20 years under Putin: a timeline

Dr. Gregory Asmolov explains how the Russian Internet—Runet—emerged as a socio-cultural and political free space and became a target for the Kremlin after the mass protests of 2011-2012. In this interview for IMR, political scientist Yana Gorokhovskaia spoke with Asmolov about digital innovation in Russia, state encroachment, and the Runet’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

 Photo: courtesy of Dr. Gregory Asmolov.

 

Dr. Gregory Asmolov is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at King’s College London. He began his career as a journalist working for Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta. He has also contributed to the Runet Echo project as part of Global Voices Online. In 2010, Dr. Asmolov co-founded Help Map, an innovative crowdsourcing platform to the coordinate assistance to victims of wildfires in Russia. The project received the Russian National Internet Award. Dr. Asmolov’s academic research focuses on the way that information technologies mediate the relationship between the state and individuals in crisis situations.

 

Five phases of Runet 

Yana Gorokhovskaia: What is Runet and where does the concept come from?

Gregory Asmolov: We rarely see a specific name develop for a national segment of the Internet. Although there are similar structures of local Internet in other post-Soviet spaces, there is no UKNet or USNet. Accordingly, Runet has been the subject of a lot of research that has tried to understand whether it is primarily characterized by a common language, a linkage to a specific country, or shaped by the central role of emigrants in its development.  

Runet is, first of all, a socio-cultural and political construction. The Russian Internet emerged as Runet in response to the diverse social and political challenges that Russia faced in the nineties. People were in need of an alternative cultural space, alternative tools for political organization, and alternative media. Runet as a social imaginary was the answer. 

The role of the Russian Internet has continuously evolved to correspond to the development of the Russian socio-political environment. In my research with Polina Kolozaridi [Internet expert and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow], we identify five phases of Runet development. At the start, it was dominated by technological elites, by people who were able to code at a time when broad access to the Internet was limited. Then it was transformed into a cultural space with the emergence of LiveJournal. Writers, artists and journalists became the dominant force online. In the 2000s, it became a space for new and alternative media before transforming into a space for different forms of political mobilization prompted by crises, such as the forest fires of 2010 and the Duma election in 2011. At that point, the state tried bring this space under control because it had become a political threat and not just an alternative space. It’s not totally correct to describe the development of Runet in a linear way because technological, political, cultural, and media forces continue to compete and influence the role that Runet takes in society.

Recently, my colleagues and I have noted a new transformation of Runet due to the popularity of platforms and online services—Yandex, Mail.ru, Avito.ru [1]—that have no specific socio-cultural meaning. They are part of the global trend of information technologies playing an increasing role in every aspect of our lives. There is increasing friction between the unique alternative space that is Runet and the role of common information technologies in everyday life. Polina and I have suggested that state regulation to address the socio-cultural and political problems of Runet might actually encourage the struggle for Runet’s survival. That is, through efforts to regulate Runet, the state is actually reaffirming its unique socio-political status. 

 

 “Politics of invisibility” and COVID-19 

YG: You have argued that different types of crisis situations (natural disasters, terrorist attacks, conflict) have spurred digital innovation in Russia. What have these innovations looked like in the past?

GA: Crisis situations are a stress test for states, societies, and traditional institutions regardless of the nature of the political regime. But different types of states deal with crisis situations in different ways. In Russia, the state’s response to crisis has been described as “the politics of invisibility.” Initially, this notion was developed by [communications scholar] Olga Kuchinskaya in connection with the response to the Chernobyl disaster. [It implies that] the best way to respond to crisis is to conceal it. Information technologies can potentially diminish the capacity of the state to conceal information about crises. The first contribution of information technology is to increase transparency around crisis situations. The response to the 2010 forest fires was one example of this kind of increased transparency. The state argued that everything was under control and that the fires were not significant. At the time, LiveJournal was a very popular part of Runet and some bloggers went to the disaster areas to witness and report on the damage and casualties.

Informational technologies also help to hold the state accountable. Runet allowed people to demand a response from the state because the scale of the crisis was much more significant than what was depicted by traditional state-controlled media. Once it was clear that traditional institutions were not responding adequately, people were able to self-organize through crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is the mobilization of human resources via digital technologies in order to address different goals; in this case, it was to address the crisis and help those in need. We see that information technologies increase transparency, help to hold the government accountable, and offer an alternative mode of governance in cases where the state is not able to address a crisis. 

