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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Blogging post-Soviet style

Cyberactivism is playing a growing role in public life in post-communist countries, but it is still far from reaching its potential
19 May, 2011 - 00:00
PICTURED: APPLE INC. CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER STEVE JOBS AND DMITRY MEDVEDEV DURING THE RUSSIAN PRESIDENT’S VISIT TO THE US LAST YEAR. THE WORLDWIDE WEB AND CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGIES THAT SURMOUNT THE BARRIERS OF SILENCE ARE POWERFUL INSTRUMENTS CAPABLE OF UNDERMINING TOTALITARIAN REGIMES. THE ARAB REVOLUTIONS ARE AMPLE PROOF OF THIS, BUT IT IS NOT ALL THAT SIMPLE… / REUTERS photo

The advent of the Internet was hailed by many as a messianic tool that would, sooner or later, bring an end to tyranny around the world. This view has been often linked to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of history” thesis — with liberal democracy and free-market capitalism being the only viable system that survived the centuries of competition, and with the Internet as a tool that would speed up their conquest of the world.

At first glance, it would seem that the events which took place in the Muslim world over the past years have confirmed this theory. Two years ago the “Twitter revolution” rocked the foundations of the Iranian dictatorship (though sadly the movement was suppressed). The recent “Facebook revolution” in Tunisia became the first case of an Arab state to dethrone its despot using its own strength.

There is indeed a good cause to believe that the Internet, which bypasses the barriers of silence that are necessary to keep an authoritarian regime in place, would bring down the world’s oppressors. The various social networks which have sprung up in the past years have certainly revolutionized the way we share and consume information. For example using Twitter and mirrors (a copy of the data set stored on a website), WikiLeaks was able to resist the American government’s attempts to prevent it from sharing sensitive information.

AN INCREASINGLY WIRED RUSSIA

Against the backdrop of other developing regions, the post-Soviet space has been slow to catch on to this new trend. This is largely due to the gargantuan distances and limited disposable income, which have long kept Internet penetration low by world standards. In 2005 little more than 15 percent of Russians had regular access to the Internet (by comparison Ukraine and Kazakhstan were both below 5 percent at the time; Estonia had already passed 60). Even after extraordinary growth in recent years, Ukraine and Russia are still at 33 and 42 percent, respectively.

That being said, the region is very quickly catching up. Nowhere is this as visible as in Russia, and starting from the very top. Indeed, the tech-savvy President Dmitry Medvedev has become the first post-Soviet head of state to truly embrace the possibilities offered by blogging, and particularly micro-blogging. Since creating his account on Twitter (the micro-blogging platform of choice, allowing users to post short messages of up to 144 characters; virtually every major Western public figure has an account, from TV stars to US President Barack Obama) in June 2009, the Russian president has garnered almost 200,000 followers.

Yet the true revolution is happening at lower echelons, specifically at the level of citizen bloggers who are moving public debate and activism to a new level. The paragon of this new generation of engaged citizens determined to use the Internet as a tool to better their country is Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and blogger dedicated to uncovering the corruption in Russia’s oil companies, banks and government ministries. And there is much to do, as even the government admits that over 35 billion dollars are absconded from state coffers each year.

After stints in real estate and stock trading, as well as a member of the opposition party Yabloko’s federal council (though he was expelled from it after disagreements with the leadership, notably over nationalism issues, which he claims “liberals failed to embrace”), Navalny turned to law. However, he continues to purchase shares in companies he suspects of malfeasance, thus gaining access to relevant documentation.

His trophy case is impressive: Transinvestgas, a small intermediary through which Gazprom bought gas from Novatek at over three times the latter’s asking price; VTB, a major Russian bank that had purchased drill rigs from China through a Cyprus-based intermediary which kept its 150 million dollar markup; a regional governor who wanted to buy 30 gold and diamond watches to “reward local teachers,” and many more.

However, in a country where thorny journalists are often beaten or murdered, the courage of a single person is not enough to truly affect the system. This motivated Navalny to create a website, rospil.info, where readers post their findings — since it went up three months ago a total of seven million dollars worth of suspicious government contracts was annulled. Aside from proving itself to be effective, this idea of crowdsourcing (outsourcing specific tasks to a large community or crowd) has the benefit of making the concept bigger than Navalny himself, and thus providing him with at least a modicum of protection.

Nonetheless attacks have appeared. Notably through astroturfing — passing off PR tactics as grassroots enthusiasm, for example by hiring a multitude of bloggers to post negative comments on people or organizations under various persona to maintain the appearance of popular reaction. Most recently, man_with_dogs, a Russian blogger, found an ad on Freelance.ru, a job advertising website, which wanted to hire five people to “post 70 comments a day” from various live accounts that would “form a negative attitude” to Navalny, while creating a “positive image of [the ruling] United Russia party.”

