If you want to know what’s happening in Russia, go straight to the source. Kevin Rothrock explains the “Wild West” of Russia’s internet.
In a media landscape that comprises a multitude of voices, following events across countries can be bewildering. It is often difficult to separate the voices that know what they’re talking about from those that merely like the sound of themselves. It can be harder still to know what the voices of locals on the ground sound like—the voices of those who actually live in the places that grace our international pages and television screens—when the voices in question speak and think in languages other than own.
For the past two years, Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) has co-edited RuNet Echo, a project of Global Voices Online that seeks to expand English speakers’ understanding of one of the most fascinating and under-reported conversations of local voices in the world: the one that is currently taking place on the Russian internet, or RuNet, as it is more commonly known.
“I don’t think English-language mainstream media coverage is necessary to understand Russia at all,” Rothrock told Crikey. “Go straight to the source. You’ll find analysis and commentary that’s more unfiltered — and often quite zany — but you’ll come away with an improved sense of things and a more nuanced appreciation of current events’ chaos.”
“The Russian internet is unique because of Russia’s semi-authoritarian context,” Rothrock said. “Any real political alternative to the Kremlin is relegated to the periphery, where its public presence is limited to the internet. As a result, the RuNet is the site of a vibrant, exciting political conversation.
“Yes, it’s a cacophony, and it’s been inundated with some hateful and insane individuals. But it offers anyone in the world with a broadband connection the opportunity to study Russian civil society where it lives and breathes.”
Rothrock first became interested in Russian civil society — as well as with the country’s language and culture — in 2001, when Andrey Tselikov, his co-editor at Global Voices, started teaching him the Cyrillic alphabet on a road trip to Yellowstone Park. He lived in Moscow for six months in 2003, travelling on the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, and his fascination only grew with subsequent study and visits.
“It’s certainly possible to overstate the political significance of the RuNet,” he said, “at least insofar as it’s a forum for non-systemic political debate. People with genuine political power are not the key players online. The RuNet’s biggest stars are a mix of writers, journalists, activists and aspiring politicians.”
“It’s also true that most Russian internet users are not signing online in order to spread digital samizdat designed to bring down the Putin regime. Most Russians are looking for music, movies and porn, like most people anywhere.”
“However, I do think the RuNet poses a serious threat to Russia’s state-owned television networks,” he said. “While the hazard isn’t nearly as imminent as many make it out to be, and though it’s also possible that traditional media will succeed in co-opting the internet, the web will always be very difficult for the Kremlin to control. There will always be the potential to share citizen media and comment on anything trending at any time. I don’t think this is a deathblow to the Kremlin’s current media landscape, but it will make for more interesting times. It already is.”
Rothrock pointed to the online anti-corruption activism of Alexei Navalny, one of the non-systemic opposition’s most determined and popular leaders, as a case in point. In January this year, in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Navalny launched a well-designed, interactive website that detailed the corruption and graft involved in preparing the Black Sea city for the event. It made headlines around the world.
“Navalny’s anti-corruption efforts, housed and disseminated primarily online, may not have caused a revolution, but they’ve certainly had an impact,” Rothrock said. ”The level of corruption involved in Sochi became a major international news story in no small part due to the materials he distributed online. The Russian political establishment is more vulnerable today than it has been for over a decade, thanks largely to Putin’s advancing age, but also to the anti-corruption movement that thrives online.”
Not that Rothrock’s praise for Navalny has stopped him from being blocked by the activist on Twitter.
“I’ve been blocked by two prominent figures in Russia, actually,” he said. “I learned recently that journalist Tatiana Felgengauer has blocked me, too.”
“I think Navalny blocked me after I tweeted a photoshopped image mocking his attendance at a Kremlin dinner party. I don’t know why Felgengauer blocked me. It’s a bummer, because I would prefer to have their tweets appear in my feed,” he said.
“As it is, I have to periodically look up their accounts individually. I wish they’d only muted me. I mute people all the time, especially since all this Ukraine conflict business started. It’s much harder now to write anything about that subject without provoking a dozen polemicists.”
