Social media: from rags to riches

M_Id_403201_Alexei_Navalny

Continuing the discussion about social media, as well as its implications and consequences for the society, I came to think that it is important to discuss a particular case regarding the issue of digital media. Indeed, theoretical perspective and discussions concerning the use of social media cannot be complete without some representative example of social media usage.

In the following lines I will present a case I chose, examine its peculiarities, benefits and shortcomings, discuss it from the “social media” angle and make conclusions.

The case

The case I would like to examine in this post is about Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalnyy, his social media activities, political career and legal prosecution arranged by Russian authorities. Interestingly, “Navalnyy” case can be seen as recent and old simultaneously, given that a politician’s blog which was launched over 7 years ago eventually led to a wide range of political and legal events which took place this summer and autumn. Hence, examining the case of an oppositionist, we can follow the development of Russian digital media sphere and the growth of its influence in the country.

Alexey Navalnyy is a lawyer, political and financial activist. In Russia he is most famous due to his activities during protests in Russia in 2011-2013, and his blogs, tweets and posts in a various social media platforms. Navalnyy came to prominence through his blog which was launched in 2006 with the objective of publishing investigations and viewpoints regarding corruption, abuse of power and illegal activities of Russian state-related individuals – top management of state companies, members of parliament and government, and other country’s power-holders. The oppositionist summarized his intentions stating that “Everyone says corruption is everywhere, but for me it seems strange to say that and then not try to put the people guilty of that corruption away.” The popularity of the blog has grown steadily ever since it was established, having reached over 220000 views per day by October 2013. Livejournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform and the hosting website of Navalnyy blog, claims Navalnyy to be the second most read blogger in Runet (Russian segment of the Internet).

Although the blog still remains the most popular means of communication for Navalnyy, the politician is also represented in all the major social networking platforms – from Facebook to Twitter. Thus, the target group of Navalnyy are active Internet users (primarily from Moscow), who are interested in political situation in Russia, care about country’s future and determined to make a change. It is important to mention, that currently about 75 per cent of Muscovites have access to the Internet, and thus the popularity of Navalnyy is partially explained by the proliferation of the Internet. Moreover, the rise of Web 2.0 technology, allowing internet users to comment, like, share and discuss the posts and statements of the politician undoubtedly contributed to the increase of popularity and intensity of discussions regarding the general “Navalnyy” topic.

Elections

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Gathering of Navalnyy proponents in central Moscow prior to the elections

Until 2013, the political system of Russia did not permit public elections of regional governors, as they were appointed by Kremlin and regional parliaments. However, after passing amendments to the existing election law, this ban was lifted, resulting in ability for Russian opposition to put forward their candidates for these politically lucrative positions. Consequently, realizing his popularity and support of potential voters, Alexey Navalnyy announced his interest in participating in Moscow mayor elections in September 2013. Noteworthy is that Moscow is considered to be a separate region in Russia, and thus the mayor of Moscow is technically head of the entire region.

After the aforementioned announcement, Navalnyy released his political program as a blogpost and started actively using social media platforms for promoting his views and political agenda. Moreover, Navalnyy used his blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts (and even Instagram) for gathering people and organizing demonstrations aimed at supporting and promoting him as a potential mayor of the capital city. Navalnyy also used social networking sites as a means of debating with other candidates regarding their statements and political agenda. For example, Navalnyy responded and commented on tweets and Facebook posts of other candidates. Furthermore, the politician regularly posted articles regarding the elections process and other candidates’ views and behavior on his personal blog.

It is worth mentioning that while Navalnyy originally became popular due to his articles on Livejournal blog, the growth of popularity of Twitter and Facebook in the country eventually contributed to the increased focus of the oppositionist on status updates and comments on social networking sites. Although the oppositionist’s blog was undoubtedly the most important means of communication and discussions during the campaign, services such as Twitter and Instagram provided significant number of followers, allowing the politician to not only attract those who don’t read blogs, but also posts short messages and comments regarding ongoing events in efficient and timely fashion.

Interestingly, Russian authorities contributed to the further growth of Navalnyy popularity, accusing him for embezzlement and starting a legal trial against him. The result was that the case was covered by Russian mainstream media, bringing “Navalnyy” topic to the top discussed issues in the state. Realizing the influence of the grass-roots politician, authorities stopped the trial right before the elections, making the issue even more widely discussed. Navalnyy stated after these events that he is not “afraid and these 15 days convinced [him] there is nothing to fear. Let them [authorities] be afraid instead.” As a result, Russian social media was overwhelmed with Navalnyy-related statuses, articles, photos and comments, making the oppositionist undeniably the most popular and discussed persona in Russian segment of the Internet.

The elections took place on the 8th of September 2013 and lead to unexpected results, as Navalnyy managed to obtain a significant number of votes, even though none of the polls or experts predicted more than 10 per cent. Although Kremlin appointee won the elections, Navalnyy managed to get 27 per cent of the votes, thus becoming the most popular opposition candidate in Moscow elections ever.

“Project Navalnyy”

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Demonstration of Navalnyy supporters on the 8th of September 2013

The case of Navalnyy is interesting for a number of reasons. The politician became one of the most discussed individuals in the Internet in Russia, and the most popular and famous opposition activist in the country almost exclusively due to his activities in social media. The popularity and support Navalnyy managed to gain by using social media services is even more impressive, given the fact that oppositionist eventually managed to confront established authorities and successfully perform on Moscow mayor elections. The mistakes made by authorities initiating legal trial against politician resulted in coverage of this case by practically all the media in Russia – digital as well as mainstream. However, it was Navalnyy’s active usage of social media platforms to gather people, express opinions, discuss issues and interact with voters, which was the most advantageous  for oppositionist. Most other candidates showed little or no command of the Internet and SNSs. Thus “project Navalnyy” is almost entirely a product of Web 2.0 technology and proliferation of social media services, and changed the dynamic of politician-voters relations, made election candidates more accessible and reachable for ordinary users, and discussions more interactive and up-to date. One may only hope that the Navalnyy campaign is not a one-time event in Russia, and that other determined people who are not indifferent about the country’s future will follow the example of this oppositionist and take advantage of digital media platforms.

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