Some have also linked Navalny’s work to the recent attacks on the Russian version of LiveJournal, which suffered from DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service — online attacks aimed at preventing a website from functioning efficiently, often by saturating it with external communications requests so it cannot respond to legitimate traffic) on March 30, April 4 and April 6. Svetlana Ivannikova, head of LiveJournal Russia, described the attacks as being of a different sort than previous ones, and “the first of such strength in the history of LiveJournal.” Yet the attack may not be politically motivated, as equally plausible theories have surfaced about competitors to LiveJournal wanting people to move to other platforms in what has become an increasingly lucrative business.

THE BLOGGING COSSACKS

For better or for worse, Ukraine is now following Russia’s lead. Owing to its relatively late appearance, however, Ukrainian blogosphere is still in a phase of rapid expansion. In its 2010 report Blogoreader.org.ua, an analytical website covering developments on the Ukrainian Internet, found that “the Ukrainian blogosphere remains the only Cyrillic blogosphere that is still growing.”

The numbers are indeed impressive. In 2009 Ukraine had 75,000 blogs while in 2010 this had grown to 120,000 (overall Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, has registered some 20 million Cyrillic blogs). While the ages of the various bloggers exhibit a wide range, from 9 to 75, the youth clearly dominates with 16 to 20- and 21 to 25-year-olds being responsible for 32 and 25 percent of blogs, respectively. By comparison 36 to 40-year-olds account for 6 percent of blogs, and people above 40 — for a mere 2 percent!

Yet the true revolution is happening in other social media. The use of microblogging and specifically Twitter has exploded. With 200 percent growth in 2009 and 400 (!) percent growth in 2010, there are now over 80,000 accounts in Ukraine. Facebook usage has passed 1.4 million users after people gradually switched from the Russian platforms Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki. Here the “youth bias” is even stronger than in the case of blogs, as 18 to 24-year-olds make up 45 percent of users (25 to 34-year-olds represent a further 33 percent). This asymmetry may be the reason why Ukrainian politicians continue to avoid online activity, preferring to focus on older, more reliable, TV-centered voters. Indeed, only two major figures — Yulia Tymoshenko and Arsenii Yatseniuk — do their tweeting personally, and only after their press services’ mistakes taught them this lesson.

While the Ukrainian blogosphere may be growing, it is still far from maturity. “Indeed, our blogosphere continues to grow and many bloggers have been proudly bringing up this fact,” Tetiana Bohdanova, a blogger who regularly covers the Ukrainian blogosphere at Global Voices, the world’s largest citizen media platform, explained to The Day, “However, regardless of the growing number of blogs, the Ukrainian blogosphere is not well integrated. We have several small thematic communities, for example, bloggers grouping around Internet-business or social media marketing-related topics. At the same time, different communities have very loose or no links between themselves.”

According to Bohdanova, this lack of links between various groups of bloggers, as well as a scarcity of opinion leaders with a professional attitude, are factors holding back the Ukrainian blogosphere from being more engaged in civic activism. Moreover, Bohdanova explains that “sometimes the dynamics of the Ukrainian blogosphere mirror the divisions in our society,” referring to cases when the issue language resulted estrangement between the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking groups. However, she points to a certain level of activity in spreading information, even if often limited to reposting, as sign that the cyberactivists do care, and have the potential to do even more. In addition to this, the Ukrainian blogosphere has proved its worth as an independent source of information, even upstaging the traditional media, as in its coverage of such cases as the arrests of Tryzub activists or the Tax Maidan.

AT YOUR SIDE

While there is indeed a paucity of professional bloggers, some opinion leaders have emerged from the masses. One of these is Olena Bilozerska, a journalist, civic activist, and arguably the country’s top blogger. Initially a history buff, Bilozerska decided to turn to journalism after an article written for a colleague was enthusiastically received by an editor and the Orange Revolution convinced her that one must embrace the times one lives in, and the challenges they present.

During her time as a journalist, however, Bilozerska was frequently disappointed by the editorial policies of the places she worked at. Editors, she explains, would often prefer to pick safe or bland material if this can minimize the risk of any repercussions. The solution, to start working independently through her blog, presented itself in the most opportune of times. Though the work was hard, Bilozerska kept at it, steadily attracting a growing number of followers. Her blog now has over 2,000 readers a day, and her impact is felt beyond the borders of Ukraine — with readers from Russia, Canada, Australia, Europe and other Ukrainian diaspora centers.

