspace: Information Shaping and Denial in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War” was just published in Security Dialogue, a respected peer-reviewed journal. The article analyzes “the impact of cyberspace on the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia in August 2008.” The authors Ron Diebert, Rafal Rohozinski and Masashi Crete-Nishihata argue that “cyberspace played a significant, if not decisive, role in the conflict–as an object of contestation and as a vector for generating strategic effects and outcomes.”

The purpose of this blog post is to briefly highlight some important insights from the study by sharing a few key excerpts from the study.

Introduction

“Cyberspace is now explicitly recognized in United States strategic doc-trine as being equally as important as land, air, sea, and space [...]. Dozens of states are actively developing military doctrines for cyberspace operations (Hughes, 2010), while others may be employing unconventional cyberspace strategies. An arms race in cyberspace looms on the horizon (Deibert and Rohozinski, 2011).”

“The US Department of Defense (2010: 86) presently defines cyber- space as ‘a global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures, including the Internet, telecommunications net- works, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers’. This definition acknowledges the interdependence between the physical and informational realm. It also defines cyberspace as the totality of information infrastructures, which includes but is not limited to the Internet. The constitutive elements of cyberspace can be broken down into four levels: physical infrastructure, the code level, the regulatory level, and the level of ideas. These constitutive elements of cyberspace were all present and leveraged during the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.”

“Operations in and through cyber- space were present throughout the conflict and were leveraged by civilian and military actors on both sides. Russian and Georgian forces made use of information operations alongside their con-ventional military capabilities. Civilian leadership on both sides clearly appreciated the importance of strategic communication, and targeted domestic and international media in order to narrate the intent and desired outcome of the conflict.”

“The Internet played an important role as a redistribution channel for media and communications, including news, influential blogs, and rumors. The impact of this media was so effective in the eyes of the Georgian authorities that they decided to censor Russian television broadcasts in major Georgian cities, and to filter access to Russian Internet sites.”

Information Denial

“Both sides (or their sympathizers) employed computer network operations, consisting of attacks designed to disable or degrade key infrastructure, and exploitation or hijacking of government computer systems. In particular, numerous Georgian websites and a few Russian media sites were subject to large-scale distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) events. The command-and-control (C&C) servers responsible for the DDoS against Georgian systems and websites, as well as other forms of malicious hacking, originated from networks located within the Russian Federation.”

“The Russian government has never claimed responsibility for these activities, and it remains unclear whether these operations were coordina-ted, encouraged, or officially tolerated by Russian authorities. This ambiguity is itself an important emergent property of war fighting in the cyber domain.”

“The DDoS surge and SQL injection-based intrusions against Georgian systems beginning on 8 August were later followed by a series of crowd-sourced DDoS activities targeting Georgian government websites and resources, coordinated on Russian hacker forums. It is unclear whether these activities were sanctioned and organized as a component of a broader political strategy, whether they occurred as a result of informal coordination by the Kremlin’s communications staff and its networks of contacts with the Russian IT community (which includes quasi-criminal groups), or whether they occurred as a result of autonomous third-party actions.”

“In an attempt to mitigate the effects of the DDoS events, Georgian authorities sought assistance from the governments of Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland. Reportedly, Estonian officials put Georgia in contact with a community of cyber-security professionals who provided consultations (Stiennon, 2008). Georgia attempted to counter the effectiveness of the DDoS surge by implementing filters to block the Russian IP addresses and protocols used by the attackers. This effort was successfully countered, and the DDoS surge shifted to foreign servers and software to mask the IP addresses (Bumgarner and Borg, 2009). Georgia’s next step was to mirror several government websites, including that of Georgia’s president, on servers located in the countries that came to its assistance, which conse-quently also became the target of Russian DDoS events.”