The response to the 2010 forest fires was an important case of digitally mediated mobilization. Help Map was one of the tools that facilitated this mobilization and contributed to addressing the crisis. Help Map not only collected information about the crisis and people’s needs but also allocated available resources in an effective way through a group of offline volunteers. From the point of view of the Russian authorities, the online response to the forest fires showed the extent to which the Internet was able to challenge state control. It also demonstrated that the biggest political threat came not from the crisis but from independent mobilization, which exposed the inability of state institutions to provide an adequate response. Technologies that developed as part of a response to crisis can also be used for political mobilization. For example, Alexei Navalny’s RosYama (“Pothole”) project for documenting the state of the roads and the vote watchdog Golos’ “Map of Violations” for monitoring electoral fraud were both built on the experience of Help Map.

In response, Russian authorities have started to consider how to bring crisis mobilization under control in order to mitigate the political threat posed by it. One option would have been to develop a legal framework to control volunteers which would restrict independent mobilization, but it was clear that the only effective solution to bring crisis mobilization under control was to develop state-controlled online tools. After 2010, we saw the development of new platforms by the state that offered opportunities to register and mobilize volunteers. The first platform was Dobrovoletz.rf [dobrovoletz is the Russian word for “volunteer,”—Ed. note], which was produced in association with the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations.

YG: Has the COVID-19 pandemic led to any digital innovations?

GA: In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we clearly see the transparency effect of information technologies both in Russia and around the world. The development of dashboard platforms that allow you to readily consume information about the spread of the virus and casualties is a global innovation trend. The first platform was developed by Johns Hopkins University and became extremely popular. At the same time, despite the increased level of transparency, we still see information about the number of deaths, which continues to be contested. 

Russian authorities have been extremely successful in bringing crisis mobilization under control. Dobro.ru [dobro is the Russian word for “kindness”—Ed. note] is a local volunteering portal supported by Russian authorities, which has become a major tool in the #Myvmeste (“We are together”) federal campaign. In almost every news broadcast, you can find a reference to this mobilization of volunteers. In general, it’s not a bad thing that people decide to volunteer in a time of crisis. But Russian authorities have a monopoly on crisis mobilization through this centralized tool—something I call “vertical crowdsourcing.” And once you take control of the tools of mobilization, it’s up to you how to apply these resources. You can control the extent to which people mobilize and around what goals. You can make sure that this mobilization is linked to authorities and not challenging the credibility of the state. Once you have control of mobilization, you can mitigate the political risks of a crisis. There are still bottom-up initiatives such as the covidarnost.ru and [#взаимопомощь, or “mutual help”] by [the Russian student and political activist] Yegor Zhukov, which addresses mutual aid issues. However, state-sponsored media criticize these projects for being political, or being sponsored by [exiled Russian businessman and philanthropist Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, or being motivated by ulterior goals to challenge the state. The state is keen to limit the impact of independent projects.

YG: How successful has the Russian state’s efforts been in dealing with COVID-19 through digital innovation?

GA: From the point of view of mitigating the political risks of crisis mobilization, Russian authorities have been successful. On the other hand, the experience of other countries has shown that hyperlocal self-organized mutual aid, which relies on simple tools like WhatsApp or Facebook, is much better at addressing the needs of people during the crisis. These structures are flexible and allow people to change roles or occupy multiple roles at the same time. Vertical crowdsourcing assigns roles for participants and does not allow people to change roles. Social resilience in a time of crisis is not achieved by building vertical crowdsourcing but by supporting local self-organization.

But mobilization is not the only aspect of digital innovation. We also see innovation related to risk communication. For instance, Moscow authorities started to use Telegram at a very early stage in the crisis in order to spread information and COVID-related instructions (despite the fact that Telegram is officially prohibited in Russia). Telegram was also used to coordinate efforts to rescue Russian citizens from other countries. 