Bilozerska accounts for her success by the perception of bloggers as being more reliable than the traditional media. In an interview for the BBC she explained that the widespread distrust of media organizations does not apply to bloggers: “People trust me, because they know I will never intentionally lie, and will correct and apologize for any occasional mistakes.”

The next move was to set up a news agency, Poriad z vamy (At your side), which she did together with Oleksii Yaroslavtsev, an Odesa-based blogger. Relying on a wide network of contributors and supporters, they manage to forego advertisers and investors, and thus maintain their independence, while still presenting a top-notch product. With its impressive diligent and rapid coverage of virtually all major protests and unrest, Poriad z vamy, just as Bilozerska’s blog, are monitored by traditional media outlets, who regularly use her photos and materials.

And not just the traditional media. Over the past year the police has twice taken Bilozerska in for interrogation and confiscated her materials — in violation of Ukraine’s media law, which states that “journalists may not be arrested or detained in connection with their professional activities and their equipment may not be confiscated.” In both cases this was linked to material that she had posted and condemned on her blog — first of a smoke grenade attack on a fur shop in Kyiv and then with a group of young men throwing Molotov cocktails at the Party of Regions headquarters in Kyiv (the latter video was emailed to Bilozerska).

While she has galvanized a number of supporters and activists to join into the public debate on the future of the country, Bilozerska remains cautious about overestimating the influence of politically engaged blogging in Ukraine. Aside from the limited amount of “true activists” in the blogosphere, this is due to the fact that television is still the dominant media in Ukraine. However, she admits, “the gap is narrowing, and the fact that anybody can run a blog is a huge advantage, as the state is no longer the sole provider of information.”

THE LIMITS OF CYBERACTIVISM

For all the hype that blogging and other forms of virtual activism receive, the limits of such a form are painfully visible. First and foremost people often equate the use of social media to civic engagement. This is rarely the case, even with people who purport to be politically active. A comparative analysis of the blogs presents three different levels of activity. At the first, most basic level, there are the bloggers who post opinions, photos, links to different materials.

The second level moves into what can be called metablogging (playing it a bit loose with the term, which traditionally means blogging about blogging, but is here used in a more “systemic” sense). Metablogging implies connections to other Internet portals, other blogs, or any significant Internet phenomena. This aggregation of information allows one to purport to representing a portion of the blogosphere, or else describing systemic phenomena. This remains a weak point in Ukraine, as Bohdanova (a metablogger herself) points out, deploring that “bloggers in Ukraine still ‘struggle’ alone” and the “lack of good blog aggregators or social news cites websites where users can vote stories up or down.”

In the third and most relevant phase one moves beyond the purely virtual, and engages real-life people. Typically this can be done through crowdsourcing. By engaging real-life people, the blogger or platform becomes bigger than just the voice of a single person, no matter how loud. It also has the advantage of spreading the risks involved, thus protecting the initial blogger. Such a strategy has successfully been employed by both Navalny and Bilozerska. There have also been cases of bloggers getting together to organize actions or gather money for a worthy cause. On the whole, however, there remains a lot to be done in this field.

The development of blogging and its interaction with society at large is further hampered by the (ab)use of the Internet by authoritarian regimes. This can take on the form of shutting down undesirable platforms, installing a Chinese-style firewall that limits access to outside information, or using the Internet to monitor undesirable activists. The use of paid bloggers for astroturfing also appears to be on an upward curve. During a Google conference last year focusing on the relation between liberty and Internet, I had the chance to meet with Mehdi Saharkhiz, whose father, a prominent oppositionist, had been tracked down by the Iranian government using technology purchased from Siemens. Such collusion between high-tech companies and dictatorships creates a frightening impression indeed.

While the Ukrainian government is far from (or far behind, depending on your preference), using such abusive methods to stifle an independent source of information, there are worrying trends. For one thing bloggers are not protected in any way, and even their journalistic rights are violated. Even a benevolent approach on behalf of the government, however, does not mean that blogging will translate into increased civic activism. It is easy to gather hundreds or even thousands of “likes” to a page dedicated to a given cause. It is much harder to instigate real-life actions.

With the dual challenges of government pressure and creating a worthy material that attracts interest, quality blogging is far more daunting than many imagine. But it can also be immensely rewarding (though perhaps not financially). Indeed, it combines the pure freedom of the web with the galvanizing competition of the freest of markets — if what you write is interesting and relevant, the readers will follow. And the recipe is simple, though not easy. “You have to work hard,” says Bilozerska. “If you stick to a topic and cover it well, people will come.”

By Jakub PARUSINSKI, The Day

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