On Thursday, Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was briefly detained in Moscow after leaving his dentist. Navalny says he faces charges of organizing illegal protests, which could land him in jail until after Russia’s March 2018 elections.

Who is Alexi Navalny, and why is he such a threat?

Navalny, a 41-year-old lawyer, spent 60 days in detention centers last year and found himself barred from registering as a candidate in the March elections. Instead, he has built an organization that emerged as the most serious domestic political challenge to the regime of President Vladimir Putin. This latest move by the Kremlin seems aimed at shutting down Navalny until after the elections.

My research on Navalny’s organization looks at why the alternative communication space Navalny and his followers built using social media platforms now dominates online political discussion in Russia. This space influences traditional media and the political agenda of the country, giving Navalny a far-ranging voice.

Opposition activists are rarely mentioned in Russian mainstream media since these sources of information remain under government control. For example, Russian national TV largely ignores Navalny. Putin and top governmental officials try not to mention his name in front of the cameras.

Navalny, who is often considered as the main leader of the opposition movement, had no choice but to go online. But Russia’s social media is not free from Kremlin control, not least because a pro-Kremlin businessman owns the most popular social media platform in the country — VKontakte (VK), a kind of Facebook clone. This allows the government to censor posts and identify those who criticize the regime.

From 2011 to 2016, there were 999 criminal cases prosecuted in Russia for an online activity such as reposting content, or posting texts, images and video. Despite this relentless pressure, Navalny has gradually built a grass-roots political campaign on social media platforms. This campaign was based on the anti-corruption investigations and demanded an end to government corruption. It later focused on the demand to register Navalny as a candidate in the presidential elections.


Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a Jan. 28 rally in Moscow. (AP)

How does Navalny challenge Putin’s regime? Here are five reasons the opposition’s digital strategy has been successful in the difficult political and media circumstances of an authoritarian Russian state:

1) Navalny’s team politicized the largest social network, VK. This network was largely apolitical when digital campaigners first challenged Putin’s power in 2011, demanding pro-democracy reforms. By 2017, political discussions unexpectedly flooded VK — in large part inspired by the Navalny anti-corruption campaign.

2) The campaign uses Telegram, an encrypted platform. Navalny’s followers avoid state digital surveillance by coordinating their organization using another popular platform, Telegram. This relatively uncommercial platform for messaging and other digital interactions gives the group immense opportunities for the development of organizational structures. The architecture of Telegram allows activists to meet, interact and plan online without worrying about being surveilled by the Kremlin. It also ensures that the messages from the main campaign activists could reach ordinary followers without being filtered.

3) They created an alternative TV network on YouTube. Each regional office of Navalny’s campaign created its own YouTube channel, then started reporting regional political and social news. Russian mainstream media, in contrast, remains heavily censored and does not normally broadcast any news that is critical of the Kremlin — the type of news stories discussed on Navalny TV.

4) Navalny harnessed the provinces. For the first time in many years, Navalny brought politics back to the Russian provinces. Russia is a vast country located across 11 time zones. But almost all politics remain centralized in Moscow. Navalny mobilized provincial populations to join protests. His supporters also have challenged local elites loyal to Putin with their local campaigns.

The Navalny campaign created and now manages hundreds of regional pages on VK and Telegram as well as uploading thousands of political streams on YouTube. All this media content carried the same anti-corruption message tweaked for a specific city or a region. These pages now have more than 1 million total followers, placing Navalny at the top of the Russian social media celebrities. Navalny’s YouTube channel had more subscribers than the YouTube channels of major Russian TV stations in 2017.

5) Mobilizing this digital support launched widespread protests. This network of pages and channels helped to identify supporters across Russia, well beyond Moscow. These supporters then mobilized the populations of at least 82 Russian cities for the anti-government protests that took place on March 26, 2017, as well as three other waves of protests that followed. In geographic reach, these protests are the largest that Russia has seen since the early 1990s.

The protests were organized based on a quickly deployable digital infrastructure that relied on political content posted on YouTube and the communities on local social media. Later, this infrastructure became the basis for Navalny’s eight-month attempt to run for president.

Navalny tried to force the authorities to register him as a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. He engaged in vast-scale personalized political communication as if Russia were a democratic country. This campaign, however, ended with an expected decision of the authorities to bar Navalny from running on the grounds of a suspended prison sentence — on what Navalny claims is a trumped-up charge.

What’s next for social media as a political tool in Russia?

Navalny’s anti-corruption and election campaigns have emerged as an unexpected challenge to an authoritarian Russian state that has been dominated by one politician for almost two decades.

Excluded from the mainstream media, Navalny turned to digital media, and built an online campaign infrastructure grounded in previously apolitical social media communities. Increased exposure of Russians to alternative information and enthusiastic campaigning on social media might weaken Putin’s grip on power.

We know that the use of digital technologies can undermine democracy. But in Russia, social media has emerged as one of the few areas able to openly challenge Putin’s political regime.

Aliaksandr Herasimenka @alesherasimenka is a PhD student at the University of Westminster in London, United Kingdom. His research project looks at the use of social media by political activists in Russia and Belarus.