“US cyberspace was also affected, as components of the Georgian government such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were shifted to Blogspot and the websites of the president and the Ministry of Defense were moved to servers operated by operated by Tulip Systems (TSHost), a private web- hosting company based in Atlanta, Georgia (Swabey, 2008; Svensson, 2008a). The Georgian expatriate CEO of TSHost contacted Georgian officials and offered the company’s services without notifying US authori-ties. Soon after the Georgian websites were transferred to TSHost, the US-based servers were subject to DDoS. The CEO of TSHost reported these attacks to the FBI, but the company never received US government sanction for migrating the websites (Svensson, 2008b). Moving hosting to US-based TSHost raised the issue of whether the USA had violated its cyber neutrality by permitting Georgia to use its information services during the conflict.”

Deliberate or Emergent?

One of the study’s principle research questions is whether the Russian campaign in cyberspace was deliberate and planned. The authors consider there possible scenarios: (1) the actions were deliberate and planned; (2) the actions were ‘encouraged’ or ‘passively encouraged’ by state agents; or (3) the actions were an unpredictable result and dynamic emergent property of cyberspace itself.  The resulting evaluation of each scenario’s probability suggests that “Russian citizens, criminal groups, and hackers independently organized and/or participated in a self-directed cyber riot against Georgia out of patriotic sentiments.”

“Civilians have voluntarily engaged in warfare activities without the approval or direction of states throughout the history of armed conflict. What makes the actions of civilians in cyberspace different are the characteristics of the domain, where effects can be generated with ease and at rapid speed. Quite simply, collective action is easier and faster in cyberspace than it is in any other physical domain. If this scenario was the case during the Russia–Georgia war, it would signal the emergence of a new factor in cyberspace operations – the capacity for a group other than the belligerents to generate significant effects in and through cyberspace. The unpredictable nature of such outside participation–global in scope, random in distribution–can lead to chaotic outcomes, much like the trajectory and phase of a cyclone.”

Conclusion

“There was leverage gained in the conflict by the pursuit of information denial. Even in environments where the communication environment is constrained, societies are heavily dependent on cyberspace and feel its strategic importance most acutely by its absence. Information-denial strategies are more closely associated with countries of Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the CIS–as opposed to the West, which is more comfortable with information projection. Information denial also tends to fit more comfortably within semi-authoritarian or competitive authoritarian countries than democratic ones.”

“The tendencies toward information denial also challenge some of the widespread assumptions about the relationships between new information and communication technologies and conflict. In recent years, a conven-tional wisdom has emerged that links cyber- space with a high degree of transparency around modern wars. Our research suggests that the opposite is more likely to be the case as states and non-state actors aggressively pursue military objectives to shape, control, and suppress the realm of ideas.”

“The tendency toward privateering is very strong in cyber conflict. There is already a large and growing illicit global computer-crime market. This market is attractive to some states because it allows them to execute their missions once removed and clandestinely, thus offering plausible deniability and avoiding responsibilities under international law or the laws of armed conflict. Outsourcing to private actors in cyberspace is an example of what we have elsewhere called ‘next- generation cyberspace controls’ (Deibert and Rohozinski, 2010c). Although we found no direct evidence of cyber-privateering in open sources in this case, it is certainly a possibility. Indeed, some countries may actively cultivate cyber-privateering as a strategy precisely to confuse the battle space and muddy attribution.”

“[…] the scope and scale of contingent effects related to the character of the cyberspace domain present a qualitative difference for international con-flicts. An emergent property related to today’s global information and communications environment, inherent in its complexity, dynamism, and dispersed character, is for acts of cyber warfare to be highly unpredictable and volatile.”

“Although states may plan or ‘seed’ campaigns in cyberspace, such campaigns have a tendency to take on lives of their own because of the unavoidable participation of actors swarming from edge locations (see Der Derian, 1996). We refer to this dynamic as ‘cyclones in cyberspace’ – a phenomenon clearly evident in the August 2008 conflict both in terms of the piling-on of outside participants and the confusion and panic sown in Georgia by its own filtering choices.”

“Cyclones in cyberspace invariably internationalize any cyber conflict. […] As cyberspace penetrates those regions of the world where conflict and instability are ripe and authoritarian regimes prevail, the propensity for more cyclones in cyberspace is high and should concern international security researchers and policymakers.”

For more on cyber war, please see my earlier bog post on “Cyberconflict and Global Politics: New Media, War, Digital Activism.”

