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Social Media Fuels Hopes for Civil Society in Russia

“Big White Circle” protest on central street in Moscow, February 26, 2012

So what’s Europe’s largest Internet economy: Germany? The United Kingdom? France? 

Since last year, Russia is top of the heap—at least in terms of users, according to Internet metrics experts ComScore. More important, Russia’s online market is still growing rapidly, its social media scene is vibrant—and the big players are all homegrown.

Shortly before Vladimir Putin won a third term as Russian president last March, thousands of people converged on Moscow’s Garden Ring road, which circles the city center, to express their displeasure. Braving raw, freezing weather under the watchful eyes of riot police, the smiling chatty protesters linked hands to form a human chain to demonstrate against Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule.

The Big White Circle, named for the protest movement’s adopted color, almost didn’t happen. A Facebook page had been used to organize the protest; participants could sign up to stand in specific locations. But hackers disabled the page just one day after its launch. The tactic failed. “One day was enough to show people would support us,” says protest organizer Sergei Parkhomenko.

It was a promising moment for Russian social media. The uncensored Internet has long served as the main outlet for free information and open debate in a country where the government shapes most public opinion through strict control over state television and other traditional media. Now Facebook, Twitter and other sites have emerged as the newest political forum since allegations of widespread fraud in last December’s parliamentary elections first prompted the largest protests against the authorities in more than a decade.

It is unclear how the movement will play out. Embattled opposition leaders are seeking to undermine the Kremlin’s vast powers by expanding their support beyond the largely educated, middle class urbanites who protested in Moscow. They are calling on Russians across the country to tackle the authorities in local politics, and they’re counting on social media to help. “People are increasingly skeptical about traditional political parties,” says Parkhomenko, who is also a well-known newspaper editor. “If social media can facilitate building non-hierarchical networks of people to disseminate information and coordinate activities, their role will become far more important.” But the government has recently taken what some believe to be the first step toward controlling speech in cyberspace.

Activating Civil Society

Radio Ekho Moskvy is an island of independent reporting in a sea of state-controlled broadcast media. The station is generating loads of original content, combining breaking news with a steady stream of interviews with newsmakers. But its recently revamped website is dominated by outside material: blogs reposted from other sites.

The shift reflects the central role blogs play in Russia’s national debate. It has also helped drive many more viewers to the site, according to the radio station’s co-founder and deputy director Sergei Buntman. “Traditional media can no longer ignore what’s on the Internet,” he says. Many of the aggregated blogs originate on the country’s most popular platform, LiveJournal, including those of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who shot to prominence publicizing the corruption of officials.

Bloggers on social media sites also provide “a huge new source” for reporters, Buntman says. During the presidential election, monitors used Twitter to report widespread violations such as ballot stuffing and “carousel voting,” groups of people voting multiple times at various ballot stations.

It’s no coincidence that Russia has seen some of the fastest Internet growth in the world. According to ComScore, more than 50 million Russians already use the Internet—about 36 percent of the population. Even more significant, the number of people who go online every day is growing faster than the overall online population, which suggests rising social media usage. The Pew Research Center confirms that 43 percent of Russia’s Internet users regularly visit Facebook and Twitter, up from 33 percent a year ago.

The Russian version of Facebook, VKontakte, is even more popular. No surprise that at the height of the demonstrations in December, the Federal Security Service, the FSB, demanded that VKontakte founder Pavel Durov delete the pages of protest organizers, although it dropped the case after he ignored a summons for questioning.

There is another major development: daily Internet usage is driving up the number of people who get their news online, says Kirill Rogov, the former editor of Polit.ru, Russia’s first major political news site, which he helped found in 1999. Before the protests began, just 5 percent of people got their news online, but the number is growing: “The Internet has started to become politicized,” he says.

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