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The Caucasus Network: On Blogging and Keeping Up Appearances

9 June 2013, photo by Sergey Ponomarev.

9 June 2013, photo by Sergey Ponomarev.

This article is part of an extensive RuNet Echo study of the North Caucasus blogosphere. Explore the complete report and personal stories on The Caucasus Network page.

The following observations address several hundred popular blog posts on LiveJournal, as well as comments on those posts. The rankings listed below I derived from statistics collected on Facebook and PublicPost.

1.   Organic Bloggers (those who unconsciously became bloggers)

In the North Caucasus, bloggers in this category are frequently people whose professions already require an aptitude for communication and engagement: writers, advocates of social causes, teachers, and so on.

Bloggers in this group are usually educated professionals, though all come from a myriad of social backgrounds and hold different political views. In addition to these differences, all tend to share a similar approach to blogging, even writing in a common style (often using the active voice and relying on plain speak). 

Those in this group tend to focus on content, not the medium; they do not appear to be concerned with who follows or “unfollows” them. Whereas other types of bloggers like to discuss their own popularity in their writing, “organic” bloggers ignore this subject. Instead, they prefer to write about specific issues, consciously trying to educate their readers about a particular topic.

Members of this group tend to adopt new platforms (like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) earlier than other groups of Internet users. Most bloggers in the North Caucasus remain on LiveJournal, mainly because they have become entrenched in what is essentially a virtual home.

Russian blogger lunnyi_kot dubbed this group “the Alpha bloggers”: 

Альфа-блогеры, т.е. они одни из тех блогеров, которые достигли определенных успехов на поприще ЖЖ, которые задают тон и общие тенденции в блогосфере Северного Кавказа. Местным начинающим блогерам было о чем послушать и что перенять у альфа-блогеров. 

Alpha-bloggers are the bloggers who have achieved certain success on LJ, who set the tone and the overall trends on the blogosphere of the North Caucasus. Local beginner bloggers would be wise to listen to and borrow from the Alpha-bloggers.

Lunnyi_kot describes the Alphas as bloggers distinguished by personal investment in producing professional quality content, though “Alphas” themselves seem to reject this characterization, regarding their work as more casual. (I base this claim on my general reading of conversations online about this subject.)

Across the North Caucasus, the Alpha blogger group contains prominent members representing each of the region’s republics. For those unfamiliar with the region’s blogosphere and interested in reading some individual “Alpha” bloggers, here is a list of some noteworthy writers in this category:

2. The Invested Bloggers (who aspire to join the Alpha group)

People in this group are explicit in their writing about how much effort goes into their work. These individuals do not have a particular message, but they do demonstrate dedication to the medium of blogging (which is to say, they intentionally build up their audiences and establish their names). This group’s bloggers often advertise their blogging success in their offline activities, and tend to be highly informed about events happening on the RuNet, following and often early-adopting new platforms, not unlike the Alpha bloggers. Compared with the “organic” bloggers, this group demonstrates a much greater focus on appropriating the medium than shaping the message. “Invested Bloggers” are especially keen to establish themselves as recognized bloggers. Members of this group are also most likely to interact with bloggers in Group Three (see below), who together attend blogger forums and conferences, and even participate in blogger education programs in schools.

3. The Image Bloggers (officials operating under the guise of casual intimacy)

In the North Caucasus, politicians are the most active “image bloggers,” writing to project a specific image of themselves that is distinct from their offline identity. These bloggers write to camouflage their activity as grassroots netizen work, concealing its origins in officialdom.

In the North Caucasus, building a cult of personality can be a quicker, more legitimate way to secure a government position than executing a series of popular policy decisions.

This tension is especially present when “image bloggers” hire public relations professionals to manage their outreach campaigns.

In their publicity efforts, bloggers in Group Three present themselves in their online content as average citizens. For example, government leaders try to project the identity of an ordinary citizen, whose passions are the “simple” pleasures of the Internet, ranging from a love of flowers and kittens to collecting gold-plated pistols and exotic animals (see link below).

For instance, the region’s most prominent “Group Three” blogger is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who uses social media accounts to project completely different identities.

In his first online iteration in 2010, Kadyrov stormed the Internet with a LiveJournal blog, appropriately titled I-Am-Kadyrov. Initially, Kadyrov’s communications team updated the blog regularly with the Chechen leader’s everyday musings.

Professional-quality photographs often accompanied this content, typically depicting Kadyrov engaged in some wholesome or stately act. On average, each of these posts gathered roughly 300 approving comments. It is more difficult to track criticism of the material, however, as the blog’s moderators removed any negative feedback immediately. (Indeed, the bloggers contacted for this study, who claimed that Kadyrov’s moderators deleted their comments, asked to remain anonymous.) In 2012, to offset the influence of an existing satirical account lampooning Chechnya’s leader, Kadyrov became one of the first officials of the North Caucasus to join Twitter formally.