Crowdsourcing vs Putin: “Mapping Dots is a Disease on the Map of Russia”

I chose to focus my dissertation research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) during elections in repressive states. Why? Because the contentious relationship between state and society during elections is accentuated and the stakes are generally higher than periods in-between elections. To be sure, elections provide momentary opportunities for democratic change. Moreover, the impact of ICTs on competitive events such as contentious elections may be more observable than the impact on state-society relations during the regular calendar year.  In other words, the use of ICTs during election periods may shed some light on whether said technologies empower coercive regimes at the expense of civil society or vice versa.

This was certainly the case this past week in Russia as a result of the above crowdsourced election-violations map, which was used to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election viola-tions that span the following categories:

While this map is not powered by the Ushahidi platform (contrary to this claim), the many similarities suggest that the project was inspired by the earlier nation-wide use of the Ushahidi platform in 2010, namely the Russia Fires Help Map. In fact, the major initiator of the Violations Map attended a presentation on Ushahidi and Help Map in Boston earlier this year.

The Elections-Violation Map was launched by Golos, the country’s only independent election monitoring organization and Gazeta.ru, Russia’s leading Internet newspaper. This promotional banner for the map was initially displayed on Gazeta.ru’s website but was subsequently taken down by the Editor in Chief who cited commercial reasons for the action: “Right now we have such a period that this advertisement place is needed for commercial advertisement. But we’re still partners with Golos.”

The deputy editor from Gazeta who had curated the map resigned in protest: “After it became evident that the Violation Map ‘no longer suited the leadership and the owners of the website’, [the deputy editor said,]  it would have been “cowardice” to continue the work. Despite Gazeta.ru’s withdrawal from the project, the Violation Map found another partner, “Slon.ru, a popular blog platform (~1 million unique visitors monthly).”

My colleague Alexey Sidorenko argues that the backlash against the Violations Map “induced the Streisand Effect, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction.” Indeed, as one Russian blogger tweeted: “Why are ‘United Russia’ representatives so short-sighted? It is evident that now half of the country will know about the Violation Map.” Needless to say, the Violations Map is one of the trending topics being discussed in Russia today (on election day).

As is well know, Golos is funded by both American and European organizations. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin is not a fan of Golos, as recently quoted in the Washington Post:

“Representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country,” Putin said.

“As the saying goes, it’s money down the drain,” he added. “First, because Judas is not the most respected of biblical characters among our people. And, second, they would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy.”

As expected by many, hackers took down the Golos website along with the Election-Violations Map. (The Sudanese government did the same last year when independent Sudanese civil society groups used the Ushahidi platform to monitor the country’s first presidential elections in two decades). Incidentally, Slon.ru seems to have evaded the take-down. In any case, the blocking of websites is just one very easy tactic available to hackers and repressive regimes. Take this other tactic, for example:

According to a Russian-speaking colleague of mine (who also pointed me to this pro-Kremlin activist video), the woman says that “mapping dots is a disease on the map of Russia.” The video shows her calling the Map’s dedicated number to report a false message (she gives a location that doesn’t exist) and subsequently fills out a false report online. In other words, this is an instructional video on how to submit false information to a crowdsourcing platform. A fully translated transcript of the video is available here.

This same colleague informed me that one of Russia’s State Television Channels subsequently broadcast a program in which it accused those behind the Violations Map of making false claims about the falsification of reports, accusing the “Maptivists” of using an American tool in efforts against the Russian ruling party. In addition, the head of Russia’s Election Committee submitted a complaint against the map to the court, which resulted in the organizers receiving a $1,000 fine (30,0000 Rubles).

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD student at LSE, argues that the Russian government’s nervous reaction to the crowdsourced map and its attempt to delegitimize and limit its presence in cyberspace is clear proof of the project’s impact. Gregory goes on to write that the crowdsourced map is an interim product, not a finished product, which serves as a diagnostic system in which individuals are the sensors. He also argues that crowdsourcing mirrors the reliability of society and thus claims that if there is low confidence in the reliability of crowdsourced information, this is a diagnosis of society and not the crowdsourcing tool itself.

