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Russian Activists Turn To Social Media

Jan 13, 2012
Originally published on January 13, 2012 8:55 pm

Russia's largest anti-government demonstrations since the Soviet breakup of 1991 are being organized and driven by a force that didn't exist two decades ago — social media.

In recent years, protests have been relatively rare, and Russians who got their news from state-run television essentially saw one narrative — one that relentlessly extolled the virtues of the country's leaders, particularly Vladimir Putin.

But demonstrators took to the streets last month after parliamentary elections that were widely seen as fraudulent. And activists are trying to maintain that momentum with slick Internet videos that satirize and disparage Russia's government.

One of those videos welcomes viewers to a mental asylum, where the inmates vote for Putin, the current prime minister. Putin has already served two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008. His decision to run for a third term in March served as a rallying point for his critics, along with irregularities in the parliamentary voting.

Some 50 million Russians are now on the Internet, absorbing these videos and using it as a forum to vent their frustration over government corruption, the top-down political system, and alleged election fraud.

Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social media helped mobilize the protests last month. The demonstrations were enormous. Tens of thousands protested in Moscow on Dec. 24, with some estimates putting the figure at as many as 100,000.

Planning The Next Protest

The next demonstration is set for Feb. 4, and organizers are busy preparing for it on the Internet.

Alexey Kozlov, 38, peers at his laptop computer, opened to a page on Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google. Kozlov, an executive at an investment firm in Moscow, is helping to organize online contributions for the protest rallies.

The money will pay for hot meals, a proper stage and sound equipment. Kozlov says contributions have been flooding in from all over Russia. The average contribution is 1,000 rubles, about $30. Donations shot up after Putin charged that the rallies were being backed by foreigners.

"When our authorities begin to say that this is money from the State Department, I think that the more than 5,000 people who really transferred the money, they became very angry about this," he said.

Kozlov says organizers are also using the Internet to get input from citizens on who should speak at the rallies.

Kozlov says he sees the use of social media in Russia growing and becoming bolder. Last month, video footage showing fraudulent practices at polling stations during parliamentary elections lit up the Internet.

New Video Of Alleged Fraud

This week, Igor Drandin, a 31-year-old Web designer, recorded and posted a video showing about two dozen university students allegedly falsifying election registration forms.

Drandin says it's useless to complain to the Central Election Commission about the forgeries. The video is more powerful. Drandin is a member of an activist group called Democratic Choice, which will start training people to be observers during the March presidential election.

"We'll certainly recommend [they] get a video camera to record everything," he says. "Because this is the most efficient way to struggle against those cheaters. They are afraid of video."

All this has caught the government off guard, says Nikolay Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Two months ago, Putin was saying that the Internet doesn't deserve any real attention, and it's the place where pornography dominates," Petrov says. "Now he's eager to order a bigger presence of the government and authorities in general on the Internet."

But it's been a rocky start — Putin's own website was unveiled Thursday. The comments section quickly filled with calls for him to resign. Those comments later disappeared from the site.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This winter, Russia has seen its largest anti-government demonstrations in 20 years, sparked by parliamentary elections that were widely seen as fraudulent. From Moscow, NPR's Jackie Northam reports that as in the Arab world, the Internet and social media are driving the Russian protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In recent years, Russians who got their news and information from state-run television saw one reality which extolled the virtues of the country's leadership, like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But now, there's an alternative.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

NORTHAM: This is one of many slick videos found on the Internet that disparages and satirizes Russia's government. This one says: Welcome to the nuthouse, where the inmates vote for Putin.

Some 50 million Russians are now on the Internet, absorbing these videos and using it as a forum to vent their own frustration and downright anger over government corruption, the political system and election fraud. Analysts say it was social media - Internet, Facebook, Twitter and the like - that helped mobilize people to protest against the result of December's parliamentary elections, widely seen as fraudulent.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting)

NORTHAM: It's believed more than 100,000 people showed up for this demonstration on December 24th. The next protest rally is set for February 4th, and organizers are busy preparing for it using the Internet.

ALEXEY KOZLOV: This is the account number and here are possibilities how to do it: credit card, cash, repaid cards.

NORTHAM: Thirty-eight-year-old Alexey Kozlov peers at his laptop computer, opened to a page on Yandex. It's the Russian equivalent of Google. Kozlov, a director at an investment firm here in Moscow, is helping organize online contributions for the protest rallies. The money will pay for hot meals and a proper stage and sound equipment.

Kozlov says contributions have been flooding in from all over Russia - on average of 1000 rubles, about $30 - and that the donations shot up after Prime Minister Putin charged that the rallies were being funded by foreigners.

KOZLOV: And when our authorities begin to say that this is money from state department, I think that more than 5,000 people who really transferred the money, they became very angry about this.

NORTHAM: Kozlov says organizers are also using the Internet to get input from citizens on who should speak at the rallies. Kozlov says he sees the use of social network in Russia growing, becoming more bold. Already, video footage showing fraudulent practices at polling stations during the parliamentary elections lit up the Internet last month. And this week, this showed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Igor Drandin, a 31-year-old Web designer, recorded and posted the video showing about two dozen university students allegedly falsifying election registration forms. Drandin is a member of an activist group called Democratic Choice, which will start training people to be observers during the March presidential election.

IGOR DRANDIN: (Through Translator) We'll certainly recommend them to get a video camera to record everything because this is the most efficient way to struggle against those cheaters. They are afraid of video.

NORTHAM: This has all caught the government off guard, says Nikolay Petrov, an analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center.

NIKOLAY PETROV: Two months ago, Putin was telling that Internet doesn't deserve any real attention. And, too, it's the place where pornography dominates. And now, he's eager to order for bigger presence of the government and of authorities in general in Internet.

NORTHAM: But it was a rocky start. Putin's own website was unveiled Thursday. The comments section quickly filled with calls for him to resign. Those comments later disappeared from the site.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.