“If I were based in Russia, I’d probably want to report on offline events, where the internet doesn’t play a significant role,” Rothrock said. “But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for citizen media.” When he does want to write about things that aren’t suited to RuNet Echo, Rothrock’s work can be found in The Calvert Journal, The New Republic and Russia! magazine. “I’m also happy to write for my old blog, ‘A Good Treaty’, if ever nobody wants to buy my work,” he said.
On threats to the RuNet and the Kremlin’s accumulation of censorship tools …
For anyone really interested in accessing forbidden websites, it will always be possible to circumvent internet censorship. Right now, Russian censorship laws and enforcement are not terribly hard to defeat. Navalny’s banned website continues to attract hundreds of comments for every new post, for example.
The Russian government’s accumulation of new censorship tools over the past couple of years is strange because it already has more than enough powers and excuses to close down whole social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and whole Web portals like Google. It could do the same with native websites like Vkontakte and Yandex. The latter is currently raising its eyebrows about the release of Sputnik.ru, the government’s own search engine that redundantly reinvents several services now offered by Yandex.
I don’t think the Kremlin wants to crush the internet. There is too much money to be made on the web, and the stigma of imitating Iran, North Korea or China is undeniable, even if Putin swears that Russia doesn’t judge other countries for how they handle internet access. But the weapons are locked and loaded. The hammer could come down on the RuNet at any time, if a perfect storm came along. Possibilities here could be another round of mass protests, a political assassination, a terrorist attack, or so on.
On how the internet has been used during the Ukrainian crisis …
I wouldn’t say that Russian internet users have done anything during the Ukraine crisis to revolutionise the technology. In Russia, anyway, you have various memes and hashtag campaigns popping up and dying out, but it’s not generally geared toward organising forms of offline activism. I think internet use changed radically during the 2011-2012 protests, when social networks suddenly burst through as a mobilisation tool for mass rallies and election monitoring. There has been relatively little public demonstrating in Russia over Ukraine, so people haven’t needed to turn to the web as an instrument for organisation.
I can say anecdotally that the public discussion online has become more polemical. Hundreds of people have died in Ukraine, first in Kiev and now in the east, and many internet users have gone on the warpath, looking to speak their version of the truth to anyone who tweets or posts something out of sync with it.
On the US State Department’s forays into social media …
I don’t think Twitter can be a very effective outreach instrument for the US State Department. Twitter accounts succeed among Russians when they have personality. Lenta.ru, when it was still considered a pillar of the independent media, used to have a Twitter account run by Igor Belkin, who drenched his posts in irony and sarcasm. Navalny’s Twitter account regularly cracks risqué jokes — the sort that no respectable Western politician would make a habit of sharing online. Russia’s internet discourse is something of a Wild West, where the range of tolerable language and tone is far wider than one finds in more “developed” societies. To my (American) eyes, I’m often shocked to see the things Russia’s foreign ministry shares online (trolling the US State Department’s Russian language mistakes, for instance). Russians, so far as I can tell, eat this stuff up. It’s funny. It’s the internet. Relax.
I think the US is better off encouraging individual officials to boost their online presence, where they can take on pro-regime figures one-on-one. Howard Solomon, ad advisor to the US embassy in Moscow, frequently spars with blogger Anton Korobkov. I’m not sure he always wins, but Solomon can match the snarkiest blow-for-blow. Michael McFaul has tried to put himself out there in a similar manner, but I don’t think he’s been successful. It takes more cynical person to do well in this atmosphere.
On the RuNet’s take on the Russian language …
The language on the RuNet is very different from the stuff I was studying when I started out in 2001 at the University of California Santa Cruz. I have a strong network of friends to help me with this, including Andrey Tselikov and my wife Victoria, and I use a whole host of online resources to help me understand and translate various words and phrases.
My favourite resource is multitran.ru, but googling around for terms with the word “significance” added, for instance, is a decent way to start untangling lots of language.