Alexey Sidorenko concludes with the following: “The Violation Map incident is just an indicator of a much deeper trend – the growing will for the need of change, exercised by free, non-falsified elections. In previous election cycles, most journalists would not have resigned and no big portal would have been brave enough to advertise election violation monitoring. Aside from the deeper sociological undercurrent, technology plays a crucial role in all presented stories. [...] none of these events would actually have happened if Golos and Gazeta.ru had not united in producing the Violation Map. Golos has had an election violation database since 2008, but it never was as influential as it is now. This suggests the success of the project relies heavily on its online mapping element (if any event gets concrete geographic coordinates it automatically gets more real and more appealing) and having a proper media partner.”

My dissertation research asked the following question: Do New ICTs Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive States and Civil Society? In the case of Russia’s Parliamentary Elections, it would seem so. So my next question is this: If Help Map inspired this week’s Election Violations Map, then what will the latter inspire now that many more have been exposed to the power of crowdsourcing and live maps? Stay tuned for the next round of Crowdsourcing vs. Putin.

Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?

I recently had the distinct pleasure of participating in a fascination workshop on “Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?” The workshop was organized by the Frei Universität’s program on Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood and co-directed by Professors Gregor Walter-Drop and Steven Livingston. Update: the result of this meeting, and a follow up meeting in 2012 is a book on the topic to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

Throughout the workshop, I kept thinking back to one of my all time favorite books, James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.”  But while I’ve been fully immersed in the field of crisis mapping since the early days (2007), I haven’t really taken the time to think through the deeper implications of these new tools with respect to governance and especially statehood.

My colleague Gregory Asmolov made the link explicit during his excellent presentation on “Russian Wildfires and Alternative Modes of Governance: The Role of Crowdsourcing in Areas of Limited Statehood.” Here’s a summary:

“Because of it’s geographical size, high degree of corruption, and reliance on an extraction economy, governance by government in Russia is often weak and ineffective. Russian political expert Liliya Shevtzova goes so far as to claim that the current regime is an imitation of governance. The 2010 wildfires demonstrated the limited capacity of the state to provide effective emergency response. Information technologies, and crowdsourcing platforms in particular, fulfill the gap of the limited statehood. At the same time, however, the Russian government is also trying to use ICT to increase its claims to effective governance.”

Gregory and his colleagues in Moscow used the Ushahidi platform to create a “Help Map” during the forest fires. They also set up a call center to facilitate communication between those who needed help and those who were offering it. While I knew this had been one of the most stunning examples of citizen-based crowdsourcing initiatives in Russia, I hadn’t thought through the deeper political implications. Not only were citizens helping themselves because of Russia’s limited statehood, they were actually taking over functions of the state, which the map made very explicit. Gregory noted that some Russian citizens even went out to buy firefighting equipment with their own money to combat the fires themselves. Many official fire stations didn’t even have basic equipment needed to respond. In some ways, these efforts laid bare and indeed exposed the Russian regime as an “imitation of governance.”

The Russian government apparently responded by setting up webcams around the country to show that it was in control and still able to monitor the situation. But as this cartoon shows (from Gregory’s presentation), many in Russia were not buying the pretense. See also this article from Christian Science Monitor that Gregory shared: “Russia’s YouTube Democracy is a Sham.

As James Scott notes in his book Seeing Like a State, “the legibility of a society provides the capacity for larger-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.” By legibility, Scott means the ability of the state to index, search, understand and hence manipulate society. But unlike the past, and thanks to free mapping software and crowdsourcing, society is no longer as incapacitated as it used to be. Indeed, thanks to new free and open source mapping technologies, society is able to define it’s own legibility, the contours of which necessarily reveal the limits of statehood.

Moreover, as I have noted before, the resulting map is often not as profound as the social capital generated between the dozens, often hundreds, of people collaborating on a live crisis map. In turn, this social capital facilitates mass collective action. In other words, social capital is fungible. As Scott notes, “this transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map.” In many ways, therefore, the Ushahidi platform is a social-capital and collective-action generating technology.

For more on the Russia Fires projects, I recommend the following links:

The political context of the project: