ICT and the Russian Elections: Does the Internet Matter? Highlights from Internews Panel

Navalny - prominent Russian activist

This week I attended a panel discussion hosted by Internews on the role of the Internet in the Russian elections. The first part of the panel discussed the positive impact of the Internet, while the second offered a more sobering perspective and questioned its potential for effecting real change. Panelists included Maria Gaidar, Gregory Asmolov, Maria Snegovaya, and Matt Rojansky. Some of the highlights:

  • The Internet has been a useful tool for political organizing, crowdsourcing, and engagement, particularly during recent Russian crises. During the 2010 wildfires, Gregory Asmolov co-founded Help Map, an online crowdsourcing platform used to connect people in need of shelter, food, or clothing. Alexei Navalny mobilized Russian activists via Facebook to protest the government and eventually had 30,000 people on the streets. After the protest is over, however, there is a lack of organization and a strong sense of “what's next?” Institutions can maintain the momentum, providing the next steps to effect long-term social and political change. Golos is one of those institutions, having had an active role in election monitoring since 2002, and NDItech has developed more than a few crowdsourcing projects of our own.
  • It’s difficult to evaluate the true role of the Internet during political movements; the Internet has aided revolution in some situations, and had no impact in others. Social media clearly had a large role during the Arab Spring, but it’s unclear whether the Internet was a catalyst or merely a concurrent player. During Iran’s Green Revolution, millions of Twitterers coloring their profiles green in support had no impact politically or socially. The Internet was certainly helpful for organization during Occupy Wall Street, but has not helped sustain the visibility of the movement. In Russia, most Internet users tend to be localized in large cities and are more affluent, educated, and urbanized than the rest of the population. This disparity is why most political scientists are skeptical towards the role of the Internet in Russian political movements.
  • Young people have yet to be considerably involved in politics in Russia. An attendee asked the panelists if young Russians will ever get out from behind their computers and run for office, perhaps even using the web as a tool to get themselves elected. Rojansky argued that youth in Russia are uninvolved because they don’t have a “watershed” issue yet - a Vietnam or an Afghanistan. Potential watershed issues might be government corruption, civil rights, environmental sustainability, or the Occupy Wall Street 99% mentality. As young people see how ineffective it is to simply “Like” a post on Facebook or Retweet an article on Twitter, they will be motivated to become more politically involved.

Panelist Maria Snegovaya argued that the role of the Internet in Russian political movements is very unclear. The Internet is a tool, and can organize opposition movements just as easily as it can promote Putin’s ideals. One important point to keep in mind: since its introduction to Russian society in the late 90s, the Kremlin has viewed the Internet as an American propaganda tool. It will be vital to remember this fact as we continue to evaluate the role of the Internet in Russian society.

Help Map (Russian, view in Chrome to translate)
Rynda.org (Russian)
Social Change and the Russian Network Society paper by Asmolov and Machleder (Internews)