Conference e-mail

The Aleksanteri Institute

Unioninkatu 33 (P.O. Box 42)
00014 University of Helsinki

Past Aleksanteri Conferences

Roundtable: Russian MediaLab 3: What Does the Future Hold for the Internet in Russia? Between the Promise of Democratization and the Reality of State Surveillance

Chair: Katja Lehtisaari (Aleksanteri Institute and Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, Finland)
Mariëlle Wijermars (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland)
Andrei Richter (Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media)
Liudmila Sivetc (University of Turku, Finland)
Carolina Vendil Pallin (Swedish Defence Research Agency, Sweden)
Freek van der Vet (Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, University of Helsinki)

The Internet was long conceptualised as a medium supporting democratization and civil society in Russia by enabling the free dissemination of information. The Web offered citizens an alternative avenue to express political critique while the Russian state steadily tightened its grip on traditional media. As of the 2000s, the Russian blogosphere blossomed and online debates, including those voicing political opposition, took place with little restrictions. In the winter of 2011-2012, the potential of the RuNet to bring about actual political change appeared to be fulfilled as mass demonstrations against electoral fraud, organised through social networking sites, filled the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities. In apparent parallel to the Arab Spring, Russia was thought to be experiencing its own "Facebook revolution". Yet, similar to what followed the Arab Spring protests, the Russian protest movement eventually failed to give rise to a political opposition capable of challenging the establishment and, adversely, culminated in a further tightening of governmental control. The year 2012 also marks a distinct shift in the Russian government's approach to controlling the Internet. Whereas, before, attempts to channel unwanted discourses online mainly involved active participation in and manipulation of these discourses (e.g., trolling, bots), as well as various ways of intimidation to stimulate self-censorship, the regime now turned to legal measures to, e.g., block access to websites. This expanding body of legislation (much of which is ostensibly aimed at, e.g., preventing teenage suicide) has been employed to shut down the websites of major opposition figures, including Aleksei Naval'ny. Notwithstanding the dramatic increase of Internet regulation and its significant impact on online freedom of speech, such restrictions continue to be enforced rather selectively. Yet, precisely the unpredictability of enforcement mechanisms reinforces tendencies to self-censor, which - for the Russian government - is a much cheaper solution than blanket-censorship. At the same time, it allows the government to avert the risk of creating an information deficit: As it attempts to control information online, it risks not becoming aware of prevailing moods in society since feed-back channels are increasingly shut down. Being able to monitor rising popular discontent (such as the protests mobilized through YouTube and VKontakte in the spring of 2017) may well be preferable over its complete silencing. Bringing together scholars from various disciplines, the roundtable will debate the changing societal role of the Internet in Russia as the freedom of speech online is put under increasing pressure. What is the current state of freedom of speech on the RuNet? How is the Russian government seeking to shape (national and international) Internet governance to its advantage? What does it fear from the Internet as it enters the 2018 presidential election campaign? To what extent does the Russian state use social media and the Internet as a tool for repression? Can the RuNet still live up to its promise of democratization or has it, rather, evolved into a means of (in)voluntary state surveillance, monitoring civilians' every move and thought through their online activities? Is there a tipping point where increased internet control itself becomes a reason for citizens to become politically engaged? This round table is organised by the Russian MediaLab.