Russian authorities have also developed a set of tools to track and control the movement of people in order to implement the quarantine measures. This was mostly done by relying on the existing infrastructure of local municipality portals and e-government information systems. While we see this type of innovation in many countries, the political mindset that drives these innovations in Russia is different. Users are seen mostly as objects of control, not as subjects for dialogue and collaboration. These apps are much less sensitive privacy-wise. They have a more intrusive nature and lack any balance when it comes users’ rights. That is also why, unlike in most other countries, fines are embedded within the structure of these apps. Finally, the technical implementation of these apps seems to have less quality control in comparison to what we can see in other countries. That’s why these types of innovations are linked often to the image of a “digital concentration camp.”

 

Russian state vs digital innovations

YG: Recently, we have seen the development of digital innovations specifically targeting the political system in Russia. A well-known example is the so-called “political Uber” employed by an opposition campaign in the 2017 municipal election in Moscow, which provided a digital platform to candidates that simplified the electoral process. How well have authorities been able to counter political innovations of this type?

GA: This type of innovation is a real challenge for the state. The response to this challenge could be seen during the protests in Moscow in August 2019. Once authorities realized that the course of the local election was not under their control, they were forced to use repressive tactics to limit and restrict the election. The dynamic of political innovation follows a pattern where innovation by the opposition creates a challenge which is addressed by the state through traditional power—policing or a new legal restrictions—or by other forms of digital innovation. The reaction to the local election in Moscow showed that, at that time, the state had not yet developed a sophisticated solution and was forced to use traditional methods of control, which elicited protest that also relied on digital innovations. 

One of the illustrations for this type of innovation struggle relates to protests. Protest size is often underreported by authorities. Independent organizations, such as White Counter, try to provide information on protest attendance. In order to show the scale of the protest, activists in Moscow have begun to use drones. In response, first, the government introduced legislation to prohibit drones. Then, later, Russian police were able to purchase special guns to shoot them down. The state is always late in innovating to some extent. But eventually the state is able to offer solutions, which prompt the opposition to create new innovations. It is an ongoing struggle of innovations.

YG: Over the last decade, new laws, including ones that allow state agencies to block information as well as grant access to users’ data, have been introduced to regulate online conversation and activity in Russia. In November of 2019, the law on sovereign internet was adopted, which laid the legal infrastructure to allow for the eventual isolation of Russia from the World Wide Web. What has motivated the Russian government’s attempts to regulate the Internet?  

GA: We saw the approach to Internet change following the protests in 2011-2012. The Russian authorities realized that the Internet was not just another technology, but a space where the political life of the country is shaped. If you follow the official discourse, you see the transformation from Putin’s early statements about the need to protect Internet freedom—where he sounded almost like an Internet freedom activist—to his more recent statements describing the Internet as a foreign threat and arguing for the need to establish online sovereignty. There is an understanding of the need to control the Internet, but it is challenging to build control mechanisms into a space that was originally envisioned as free. It’s not the same as the Chinese [Firewall] where control by the state was embedded into the original infrastructure. In Russia, due to the historical, cultural, and political circumstances of the 1990s, the Internet developed as an alternative socio-political and cultural free space. That’s why the Russian government has experimented with a multidimensional approach to controlling Runet, which is not just about legislation or technology or control of infrastructure or the collection of data or monitoring, but also about developing an innovative capability for the state to be present and impact what happens online.

The concept of “Internet sovereignty” is an outcome of this multidimensionality. It suggests that the scale of control over national cyberspace should be similar to the scale of control over the physical space. Yet, we can see a big gap between the legal and political vision and [its] technological implementation. This law is an element of capacity-building by Russian authorities to increase their control over cyberspace.

  

Runet and conflict

YG: You have examined online interaction in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, arguing that digital platforms can lead both to the socialization of conflict (by providing opportunities to participate) and the internalization of conflict (by making it part of the user’s everyday life). What are the consequences of these processes?

GA: The interconnected nature of Ukrainian and Russian society and the ability of people to communicate horizontally pose a challenge to the way that Ukraine is portrayed by Russian media and through state narratives. And we see the use of different tactics of disinformation, computational propaganda, and fake news in response to this threat. But the role of the Internet is not limited to influencing the perception of the conflict. We also see how the Internet is used to involve people in the conflict. This is made easier by the nature of the new information environment. Unlike in the past, when news consumption and personal interaction were separated, we now see the integration of news media and our personal communication. These links create opportunities for state actors to penetrate the personal layer of social interactions—our online communication—and “poison” personal interactions with information related to the conflict or political issues. This allows the state to make political divisions much more significant and shape our personal interactions. What we see on both sides is that the conflict has become much more significant in personal social interactions, because information technologies not only inform but also engage people in the conflict.