While LiveJournal is a relatively safe platform (as it allows users to moderate what feedback is published on their blogs), Kadyrov’s move to Twitter was something of a risk, as the latter’s less controlled, more interactive design does more to enable and disseminate criticism. The Twittersphere also subjects Kadyrov to an audience largely based outside the North Caucasus, where microblogging remains unpopular (relative to more traditional platforms like LiveJournal).

At first, Kadyrov’s account followed no one (though he now follows 19 other users). He ignored any serious questions about his governance, quickly blocked other users who criticized him, and devoted most of his tweets to banal weather reports and culinary updates. He has since gathered over 45,000 followers. While it is difficult to know how many of this total constitutes real people instead of artificial “bot” followers, the website Fakers. Statuspeople estimates that 27% of Kaydrov’s followers are fake, and just 38% are active, human Twitter users.

Kadyrov captivated the blogosphere and mass media a second time when he arrived on Instagram. His first account, @Alihan777, might have gone unnoticed if Kadyrov had not decided to post unusually entertaining photographs of himself wearing colorful jumpsuits, brandishing firearms, and so on. (For a separate review of Kadyrov’s first Instagram account, read Andrey Tselikov’s work on the subject.)

When the account generated an unexpected degree of attention, he shut down the (still anonymous) account, replacing it with the similar (and still active) @Kadyrov_95.

Nobody in the North Caucasus demonstrates a better understanding the effectiveness of photography than Kadyrov and his team. The Chechen leader’s Instagram has earned him thousands of followers. Kadyrov owes this success, however, not to his own inventions, but to existing political tactics adapted to new social media.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has long exploited photography’s ability to propagate a public image that is simultaneously casual and assertive. This, after all, has been the message of Putin’s many publicity photo-shoots, which invariably feature juxtaposed images of the President as a handyman, a strongman, a tender-hearted man, a man of special powers, and so on.

On the other hand, Kadyrov’s propagated image as a concerned patriot ready to “hunt down his enemies to the last rat” also borrows heavily from the insurgency movement in the North Caucasus. That group, which in its contemporary form has existed since the beginning of the Second Russian-Chechen War, also promotes an oversimplified narrative of regional politics. The insurgency has published online videos [warning: explicit content] to assert its identity as the sole legitimate resistance, and used this claim to justify its guerrilla tactics. (Unwittingly, insurgents thereby perpetuate their own marginality, presenting themselves as excluded outcasts, isolated from society.)

Recently, Dagestan’s acting president, Ramazan Abdulatipov, also joined Instagram, apparently inspired to copycat Kadyrov. Despite the similarities, however, Abdulatipov’s photographs employ a broader framework of references, making him at times even more effective at propagating a cult of personality. In one example of such layered communication, he published an image of a green lamp (a symbol of the Soviet cabinet, often misattributed to Lenin), the Russian blue (to signal tenderness), along with the symbol of Islam, above an accidental sample of personal handwriting.

Abdulatipov also writes a traditional blog, but unlike Kadyrov and Yevkurov, he publishes his work on a personal domain, instead of a shared platform, like LiveJournal. Most of the updates to Abdulatipov’s blog are from an anonymous administrator and a group of guest authors.

Ingushetian President Yunus-Bel Evkurov has not opened an Instagram account, but he does maintain blogs on LiveJournal and Twitter, both of which Evkurov’s media assistant, Beslan Chechoev, manages. (Chechoev revealed this in an interview with me, the audio of which can be found here.) Chechoev’s full-time job, he says, is to read aloud comments to the president and transcribe his responses.

Photography has always played a vital role in the image-making industry because of its “instant believability.” Thanks to online social media, however, photography’s illusion of intimacy, where the audience feels “right there with the subject,” has become the Internet’s illusion of interactivity, where netizens believe “their voice is being heard.”

In recent years, this brand of politics has also come to dominate Middle Eastern political struggle, where the competition over manufacturing potent imagery has pitted against one another protest groups and the state.    

Image politics in the North Caucasus has not yet reached the intensity it now enjoys in the Middle East, though there are indications that online-orchestrated public relations is becoming a top priority for regional authorities.

Very few, if any, of the North Caucasus’ blogging political officials belong to the Alpha group. Instead, they consciously spin local politics and attempt to manipulate their audience. Kadyrov, for example, has more than once complained that managing his Instagram account is no small burden on his workload.

Для людей инстаграм – развлечение, а для меня – дополнительная нагрузка.

