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Russia: Election and the “Other Side of the Panopticon”

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

Internet and de-legitimatization of election results

Parliament elections in Russia gave a clear answer to the question of whether the Internet can have an impact on elections. The answer is yes.

No, it doesn’t mean that the Internet can significantly change the outcome. Indeed, online discourse could contribute to increasing participation, as well as to influencing the way people vote. Russian Internet users widely discussed whether to vote at all and if yes, then how to vote. One could even witness emergence of a consensus around the idea that the best strategy was to vote for any party except United Russia. In the situation where the State uses vast administrative resource and various methods to “improve” voting, the Internet per se can’t seriously challenge the victory of the ruling party.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the Internet plays a leading role in the orgnization of the protests. Yes, it can be very helpful, and the Moscow protests is another case when the Internet is a major tool for sharing information about the opposition actions, especially when the TV news ignore them. At the same time the degree of the Internet’s role as a tool of coordination is questioned by many experts. One may claim that, in this case the Internet is just another tool for information distribution and people’s engagement in protests, but not a strategic factor that changes the nature of protests.

The role of the Internet and information technologies, however, goes deeper, beyond the impact on elections or organization of protests as a response to elections. The Russian case demonstrates that information technologies can play a major role in de-legitimatization of the elections results. The stronger the feeling that the election is not legitimate among the citizens, the more probable protests and emergence of an alternative political system as a response to the election.

"You were screwed." Photo by Flickr user t-radya, released to Twitter by creator.

"You were screwed." Photo by Flickr user t-radya, released to Twitter by creator.

The recent protests in Moscow, dubbed by Alexey Sidorenko as “net hamster revolution,” were triggered primarily by the feeling of the lack of legitimacy of the election's results. It is expressed by the not politically correct, but very clear slogan “Vas naebali” (“You are screwed”) presented [ru] by anarchist protesters on election day.

The degree of frustration of Russian citizens following the declaration of results has a clear linkage to the degree of falsifications that were exposed online. It looks like the government was ready to improve the voting results if necessary, but had no strategy to protect the falsification methods from citizen based surveillance in the new information environment.

Russian elections and capacity building for elections monitoring

Citizen based reporting and user generated content can’t surprise anyone these days. The question is about the scale, the immediacy and the value of reporting. Monitoring elections in general is a great case study for the role of citizen reporting. The outcome depends on the relationship between the scale of falsifications and the capacity of citizens to cover these falsifications.

The Russian elections crossed the tipping point between the scale of falsifications and the scale of citizen based reporting. The crowd of Russian networked citizens was able to collect, post and share a critical mass of reports about falsifications. It included not only stories, but also documents, photo and video reports. Following the elections, User Против ПЖиВ (Against the party of crooks and thieves) even set a YouTube playlist of 60 most viewed videos of violations.

Far-reaching coverage can’t emerge without massive falsifications, but what has really changed in the Russian case wasn’t the scale of falsification, but the capacity of a networked crowd to cover these falsifications in a way that will reach the tipping point for the election's legitimacy.

There are few factors that can explain the capacity building of the Russian networked crowd to cover the events: information sources, the tools citizens used, how they accessed the Internet and where they could share the information.

Information source

User generated content can’t provide a constant flow of information if citizens have no motivation to contribute reports. In the Russian case, the political atmosphere around elections and online discussions, as well as the decision of some of the people to vote unlike they did in past,  contributed to the attitude that it was time to care about the elections.

Motivation, however, doesn’t ensure the quality of reports. What is really important is the structure of access to the information. An election is a procedure when every citizen has potentially unmediated linkage to the event, at least as a voter who visits the polling station.

In the Russian elections we could see a lot of Internet users that had various type of meaningful access to the election process not only as voters. For instance, many Internet users signed up as observers to spend the entire day in the election committee, and participated in the validation of results. Many of them reported about their experiences and frauds (for instance here and here). For example, Dmitry Surnin was able to compare [ru] the original concluding voting report to the information on official website (which, as in other cases, was different from the paper one).

Additionally, opposition politicians, NGO activists and activists of monitoring organizations used online media to report immediately about what they saw. Traditional journalists, even if they worked on an article for their media, also chose first to share their information via social media. As a consequence, the quality of reports about violations can be explained by the nature of access to the covered event (election) and the scale of this access.

Tools and applications

With photos, videos and Internet access (not a big issue now, but this type of technology wasn’t available for significant number of voters four years ago) handheld devices made everyone a real-time reporting node, that is capable to produce visual content. As a consequence, Twitter and Facebook turned out to be the places for live reporting that was based not only on text, but in many cases on photo and video which later could demonstrate the degree of falsification.

The most advanced usage of these tools – mobile-based live broadcasting – was extensively used during recent protests in Moscow. One of the first to use the Ustream platform was a Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev, who conducted live broadcasting from the police station where he was detained. A few days later, it was widely used by protesters in Moscow including live broadcasting from the police car where few people were detained.

Mobile-based broadcasting [ru] from Triumphalnaya square by Ridus.ru reporters had at some points about 46,000 viewers. Tweeting from police cars where people were detained, as well as by protestors from the square, turned out to be a common practice. To conclude, the importance of tools is that they allow covering events (including providing visual content and significant evidencies) in real time by the critical mass of participants.

Network access

The motivation of people, a critical number of people who have access to events, and tools that enable coverage of these events can’t fulfil its potential, especially in real time, without good Internet access. Live mobile-based broadcasting can’t be done without good 3G networks.

Moscow, and major Russian cities have good 3G networks as well as also some powerful Wimax infrastructure. Using regular mobile networks also makes it possible to share information, but it can reduce the real-time effect and make it more difficult to share video or conduct live streaming.

Platforms

Once there were people who wanted to participate in coverage of events and could share it as it happened, the last question is where they could share it. The obvious place was blog-platforms e.g. Livejournal and social networks. Karatnarusheniy.ru enabled everyone to contribute reports about violations, however, it was available only before a massive DDoS attack started against it.

Another important characteristic of the Russian information environment is the collaboration between social and traditional media as well as the presence of platforms that mediate between social and traditional media (e.g. besttoday.ru and ridus.ru). Much user-generated content that was posted on social media found its way very quickly into independent media platforms.

As a response to the DDoS attacks, traditional media started using Facebook, Twitter and media that were not affected by the attacks as a temporary substitute for proliferation of content. The Russian network based system of information circulation demonstrated that it is able to adapt to attacks, and create new patterns of information distribution.

Media is a crowd

These four factors together contributed to the capacity of Russian networked society to collect a crucial amount of reports and evidence to question the legitimacy of the parliamentary election. The Russian case showed that a crowd can be the media. Additionally it demonstrated a new balance between State and citizens in a networked informational environment.

In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham developed a famous concept of the Panopticon as a model for total surveillance of the State over it citizens. Some experts argue that information technologies and the Internet contributed to the State's capacity to follow its citizens.

As we can see from the Russian case, however, in the reality where every citizen is potentially a broadcasting networked sensor, the situation can also be the opposite. Not only the State follows its citizens but increasing number of citizens follow the State. Information technologies expose the other side of Panopticon.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

Thumbnail image shows Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791. Image from Wikipedia, in public domain.

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