Exploring Russian Cyberspace: Digitally Mediated Collective Action and the Networked Public Sphere
Russia is a dangerous country in which to be a journalist. A number of reporters have been attacked or killed on the job in the last several years, and the government closely monitors print and broadcast organizations. However, Russia has a robust digital sphere where criticism of the government has been much more free.
A 2012 study by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, “Exploring Russian Cyberspace: Digitally Mediated Collective Action and the Networked Public Sphere,” was based on an in-depth analysis of Russia’s public Internet space. The researchers sought to better understand the way that Russia’s public networks are used for communication and coordinating public action.
The study’s findings include:
- In contrast with Russia’s heavily monitored print and broadcast media, the country’s Internet is relatively free. “Based on tests run through the OpenNet Initiative, we continue to find no evidence of significant technical filtering of the Russian Internet.”
- While the government does not appear to restrict Internet freedom, during the December parliamentary elections there was a wave of “Distributed Denial of Service” (DDoS) attacks against news and election monitoring sites. While the culprit is unclear, “it seems extremely unlikely that these attacks were not coordinated, since all of the sites under attack were targeted by just two botnets.”
- Pro-government forces have not been able to gain much of a foothold in the blogosphere. The majority of Russia’s most popular blogs are either not supportive of the government or are actively critical. “We do not find a distinct cluster of pro-government bloggers among the nearly 11,000 most-linked-to bloggers in Russia.”
- The government and its supporters are more prominent on Twitter — but not much more popular — often relying on automatic bots to push their message. “Hashtags that are popular with pro-government users are not widely adopted outside of their own cluster,” the authors write.
“It borders on the tautological to state that Russian social movements and civic groups use the Internet to organize,” the authors state. That is how organizers were able to coordinate a December 24, 2011, protest that attracted over 100,000 people. The authors note, however, that Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency could portend a shift in governmental policy toward the Internet, and so they note that the study is a description rather than a prediction.
Tags: Twitter, human rights, social media
Note to instructor: The suggested lessons are designed for flexibility. The goal is to have students understand how to convey the study’s findings accurately and to consider techniques for making the subject matter broadly accessible. In addition, it is well worth discussing how the study was put together and the intellectual context from which it comes. There is also a related news article in the study analysis section.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Read the issue-related The Guardian article titled "Nervous Kremlin Seeks to Purge Russia's Internet of 'Western' Influences."
- What key insights from the study and article should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?