For people, Instragram is entertainment, but for me it’s an additional burden.

Interactivity

Alpha bloggers exist largely within their own community, and are generally unaffected by the writing of “Invested Group” bloggers. In fact, the over-eager latter group is often the target audience in image-making campaigns designed to inflate certain political figures’ popularity.

In recent years, blogger conferences in the North Caucasus have emerged as a major public relations tool, even rivaling traditional press conferences. This political technology has the advantage of avoiding the heavy handedness of state-run media channels, instead using relatively “apolitical” netizens to disseminate the government’s messages.

In October 2011, Beslan Chechoev (mentioned above) held Ingushetia’s first blogger conference, in a transparent attempt to win influence with the North Caucasus’ most prominent netizens.  

In May 2013, Karachaevo-Cherkessia Head Rashid Temrezov held another regional conference, inviting bloggers from Cherkessia, Chechnya, Kabardina-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Stavropol’skii. 

Curiously, the visiting bloggers proposed creating a special state information agency to feature work produced exclusively by netizens. Another product of the conference was a planned blogger workshop, scheduled to begin touring the region (starting in Aarkhiz village) sometime in late 2013.

Karachaevo-Cherkessian authorities’ acknowledgement of bloggers’ influence predates the May bloggers conference. A month earlier, they launched the North Caucasus’ first “blogging school,” funded by the state-backed youth forum “Marshuk 2012.” Despite the rising profile of bloggers in this republic, very few “Alpha” bloggers are based in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Among the few from that group writing in the area are Inna, a writer, and Alexander Roxmistov, a painter. It seems neither attended nor took any interest in the blogger conference held by Termezov.

The idea of a blogging school is itself not new, and was first conceived in Dagestan by the Ministry of Youth in 2010. At their core, these schools were formed around the Orwellian slogan, “The Creation of Positive Information” (“создание позитивной информации”), proposed by Program Director Mukhtar Amirov, who described the project in the following words:

К сожалению, в дагестанских блогах мы можем наблюдать асоциальные проявления, а позитивную информацию о нашей республике в них сложно найти. Школа блогеров позволит подготовить специалистов-патриотов, готовых рассказывать о происходящем в Дагестане.

Unfortunately, we can observe in Dagestani blogs [certain] anti-social displays, but it is difficult to find positive information about our republic. The blogging school will allow [us] to train specialist-patriots, [who will be] prepared to describe what is happening in Dagestan.

Many of the region’s more established bloggers responded to the schools with open suspicion. One of them, Zakir, compared the idea to the widely despised pro-Kremlin youth movement:

Это вся затея послеселигеровская. Мой знакомый в этом лагере проходил что-то вроде этих курсов. Их там учили как в инете “мочить” неугодных лиц, которые критикуют власть. В Москве вся система апробируется активно. Вот и до Дагестана добрались.

This whole undertaking is post-Seliger [a youth summer camp closely connected to NASHI, the most infamous pro-Putin youth group]. My friend who was at the camp went through something similar to this course. They teach them there how to “rub out” the undesirables on the Internet who criticize the authorities. The whole system is being piloted actively in Moscow. And now it’s come to Dagestan.

In March 2013, Dagestani officials invited a group of Russian bloggers from Moscow and Saint Petersburg on a tour of the republic. While most had never been to Dagestan, after initial reservations, many accepted the offer, justifying it as an all-paid travel opportunity. Kept on a tight schedule and within the confines of the guided tour, the netizen guests tweeted and Instagram’ed a steady flow of photographs capturing Dagestan’s undeniable natural beauty. In other words, they became unconscious agents in a government publicity stunt.

Later in the year, Chechen blogger and then Ministry of Finance staff member Arbi Tamaev organized a meeting between Kadyrov and his Instagram subscribers, during which the Chechen Head of State complained that many underestimate the significance of Instagram and do not engage in online discussions seriously enough. Not long after the event, Tamaev was made chief of the short-lived Ministry for Government-Civil Society Cooperation. (Within three months, Tamaev was demoted to a position in another office and his ministry was merged into a new body.)

Russian nationalists have also noted how republic-level governments throughout the North Caucasus have engaged and invested in local bloggers. Citing a recent documents leak that implicated regional officials in paying large sums of cash to bloggers in exchange for favorable reportage, Russian nationalists have complained that federal money is being wasted on developing a more positive public image for the still turbulent North Caucasus.

The North Caucasus’ state intrusions into the region’s blogosphere amount to a campaign that could have a significant impact on the independence and vitality of local netizen activity. These political attempts to control what is an increasingly less free space threaten to damage the long-term development of the region’s blogosphere, which until recently has enjoyed the salutary neglect of the government.

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