The protests ‘For Fair Elections’ in 2011-2012 exposed the role of social media in Russian domestic politics. International social media platforms such as Facebook mostly helped to mobilise protesters; however, the government was also effective in countering protests with information and communications technologies. Consequently, what was labelled as a ‘heyday’ of the Russian opposition triggered an extensive campaign from authorities aimed at the disabling of the opposition element capable of mobilising electorates in the 2010s. The restrictions were further extended to the RuNet. The government started taking social media seriously; censoring and punishing more citizens for expressing dissident views online. In these conditions, the censorship, distrust in Russian television and the absence of domestic competitors in online broadcasting increased YouTube’s role as a primary ‘watchdog’ of Russian society online. It became central to disseminating and preserving information on corruption and power abuse in the country. Although only a few opposition figures could remain active in the public sphere since the protests, those activists who survived political harassment and tackled censorship relied extensively on various digital strategies to communicate with their electorates.
Navalny, the “outlier”
Unlike most his opposition colleagues, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny has managed to remain a popular non-elected politician operating outside of the political system. His popularity had grown from 6 to 55 per cent in 2011-2017, while the approval of his activities among citizens has increased from 6 to 20 per cent in 2013-2020. Navalny’s vlog on YouTube has more than four million subscribers, while his investigative documentaries about Russian officials’ corruption reached multi-million views on the platform. In 2017, his investigation into the corruption of then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev led to several large-scale protests in Russian metropolitan areas. These were the first regular, mass anti-government protests to occur – reminiscent of the events of 2011-2012. In 2019, his associates (Ilya Yashin, Lyubov’ Sobol’, Ivan Zhdanov, Vladimir Milov, and others) were barred from participating in the Moscow municipal election. In response, they organised mass protests in Russia’s capital via social media platforms. Navalny and his opposition colleagues, therefore, rely on the same digital communication templates for inducing citizen political engagement.
Navalny, however, is not a pioneer in outspokenly criticising the government and corruption online in Russia. Several prominent cases of anti-corruption videos were posted on YouTube before Navalny’s initiatives. These include the videos of police major Alexey Dymovsky, anti-corruption activist Dmitry Baranovskii, and rock-musician Yuri Shevchuk, among others. The communication of those activists was occasional, amateur, and not politically purposeful compared to recent critics of the establishment online. In addition, they became the subject of a so-called ‘digital deride’, where the government, together with regulatory and law-enforcement bodies, suppressed online attempts to criticise the establishment. In the late 2010s, under these conditions, Navalny and his colleagues pushed their online strategies of communicating with citizens to the next level. They started publishing online messages more regularly, creating a network of connected channels and using multiple digital platforms extensively including YouTube with its interactive features.
A Political YouTuber
YouTube, the most popular digital platform in Russia, has become the preferred medium for anti-corruption activists to communicate their messages to audiences. Despite the censorship pressure, YouTube (a Google subsidiary, among other international platforms) could secure relative independence from the authorities. While most of its content removal requests from the Russian government and law-enforcement bodies are satisfied by the company, YouTube can still refrain from deleting particular content on the grounds of its platform-specific policies and commercial interests. As a result, some important political messages do slip away through this ‘strainer’ of censorship, including Navalny’s famous YouTube documentaries – which, despite their outspoken anti-establishment tone and court requests to delete them, remain available to users.
The digital toolkit of Navalny as the ‘frontman’ of non-systemic opposition includes several key strategies. Firstly, since 2011, he has continued expressing populist sentiments online; associating himself with ‘the people’ and attacking and discrediting the elite using unique journalistic practices. Secondly, Navalny acts as an amateur but critical journalist online – operating in the midst of a media environment dominated by Kremlin loyalists. Under these auspices, YouTube subsequently became a trusted news medium for non-systemic opposition, providing the public with an alternative news agenda. Navalny’s personal blog, Navalny LIVE, and the newly created Position Opposition YouTube channels, have neatly served these purposes. Lastly, socially attuned activists such as Navalny constantly adapt their content according to the medium and its audience. In his YouTube videos, Navalny invites people to like, click, subscribe, and share his content. These platform features have become easy steps of political participation that will less likely cause political harassment or persecution in comparison to offline, physical participation in protests. In addition, Navalny employs popular YouTube genres highlighting the ‘hipness’ of his content; for example, using ‘unboxing’ videos, where he unpacks different objects in front of the camera. These videos have become tools for entertaining the activist’s audiences and launching Navalny’s viral status, but they have also helped in drawing users’ attention to corruption issues in the country.
Whether such digital communication strategies in opposition politics can bring about prospects of democratisation to Russian society is yet to be established. The digital communication template created by Navalny and his colleagues does not necessarily help to elect these politicians; however, it serves to express their sentiments, hold their electoral campaigns, encourage and facilitate protest activities, and, most importantly, secure the opposition’s survival in the political communication sphere. However, for each successful opposition action, a counteraction always follows. In 2019, the protests around Moscow municipal election organised by Navalny’s associates resulted in legal proceedings instituted against the protesters known as the ‘Moscow case’, the arrests of activists’ bank accounts, police raids of Navalny's regional offices, and other measures. Despite the recurrent firm response from the establishment, in the events of political instability (as with the Belarusian presidential election in 2020), such social media projects have the potential to become bastions of alternative information. As they resist the state’s censorship control, they can also facilitate broader national movements in the future. Even though these channels may not be the most truthful, non-biased, or transparent mediums for disseminating information, they still allow for the pluralisation of political views in a restrictive political environment such as Russia’s.