The man with the giant spot on his head was always on the television. As a child I watched Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw talk about him in hopeful though cautious tones. President Ronald Reagan often appeared in the pictures shaking hands with that man called Gorbachev. There was no public Internet in those days; a face was a face and a book was a book and we played Oregon Trail on green-screened IBM machines. The world in which glasnost and perestroika brought the end of the Soviet Union was quite different than the world in which Vladimir Putin has become president of Russia once again.
The Russian people are different, too. The long suffering tragic figures of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy novels are being replaced by young, networked people full of hope. They’ve been empowered by technology in a way those who invented the Internet never could have imagined. While Russia’s traditional media has become less free since the promising days of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Internet, or RuNet, has remained fairly free from government interference, according to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s paper Exploring Russian Cyberspace: Digitally-Mediated Collective Action and the Networked Public Sphere. The research shows that social media have created a vibrant space for discussion about political and social issues even as print and broadcast media are prevented from reporting the truth. On the other hand, recent cyber-attacks and arrests of bloggers have obstructed online activity and debate.
“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate in Mikael Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. One can imagine certain Russian politicians employing a giant cat and a short man with a bowler hat and a fang sticking from his mouth to run around polling stations, stuffing ballot boxes and causing electoral mayhem. Indeed, electoral mayhem seems to have taken place. Twitter and other social media have been flooded with accusations of fraud, and videos have appeared online showing ballot stuffing, people getting paid to vote, and “carousel voting,” in which groups of people vote at several different polling stations using the same ballot.
Social media is making it much more difficult for dictators across the globe to hide the truth from the people. RuNet has become a watchdog over state and corporate interests. The Berkman paper highlights the Gazprom tower, the Khimki forest campaign, and the anti-Seliger protests as examples of online collective action. However, social media is a tool used by a limited segment of the population. According to the Open Society Foundations’ report Mapping Digital Media: Russia, the total monthly number of unique Internet users in Russia in November 2010 was 46.5 million, a mere 40 percent of the population aged 18+, and most Internet users reside in the larger cities.
Still, the impact that social media has had on Russia as a whole is undeniable. The country saw unprecedented protests against Putin both before and after the elections, protests that were largely organized through online media. No doubt issue campaigns will continue to be organized in the country, though it remains to be seen if President Putin will allow such freedom on RuNet to continue.
For more information on digital media in Russia, please see our list of resources here.