As Russia gears up for parliamentary elections in a few days and presidential elections this coming spring, more and more eyes are turning to watch a new player in the national political scene there: the Internet.
Newspapers and bloggers have been abuzz lately after news that Russia is now Europe’s biggest Internet user and the recent video of Putin being booed went viral on YouTube. Journalists and political experts are beginning to look more closely at just how much of an effect the Internet will have on what many were expecting to be an open-and-shut set of elections.
The main way the Internet seems to be having an effect is by giving users a new avenue for information outside of the traditional media channels. Critical political slogans, satirical Twitter accounts and many instances of citizen journalism have found a home (and a few ‘likes’) on social networks over the past few months.
Agence France-Presse published an article today about how the Internet is giving new voice to Russian opposition–or at least how it is helping those who have criticisms to voice be able hear each other over the ever-present state-run media. The article puts the latest Internet memes critical of Putin and his United Russia Party in context of a possible larger change of sentiment from Russia’s rising middle class.
Likewise, last week The New York Times printed an article on how smartphone videos were being used by everyday citizens as a way to monitor election fraud and corruption. The article references a story in which a Russian politician was caught on video threatening to withhold money from a group of veterans if they did not vote for his party. The video spread quickly and resulted in the politician being fined for breaking elections rules. Stories like this, according to one source in the article, let, “Citizens see that thanks to these video clips they can have influence. This is becoming a tool for putting pressure on the authorities.” The article also discusses the how these videos are forcing political parties to address dirty election tactics.
But not everyone sees the Internet as the invincible good guy in this story. A great report by RuNet Echo delves into the darker side of the convergence of Russian politics and the Internet and traces some instances of digital oppression around the country. Specifically the article talks about a case in Kostroma where a popular chat forum was closed down and the servers seized by police in mid-November in relation to a libel case.
It remains to be seen just what effect the Internet will have on the outcome of Russia’s elections and whether all these viral videos merit the hype. It also remains to been seen just how much the Internet is responsible for the swelling backlash against the United Russia Party or if it’s just one of many tools young people are using to express opposition. But it’s pretty safe to say at this point we can expect at least a few more viral videos on the subject of Russian politics in the coming months.
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