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Russia: Online Activism Success Stories

While Internet analysts across the Atlantic are busy arguing if the use of technology brings about social and political change, bloggers in Russia add their humble contributions to the debate, probably unaware that the debate is taking place at all. Their victories are few and small and their impact can easily be attributed to statistical error – but they certainly are out there.

The Russian blogosphere's success stories of the past few months have one thing in common: leveraged by the online media, the stories have resulted in executive decisions that helped people defend their rights.

Fixing Obscenity and Injustice

In May 2010, 44-year-old Difgat Khantimerov, head of the Yermekeevo district of Bashkortostan, was captured on video ordering schoolchildren on a school volleyball team to kiss his feet while doing push-ups. Such a “creative” approach to physical education attracted bloggers’ attention and within several months the video posted by YouTube user ermekeevo2010 had almost 300,000 views:

It took three and a half months for the video to reach the mainstream media. One of the reasons it took so long was that Khantimerov, outraged by the uncontrollable distribution of the video, ordered [RUS] the local Internet Service Provider to cancel any works on the development of broadband in Yermekeevo district.

Another reason was that none of the humiliated kids wanted to draw publicity to what happened in the school's gym. At the end, however, Khantimerov didn't escape responsibility. As soon as the mainstream media (such as lenta.ru and rg.ru) took the initiative from bloggers, the president of Bashkortostan ordered [RUS] to dismiss the official. Later on, Khantimerov apologised [RUS] to the humiliated kids.

Lilia Gumerova, the children's ombudsman in Bashkortostan and the woman who brought the whole story to the masses, wouldn't have achieved even a small part of this without a mobile phone camera, YouTube, and the shocked viewers.

Investigative Crowdsourcing

The story of Anna Buzilo (Vladivostok) shows how investigative crowdsourcing can be more efficient than the police. 25-year-old Anna disappeared on June 14, 2010. Three days later, user Kripton fromVladivostok forum drom.ru started [RUS] a thread asking the fellow netizens for help. On June 18, blogger LeRoN posed [RUS] a trivial question:

Кстати, она со своим парнем не ссорилась?

By the way, did she have any fights with her boyfriend?

Only in September, when Anna's murderer was found, did LeRoN realize how close to truth he was when he asked that question.

Later on, over 500 drom.ru users joined Anna's friends and relatives in search for her, her murderer or kidnapper. Blogger Bedaan set up [RUS] a voluntary fund to pay for gasoline for those who were involved in looking for any traces of Anna. Other bloggers were disseminating leaflets with basic information about the woman. Some users took police dogs to search in the remote places of the city, others used private channels to retrieve her cell phone logs [RUS] from the phone company.

Three months after Anna's disappearance, Pavel, her boyfriend, said he had kidnapped her and asked for $130,000 ransom. He was immediately arrested. According to the interview [RUS] with one of the participants of the search, forum users considered this version as the main one. After some time, Pavel confessed to a murder and showed where he had left Anna's body.

Without forums like drom.ru, Anna's case would have never been investigated as thoroughly.

Another story happened in Yekaterinburg region, where three cars were terrorizing local drivers, while being ignored by policemen. In one of the incidents, drivers of the “three black cars with Tyumen [a neighboring region] license plates” vandalized a random car. LJ user pilgrim-67 analyzed [RUS] the case. He used the observations [RUS] and photos [RUS] of the local forum to identify the license plates of the cars, found the names of the owners of these cars and found the owners’ accounts on Odnoklassniki.ru, a Russian social network. He successfully retrieved full personal information of the offenders. Moreover, he discovered that these road bandits, who had operated with such impunity, were connected to the “United Russia” party members in Tyumen region.

After pilgrim-67‘s investigation of the case, the police launched a criminal case and arrested one of the offenders. Again, the social media have played two roles, that of an investigator, and a pressure-maker.

Exposing Corruption

Previously, GV covered the role of LiveJournal communities as a transparency tool. The impact of individual bloggers, like Alexey Navalny and Ivan Begtin, has become even more important in the past few weeks: they have prevented stealing $1.8 million.

On October 15, 2010, Yevgeniy Lerner (LJ user evgeniy1001) published a post titled “55 mln rubles in 16 days? – a social network from the Ministry of Health,” in which he pointed out a strange tender issued by the Ministry of Health. The tender foresaw spending $1.8 million in nearly two weeks. It was evident for every IT professional that the task formulated in such a way was impossible to implement within the stated amount of time.

Alexey Navalny, Ivan Begtin, and other bloggers launched [RUS] a blog campaign, raising awareness about the suspicious conditions of the tender, which resulted [RUS] in resignation of the official responsible for issuing the tender, as well as the cancellation of the tender.

The case inspired Navalny so much that he offered [RUS] IT specialists all over the country to evaluate all upcoming government IT projects and check whether they looked suspicious. After this call, two more tenders were immediately canceled. Navalny admitted [RUS] that, unfortunately, he no longer believed there were any non-suspicious IT tenders whatsoever.

All these cases prove one point: the new media are making a difference in the areas where nothing could be done before.

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