Expert Commentary

Exploring Russian cyberspace: Collective action and the networked public sphere

2012 study by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society on Russia’s relative Internet freedom.

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

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