The Kremlin’s attempt to remove Alexei Navalny from public view has violently backfired. The conviction and imprisonment of Putin’s political opponent has provoked mass protests, worldwide media attention, and possibly most dangerously for the Kremlin - an overwhelming show of support for Navalny on Russian social media.
Who is Alexei Navalny?
Alexei Navalny founded the FBK or the anti-corruption movement in 2011 - an organisation which seeks to expose government corruption in Russia. Through building a massive base of supporters on social media, Navalny has become the most prominent face of the Russian political opposition - a dangerous role to fulfil in a country where the leader has described the media as “state resources''.
Alexei Navalny was sentenced to almost three years in prison this month for parole violations. His lawyers are disputing this charge, since for much of the period he was allegedly 'defying parole orders', Navalny was in a coma and receiving treatment for a poisoning attempt, presumably ordered by the Kremlin.
The media as 'state resources'
While Article 29 of the 1993 Russian Constitution guarantees press freedom, the majority of conventional media outlets are either state-run or owned by companies with close links to the Kremlin. Since January 2000, at least 25 journalists have allegedly been killed for their work. On July 1st 2020 Russia voted to allow the government to increase pressure on freedom of speech. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, proposed a law that would enable the prosecution of journalists for undermining the official Russian narrative on international disputes.
While some news organisations are semi-independent, they are still not free from government control. For example, the radio station ‘Echo of Moscow’ received an official government warning for their broadcast of interviews with journalists giving accounts of fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. The station is also majority owned by Gazrom Media, whose board of directors include the former deputy Prime Minister.
However, due to social media’s popularity these censorship measures are becoming less and less effective. Despite limitations on the freedom of the press, Navalny can tweet to 2.5 million, connect to 4.2 million on Instagram and his YouTube channel has more subscribers than any of the official Russian news outlets.
Navalny’s presence in Russian society is online, using platforms the Russian government cannot fully censor. His offline arrest does not eradicate his online presence - quite the opposite. The day after Navalny was detained, his team exploited the surge in publicity and uploaded their investigation to YouTube, in which it was alleged that oligarchs had spent billions to erect a palace for Putin by the Black Sea. The video gained 53 million views within three days and now has over 100 million.
And as social media’s influence begins to supersede that of government-controlled information sources, Putin’s grip on power becomes more and more threatened. Since 2016, TV viewing figures in Russia have declined, while social media’s popularity continues to rise. Between January 2018 and January 2019 the number of social media users increased by almost two million. According to Dimitry Kuraev, director of the Russian office of ECI Media Management, this decline is due to a reduction in public confidence in TV as a source of reliable news.
With this change in media consumption comes a movement of Russians away from Putin’s country of military success, western enemies and political traitors. By changing their news sources, the population moves to a Russia in which government corruption is rife, society is flawed and most dangerously for the Kremlin - a Russia where change is possible.
The Kremlin fights back
The government is attempting to claw back control. The Sovereign Internet Law was introduced in 2019 and offers the possibility of the Russian internet becoming autonomous from the World Wide Web. Many websites are already blocked in Russia, although this can easily be mitigated through a VPN or proxy server.
Roskomnadzor, the body controlling censorship, stated that seven social media companies will be fined for their failure to remove content promoting Navalny’s movement, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki and YouTube.
The Russian government has also tried to combat content in support of Navalny online by allegedly paying influencers to create content dissuading people from protesting. One TikToker decided to decline the offer, posting proof of the offer on the platform. Recently the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Emergency Situations set up their own accounts and have made TikToks discrediting Navalny.
The hashtag ‘#FreeNavalny’ has over 700 million views. The most popular TikToks include footage of protesters throwing snowballs at the police, pupils taking down portraits of Putin, protesters waving toilet brushes to mock the €700 version Putin allegedly owns, and a grandmother stepping defiantly in front of the police at a protest.
Of course, this is not the first time that TikTok has been used within social movements. For example, the #blacklivesmatter hashtag with 24.8 billion views is used to speak out on racial injustice, give tips on how to protest and to share educational resources. Because of its popularity among young people and rapid growth within Russia, TikTok is a perfect platform to energise a political movement. There are currently an estimated 20 million active TikTok users in the country, a big increase from 8 million at the end of 2019.
Navalny even has his own TikTok account which he uses to produce a light-hearted take on government corruption. The ridicule directed towards the Kremlin has been a key to Navalny’s success as he proves himself to have mastered the creation of engaging, viral content. For example, an investigation into the corruption of a government official on YouTube begins not by listing the allegations against him, but with a meme of the minister awkwardly dancing. Navalny accuses the Kremlin of attempting to murder him, not by making a press statement, but through miming OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’ on TikTok.
However, these humorous elements never undercut the seriousness of the topics discussed - instead the ridicule wielded against the government makes Navalny more dangerous. Using a TikTok trend to humourise the poisoning attempt against him, presents the government as hopeless and backward, not something to be feared. And ridicule and fear of the government struggle to coexist - as is clear from the sentiment on social media spilling out onto the streets. According to a poll, 44% of protestors on the 23rd January were demonstrating for the first time and the average age of protestors was 31, showing an overlap with the average Russian TikTok user.
The negative portrayal of Navalny in traditional media is inconsequential, when it is undermined every time someone turns on their phone. While the pro-Kremlin newspaper, Izvestia, obediently writes an article about Navalny insulting a war veteran, on Instagram a trend to post a picture dressed in red is initiated in support of Navalny’s wife Yulia and TikToks ridiculing the show trial receive over 22,000 likes.
With social media the opposition can recruit others, exchange information and grow exponentially - three bullets to the heart of an oppressive system. Something is shifting in Russia. As Alexei Navalny told the court that sentenced him, while the government currently has the power to “keep me in handcuffs … that situation is not going to continue forever.”
This article has been written as part of a series on the protests in Russia.
Read the other articles in the series here: "Russia Protests: Is Alexei Navalny the man to take down Putin?" by Georgie Andrews, "Russia Protests: Is Covid-19 to blame?" by Katherine Seymour.