Social media is a global phenomenon, and it undeniably has major impact on societies. Yet, sites like Facebook and Instagram are actually not only capable of influencing the social aspects of human lives. AsapSCIENCE recently released a video showing how social media can (and does) influence one’s brain – sometimes in increadibly peculiar ways. Check it out here:
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 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.
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.
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.
Although the Internet as a concept was created over 30 years ago, it’s been only two decades since we saw a true rise of this technology. The proliferation of the network, as well as its integration in the world economics, trade, culture and even politics are undeniable nowadays. The rise of the Internet provided the world with a number of new technologies, such as online banking, social networks, e-democracy, online retail etc. I already wrote about the concept of social media, which is considered to be among the most important after-effects of the Internet expansion, and today I would like to take a closer look at the implications and consequences of this phenomenon. There is a significant number of implications of social media, with grass-roots journalism, Internet activism, online marketing and viral content to be among the most notable. In this post I will focus on the online activism, and in particular social media and social movements.
Social movements and the Internet
To begin with, social movements, being a part of civil society, have always played a crucial role in resisting and carrying out a social change. Dealing with specific political, economic, cultural and, most important, social issues, these movements have always been in the forefront of struggle for justice and improvement of the existing social structures . Social movements have always adopted the very advanced technologies which helped them gain support, spread the ideas and agenda, and to raise money . The emergence of Web 2.0 and social media allowed social movements to start to actively use these new tools and improve their communication, coordination and cooperation. Thus, adding to the traditional offline activities, social movements started using the advantages which were offered by the online realm – cheap means of communication, fast information updates, comprehensive coverage of target groups and many more.
Although any Internet-related topic is relatively new and thus evolving, academia nowadays offers a wide range of concepts and explanations regarding online activism of social movements. I do not pretend to choose the most appropriate ones, especially given that it is practically impossible, given that the perception of the Internet generally, and social media in particular differs. Hence, I picked up three concepts, which in my opinion can reflect the most notable implications of the online activism with regard to social media.
Manuel Castells talks about the concept of mass self-communication which emerged due to the rise of the Internet, Web 2.0 and social media. Scientist argues that the phenomenon of mass self-communication is “self- generated in content, self-directed in emission and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many” . The new tools offered by the Internet, primarily social media tools, were instantly adopted by social movements, as the new technologies offered these movements means “to build their autonomy and to confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects” . More than that, the diffusion of the Internet, wireless communication and social media eventually changed the very organizational structure of social movements, making them more decentralized and democratic by their nature.
Hence, the proliferation of mass self-communication and the Internet among people all over the world gave social movements a chance to “enter the public space through a variety of different channels” . More than that, social media offered social movements a range of tools and platforms to reach global audiences with minimal costs and coordinate cooperate and communicate fast and cheap.
Power and counter-power
I find Manuel Castells’ concept of power and counter-power useful when it comes to online activism. The theory implies the confrontation of elites and non-elites, which can be seen in this case as the confrontation of online activists (social movements) and established elites and systems in general.
One of the most important steps for political movement in achieving its goals has always been to be represented in media with broad audiences and significant influence . Although social media is gaining in influence and spreads all over the world, mainstream media, such as state-owned channels, still remain “the main channel of communication between the political system and citizens” . Hence, one shouldn’t overestimate the role of social media. Although the development of new technologies has diminished the role of traditional media, the latter is still influential and strong. However, social media offer social movements alternative ways to proliferate their ideas and ways to gain support without presence in mainstream media. And in this respect, the online world and social media has contributed to the rise and influence of social movements.
Christian Fuchs suggests conceptualizing social movements as self-organizing systems. This lets us look at online activism and social media from a different angle. Fuchs states that “social self- organization in a broad sense can be understood as re-creation or self-reproduction of society…Social self-organization is based on cooperation, participation, self-determination, and grassroots democracy” . Social self-organization is “the principle of bottom-up social organization that stimulates the capacity to act” . Undeniably social media offer the necessary tools for online activists to implement the principles of self-organization efficiently and advantageously for society.
Blogs, social networks and other manifestations of social media are self-organizing systems by their nature. In addition, social movements always emerged as signs of grass-roots democracy, thus the rise of social media was a natural contribution for social movements. The discussions and arrangements made on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, are way more efficient and less time-consuming than the traditional means of socialization and planning. More than that, online activism requires fast organization and sometimes instant reaction to certain events, which can be easily achieved through the means of social media. And lastly, the Internet in general and social media in particular also affect “the relationship between groups and movements and their principal targets: government, citizens, and mainstream media” .
Occupy Wall Street
There is a huge number of social movements presented online. Occupy Wall Street is among the most recent ones, and perfectly exemplifies the advantages a movement can get using social media. Vast proliferation of the ideas, online discussions, sharing video, audio and photo content, creation of online petitions and arranging events through the means of such social media platforms as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – this is a short list of the tools used by this movement to reach its goals. Although the movement achieved practically nothing, I do believe it sets a good example for future social movements and online activists. Regardless of the outcome, the powers and influence which can be gained through the means of social media are undeniable and will eventually change the world for the better.
 Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Social theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge. P 81
 Wejnert, Barbara. “Integrating models of diffusion of innovations: a conceptual framework.” Annual review of sociology 28.1 (2002): 297-326.
 Castells, Manuel. 2011. Communication Power: mass relationships in the network society. In Media and Society, ed. James Curran, 9. London: Bloomsbury.
 Castells, Manuel. 2011. Communication Power: mass relationships in the network society. In Media and Society, ed. James Curran, 10. London: Bloomsbury.
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 Loader, Brian D., and Mercea, Dan. 2012. Social media and democracy: innovations in participatory politics. New York: Routledge.
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