The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Russia, the political impact of social media varies by platform

Flag-waving and chanting demonstrators in December 2011 call for a disputed parliamentary election to be rerun in Russia. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)
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The following is a guest post from Ora John Reuter , an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and David Szakonyi, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University.  Follow Szkonyi on Twitter @dszakonyi.

Update: The article on which this post is based has now been ungated by The British Journal of Political Science and will be freely available to all for the next six months here.


Ever since online social networking became widespread in the mid-2000s, observers have been bullish about the ability of social media to bring about democratic change.  Drawing on examples from around the globe — Iran in 2009, Egypt, Tunisia and Russia in 2011-2012; and Ukraine and Hong Kong in 2014 are among the most commonly used — pundits and social scientists have argued that social media can help citizens access free information in unfree media environments and, when the moment is right, help anti-government protesters organize.  At the same time, there have been some detractors, who point out that social media may actually help dictators gather information on opponents and cut off the flow of information between activists.

In a recently published article at the British Journal of Political Science, we use survey data from the December 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia to examine one aspect of this debate.  Specifically, we look at how usage of different social networks affected users’ awareness of electoral fraud in those elections.  That question is important because the mass protests that broke out after those elections, the largest in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, were organized primarily in response to allegations of fraud.  Hence, belief in electoral fraud was an important determinant of protest participation.

Our findings indicate that the ownership structure of social media sites matters greatly.  Controlling for a range of possible confounding factors, we find that users of Western networks like Facebook and Twitter were more likely than non-users to believe that there was significant electoral fraud during the elections.  And yet, users of VKontakte and Odnoklassniki — Russian-owned social networks that each have four times more users in Russia than Facebook does (in 2011, only 5 percent of Russians were on Facebook) — were no more likely than non-users to believe that fraud had taken place. The reason for this discrepancy, we argue, is that opposition activists politicized Facebook and Twitter with accounts of electoral fraud, but refrained from doing the same on domestic networks, which were more vulnerable infiltration by the regime.

Russia is one of a small, but important, group of countries — China and Iran being two others — where domestic social networks still draw more users than Facebook. In these countries, we suspect that the effect of online social media on regime change may be muted.  After all, when nondemocratic governments have leverage over the content and structure of social networks, users lose the ability to access independent points of view and learn about government malfeasance. Not only is information sharing monitored and potentially blocked, but democracy activists avoid networks connected with government authorities for fear of reprisals.

The story of VKontakte, Russia’s largest social network, illustrates this point well. Following the 2011 elections, pressure mounted on VKontakte to limit opposition activity on the site. The authorities were especially concerned about activities related to protest coordination. The company’s founder, Pavel Durov, was reportedly questioned by the FSB (Russia’s internal security service) over opposition activity on his site.

Accusations again arose in March 2013 that the company had been sharing data with security services about how opposition groups utilize the social network to coordinate their online and offline activities. Durov claimed that VKontakte had resisted these entreats, but suspicions flew that the site had been shutting down opposition “groups” and disrupting private communication between opposition figures. The very next month two key partners sold their 48 percent share in VKontakte to individuals thought to be well-connected to the Kremlin, intensifying pressure on Durov to play by the government’s rules.

The final straw for Durov appears to have been requests from the FSB to report on Ukrainians who were publicly critical of the Russian government on the site. Durov refused to comply, instead publishing the FSB requests online and further drawing attention to the censorship being applied.

On top of all this, VKontakte does not allow users to register anonymously as Western networks do. In order to create an account, users must verify their identity with a cellphone number, which can be linked to the passport information that must be supplied in order receive a SIM card in Russia.  In fact, identity verification on all domestic social networks is now required by law in Russia.

VKontakte’s vulnerability to state pressure seems to have led many opposition activists to focus their social media strategy on Facebook and Twitter.  In 2011-12, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular political blogger, maintained an active public Facebook page and Twitter account, which he used to spread hundreds of YouTube videos, photographs and anecdotes documenting electoral fraud, and yet Navalny maintained only a token presence on Vkontakte and no presence on Odnoklassniki.

And yet, we do find that usage of Facebook and Twitter increased awareness of electoral fraud, and usage of these social networking platforms is on the rise in Russia.  So aren’t there grounds for believing that social media, especially Western social media, may still become a problem for regime leaders in Russia?

Recent events in Russia leave some room for doubt.  A draft law that will take effect Jan. 1, requires any companies that collect data on Russian citizens to store it in data centers located within Russia. Major Western providers, fearful of losing access to the Russian market, appear ready to comply.  It seems unlikely that this data will be safe from the prying eyes of Russian security agencies, who have become deeply involved in drafting regulations on data encryption and storage.

More troubling still, Facebook and Twitter seem increasingly willing to comply with foreign government requests to restrict the flow of information on their networks.  In June, Twitter admitted to removing certain politicized accounts at the request of the Russian government. And in December, after activists flocked to Facebook to organize a demonstration in support of Navalny, Russian’s Internet monitor Roskomnadzor requested that Facebook take the event page down. Facebook complied with the order almost immediately, raising ire among activists who accused of it of caving to government pressure too easily. The tech company reversed course several days later when requested to remove a replacement event page that had popped up in the original’s place. The Russian government has yet to take action in response against Facebook, but an outright ban on it operating in the country is not out of the question.

In our view, the impact of social media on authoritarian survival remains uncertain. Domestic social networks, which can be controlled by authoritarian governments, may be as useful to autocrats as they are to the opposition.  Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, may be better positioned to bring about regime change, but if these networks are blocked, infiltrated, or otherwise compromised by authoritarian governments, then their effect on regime change may be muted. The degree to which Western social networks are able to resist this government pressure remains to be seen.