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There is at least one area in which last Sunday’s parliamentary elections proved to be a breaking point, a milestone in the development of the Russian society. It was the role that the Internet in general and social media in particular played in informing the public about the course of the polling, the fraud and the results of the vote.
At about 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Anna Kachkaeva, a prominent Russian media expert and the dean of the Communications Department at the Higher School of Economics, wrote on her Facebook page: “Well, one can state that these elections are for the first time taking place in the real situation of parallel information flows – the official one and the one of mass civic networks.”
In fact, the day began very poorly for opposition-minded Internet media. The Web sites of a large number of media and groups monitoring the elections, including Echo of Moscow radio, Kommersant.ru, which publishes stories not only from the Kommersant newspaper, but also from other publications of the publishing house, Bolshoi Gorod magazine, OpenSpace.ru and the Golos association – one of the most prominent monitoring groups – were knocked out by DDoS attacks.
But the move by unidentified “killer hackers” triggered a massive reaction in the Russian blogging community, and served as an additional mobilization call. One blogger after another, from such popular figures as anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny to rank-and-file civic journalists, offered their blogs as vehicles for publishing reports of violations.
Twitter played a key role in the dissemination of exit polls from individual regions and even individual polling stations across Russia. Given many Twitter users’ anti-United Russia bias, the majority of these were meant to show that support for United Russia was weak in the regions. Here is one of the dispatches, roughly translated: “Polling station #671 (Ivanov Region) UR – 22.63%, Just Russ – 18.17%, Communists – 35.77%, LDPR – 12.69%.,” tweeted by a local amateur monitor and then re-tweeted through clearinghouses like Alexei Navalny’s blog, which has many more readers.
That move – and there were many of those reporting exit polls early in the day – has raised the issue of the legality of such activity. According to the Russian election law, it is forbidden to publish any new polls, and especially exit polls, during the last week before elections, and especially on the day before elections. It is only after the polling stations in the country’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad close at 9 p.m. Moscow time that the traditional media begin reporting the exit polls. But what about the blogs, which are not registered as media outlets? Nashi activists demanded that Navalny be arrested for breaking the “silent period,” and the Central Election Commission issued a statement saying it would investigate the case.
Social networks also served as a conduit for disseminating evidence on alleged vote rigging. YouTube clips like this one show “carousels” of voters submitting ballots at more than ten different polling stations, vote counters opening up a ballot box that has been stuffed with votes for United Russia, and pens with erasable ink being used at a Moscow polling station. On Facebook, user Dmitry Surnin, who was monitoring the elections yesterday in Moscow, posted this count of the voting tallies, which he says are considerably different from what was posted on the Central Election Commission’s Web site today.
The clip by user Singinau on YouTube, depicting a chairman of a local Electoral Commission as he seems to be filling in voting bulletins – a move that constitutes a crime – was reposted on many Facebook and Twitter accounts and garnered more than 500,000 views in just one day.
Another form of activity was informing one’s friends on social networks of whether people had voted and if they did, which party they had voted for. Special userpics began appearing on Facebook depicting the party the user had voted for. Political figures from the unregistered Parnas party, who advocated ruining the ballots as an expression of protest, posted pictures with the ballots crossed out.
Toward the evening, as the exit polls and the first results started to appear, voter reactions swept over the blogosphere. Late in the evening two twitter tags, the first #жалкий and the second an unprintable insult, began linking to @MedvedevRussia, after the president tweeted “Thank you for supporting United Russia!” Many of the responses were unprintable, but here is what user anzgri wrote: “You are a liar… you serve Putin and not United Russia. Retweet this.” When Golos’ map of violations was knocked offline during the day, it moved all of its data over to this GoogleDoc, where it tallied over 1,300 violations. At three in the morning, Golos finally signed off on twitter: “The elections are illegitimate. Good Night.”
“Civil journalism had opened a completely new era last Sunday, with hundreds if not thousands of Facebook users, Vkontakte [Russian social network] users, Tweeterers and LiveJournal bloggers monitoring the elections, serving as a comprehensive public watchdog,” said Vassily Gatov, the vice chairman of the Russian Publisher’s Guild and the head of RIA Novosti’s MediaLab – a think tank tracking trends in new media. “That was a truly amazing feeling of the tech-savvy crowd taking the role every media outlet should care about: are our votes counted properly? Is the system cheating in order to get some predefined results that would favor a particular (of course, ruling) party? People of different social backgrounds and of various political affiliations were reporting from all over the country – leaking the suspicious manipulations at poll stations, taking videos of fake bulletins in the boxes, detecting voting violations with tweets. The network of networks had said just its first word.”
Kachkaeva, of the Higher School of Economics, said that the size of the audience of the traditional media – first and foremost television – is still incomparable to that of the Internet. But interaction between the two has also started taking place. Blogs were publishing television videos and some local television channels began picking stories from the Internet. Even on the state-run Rossiya 1 television channel, where the election night coverage demonstrated a variety of opinions unheard of on national television in the past decade, the subject of fraud publicized in social media and the very new phenomenon of Internet-era election watching became a notable subject of discussion. “It was a breaking point, something completely new,” said Kachkaeva.
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