2020 will always be remembered not only by Covid-19 but also by major political protests all around the world. From Black Lives Matter to protests following elections in the US and Belarus: the pandemic caused unemployment, loss and took away stress reliefs, which led to what seemed to be the last drop for many people. Meanwhile, social media use rose drastically due to limitations in social contact. So did social media play a role in facilitating political protests? I’ll try to uncover this question by examining recent protests in Russia against the opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment.
To understand what happened, let me take you back to summer 2020. On the 20th of August, Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was mysteriously poisoned with the Novichok agent, an illegal chemical weapon. However, he survived and, while being in a coma, was taken to Germany for rehabilitation. After partial recovery, together with the investigation agency Bellingcat and supported by the UN, Navalny published an investigation of his own attempted murder tracing back to the Russian president and a group of ‘assassins’ working for the Federal security service. On January 17th, Navalny flew back to Moscow but was immediately arrested in the airport.
Shortly, another investigation by Navalny’s team came out: this time, uncovering the luxurious royal palace of Putin built on the money from corrupt bribes. In less than a week, the investigation received over 50 million views on YouTube. The hashtag #FreeNavalny started circulating on social media under posts expressing outrage at the government’s action. On the 23rd of January, the first peaceful protest was attended by around 300 thousand protesters around Russia. It was met with police violence.
Just one video?
Just one YouTube video could make thousands of people risk getting out on the streets and being beaten by the police or arrested. As a new authority, social media has overtaken the place of state-censored radio and television and created a space for criticism and freedom of speech that, at least in Russia, has not been possible in any other media channels. Yes, it’s still possible for the government to track down a blogger spreading anti-government narratives and make up a legal allegation against them. However, it’s not as easy to control the effect their activity already had: the number of people that have shared it or the number of other online activists who have demonstrated support in their own posts.
After a year of the global pandemic, people turned to social media as an outlet for their anxiety, grief, and anger. And the investigation that once again pointed to the extreme level of corruption in the country found exactly the audience it was looking for: millions of exhausted and enraged people. The people, on the other hand, found a community that shared their feelings, with comments agitating others to stand up against the government.
Million Eyes and Million Mouths
The development and rapidly growing popularity of social media gave us a unique opportunity to express ourselves to the world. Now, everyone with a camera and a keyboard on their phone can upload a message to the internet, and, if seen by many people, this message can have a tremendous effect. This is why influencers have such great power over political opinions and movements. Through social media channels, they can reach millions of people, and almost no one can control what they can say.
When influencers agitated their audiences to support the protests against corruption in Russia and Navalny’s imprisonment, people felt compelled and right in their will to protest, backed by influencers and other social media users.
At the same time, in the context of the pandemic, people are very limited in their options to communicate with their friends and family members. So, often, they turn to influencers and communities of followers created around them for human connection. Consequently, when influencers agitated their audiences to support the protests against corruption in Russia and Navalny’s imprisonment, people felt compelled and right in their will to protest, backed by influencers and other social media users.
One of the phenomena that characterized anti-corruption protests in January was the Telegram-bot created by OVD.info. This tool helped connect arrested activists with lawyers who volunteered to legally assist them. Before joining the protests, the activists could send their names and contact details to the bot and inform it if they were arrested. Then, as their phones were taken away during an arrest, the lawyers could find them and, if they went missing after being arrested, help their families contact them. This channel also provided a list of safety advice for activists, such as tips on what to equip yourself with before joining the protests and what to do when arrested.
This initiative is a perfect example of how society, through social media, is taking the role that the government is responsible for, to protect people but from the government itself. During peaceful protests, volunteers provided free medical, legal and informational help, and social media enabled them to do so, helping hundreds of arrested activists.
In a country like Russia, where democracy is very questionable, social media has a significant political role. It’s not absolute, and the government is still trying to tighten censorship to social media channels. Nevertheless, it allows people to speak up and voice their political opinion that they’re entitled to by basic human rights. And more importantly, it allows them to find the support they are looking for.
The latest protests in Russia haven’t led to any visible results: the government hasn’t changed, and Navalny is still in prison. Nonetheless, once again, it proved how powerful social media could be in mobilizing political protests and encouraging democracy.
Cover: Sasan Rashtipour