YG: How is the approach of the Russian state to influencing American politics online through digital propaganda—widely documented on Twitter and Facebook—different from its approach toward Ukrainian society?

GA: In both cases, the strategy is to exploit existing vulnerabilities. The difference is that Russian and Ukrainian societies share, to a significant degree, the same language. The Ukrainian language is important for Ukrainian society, but lots of Ukrainians understand and speak Russian. There is also a common history as well as common social, professional, and educational ties between the two societies. It is more challenging to create divisions between countries that are proximate to each other and share common histories. There are different theories about the role of the Internet in the conflict. Some believe that contact contributes to conflict resolution by taking away the opportunity to frame the other side as an enemy. But others argue that the Internet causes people to engage more deeply in the conflict.

I think that digital innovation facilitates participation in the conflict. It’s not just about consuming but also about sharing and generating news about the conflict. One of the outcomes is disconnection and unfriending. This information not only shapes perception of reality, but destroys social ties between the two countries. This also increases the presence of the conflicts in our everyday lives. We start to judge people first, and, mostly, based on their position on Crimea or other aspects of the conflict. The conflict becomes a major point of reference in decisions about social connections. In this sense, information technologies increase the presence of conflicts in our everyday lives. The more people are involved in the conflict through the opportunities afforded by digital innovations, the more the conflict is internalized and becomes a part of our cognitive structure.

YG: Vladimir Putin signed a law this month that bans active duty soldiers from carrying smartphones. In the past, social media post by soldiers have been used by open-source investigators like Bellingcat to report on military operations in Ukraine and Syria. How do informational technologies enable or complicate investigative journalism?

GA: We have a project with Professor Steven Livingston of George Washington University that explores the role of digital innovations in open source investigations. What we find is that these technologies allow for new forms of data collection and analysis, the emergence of a new type of actors—Bellingcat, Conflict Intelligence Team, InformNapalm—as well as new opportunities for collaboration between new and traditional actors.

At the same time, if we analyze the structure of collaboration between these actors, we see that there are different motivations for open source investigations. For example, the Conflict Intelligence Team, according to our analysis, mostly highlights the topic of casualties of Russian soldiers in Syria and Ukraine. Their major motivation is to hold the state accountable in relation to how the military is used by Russian politicians. InformNapalm is a group that considers itself part of the Ukrainian military effort. They are mostly focused on revealing the presence of the Russian military on Ukrainian territory and proving the significance of official Russian involvement in the conflict. These types of open source investigators are seen as less desirable partners for traditional media outlets because their motivations are perceived as potentially biased. There are also groups like Forensic Architecture, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, that have developed unique innovative approaches to support investigations relying on advanced technological and methodological tools. When an actor is unrelated to a specific country or conflict, it is easier for traditional journalists to collaborate with them.

States try to mitigate the capacity of these new actors to conduct these kinds of investigations. One of the major tactics is to challenge their credibility. For example, in the case of the downing of MH17, Russian authorities focused on the credibility of Bellingcat, arguing that they are sponsored by George Soros as well as not reliable or professional. So in that sense, Russian efforts seek to destabilize these new investigative formations. At the same time, countries like Russia try to mitigate the ability of these actors to collect information. One way is to limit the amount of available information. That’s why we see new regulations for the Russian military about the use of mobile phones and geolocation in order to prevent soldiers from sharing information on social networks that could be later used by open source investigators. The approach to countering open source investigations is multidimensional. It includes challenging the credibility of outlets, providing a different narrative (often using similar types of images as those employed by open source investigators), reducing the amount of available data, and legal regulations that allow independent investigations to be labeled as “fake news.”

 

Notes: 

[1] Editor’s note: Yandex and Mail.ru are Russia’s leading mail and search engine services. Avito.ru is the most popular classifieds site in Russia and the second largest such site in the world after Craigslist.

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