The Internet and Social Media Snap at Putin
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
There are few things worse for a politician than losing an election. One of those is being mocked.
Just ask Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In late November, two weeks before parliamentary elections, Putin decided to appear on live television to introduce a wrestling match. It was just the type of stage-managed, machismo-heavy photo opportunity that had been typical for Putin. But there was an unexpected problem: the crowd.
As soon as Putin stepped into the ring, a chorus of boos rose from the crowd. Putin continued, but as video of the event shows, every time he tried to speak louder, the audience raised the volume of raucous hoots.
Embarrassing, but manageable. After all, the Kremlin has effectively been censoring stories on Russian radio and TV for years. But there was another unexpected problem; this time, it was the Internet.
The “Putin boo” clip went viral online, popping up and spreading via social networks faster than the Kremlin could swat it down. Satirists stepped forward and began to mock the Prime Minister as a frightened little boy, while critics seemed to lose fear of the heavy-handed Putin.
And things would only get worse for Mr. Putin from there, due in large measure to the Internet.
Putin’s “Power Vertical” Challenged
When he first won office last decade, Putin spoke of creating a “power vertical” – meaning integrated and functional control of all of the tools of modern politics, including political parties, finances, the courts and the media. Coming on the heels of the chaotic Yeltsin years, it was neither surprising nor unwelcome.
In the years since, Putin and his associates have worked to consolidate power within the Kremlin by punishing opponents, muting dissent and tightly controlling the message. So complete was his power vertical that few analysts predicted his United Russia party would actually earn less than 50% of the vote on December 4. Fewer still predicted the swelling outrage over the questionable vote and the resulting mass protests across Russia, and nobody foresaw the entry of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as challenger to Putin in next March’s presidential election. Very suddenly, things appear to be unraveling.
Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Discontent has been growing in Russia for several years, sharpening its focus with President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent decision seemingly to hand power back to Putin. And it’s hard to imagine any way that Putin will not win election against the untested and unpopular Prokhorov. Still, there’s no doubting it’s a different world for Putin and United Russia, and that’s due in some measure to the web.
The “Power Horizontal” Speaks Up
The day after last weekend’s massive street protests, President Medvedev posted this on his Facebook page:
“Under the Constitution, citizens of Russia have freedom of speech and freedom of Assembly. People have a right to express their position that they did yesterday. Well, that all took place within the framework of the law. I do not agree with any slogans or statements made at rallies. Nevertheless, I have been instructed to check all messages with polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections.”
A fairly bland comment, but one nonetheless that prompted an outpouring of bile and anger at the President. Over 16,000 comments have been left so far, very few of them positive. In fact, it appears Medvedev’s effort to reach out online has bitten him on the hand, re-energizing those who mistrust their government. As a social media tactic, it was flat footed…just like much of the Kremlin’s dealing with the web. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t consider it a serious threat.
Among the most influential protest leaders to emerge isn’t a politician, but jailed blogger Aleksei Navalny, whose LiveJournal blog attracts upward of a million hits a day. As VOA’s James Brooke notes in “Russia Watch“ Navalny has remained a powerful mouthpiece for the growing discontent, first describing United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves” in a phrase that has become a rallying cry (all this while he has been sitting in prison). Our colleague Brian Whitmore, of RFE/RL’s “The Power Vertical” blog writes:
“Putin famously created Russia’s power vertical, the rigid top-down power structure that brought a semblance of order at the expense of the democratic process. But he also, unwittingly perhaps, created a ‘power horizontal’ — a highly educated, prosperous, and wired middle class that is now clamoring for its rights. This Other Russia has shown its face to the world — and it isn’t going away any time soon.”
The BBC, among others, reports of a flood of fake Twitter traffic aimed at drowning out Russians tweeting with each other about past and future protests, traffic that seems to be coming from a Russian botnet. And on Wednesday this week, the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said that the Internet must be subject to “reasonable regulation” – a clear signal that Moscow is tiring of criticism coming from the web and intends to crack down.
Free Speech of Slacktivism?
It’s unlikely a blogger can bring down a government, or that social networks like Facebook or VKontakte can uproot entrenched power structures by themselves. That didn’t happen in the so-called Arab Spring, and it won’t happen in Russia.
But what they did accomplish in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere was to help organize protest and dissent into a more coherent, focused effort. Egypt’s largest mass protests happened only after authorities shut down access to the Internet, but they wouldn’t have taken that step if the web didn’t present a clear challenge to their authority. “Slacktivism” – the casual use of the web to register displeasure but accomplish little else – may make a discontented voter feel better momentarily, but it won’t change the cause of the discontent.
Nobody – or nobody here at least – is predicting what may happen in Russia. But as we’ve noted before, the web takes as much as it gives, and autocrats can use it just as effectively as protesters.
Luke Allnutt, over at RFE/RL’s must-read “Tangled Web” blog, writes that the Kremlin is growing increasingly savvy about how to deal with the Internet, turning what appears to be free speech it to its own advantage:
“For a regime under pressure, addressing some of your key constituents (many of them middle-class and tech-savvy) on one of their key platforms, Facebook, and allowing them to vent seems to be a savvy way of tweaking the release valves. It presents the impression at least that the Russian authorities are listening to the people’s concerns. The Kremlin has always been as concerned with narrative-shaping as it has been with crude censorship.”
Vladimir Putin has learned the hard way that the Internet isn’t always your friend. He may also be learning how to make it an ally.