4 May 2012, 16:34

Online activists fail in the real world - numbers don't lie

Online activists fail in the real world - numbers don't lie
Download audio file

Welcome to.Ru! As usual we'll be looking at all things online, blogs, websites and social networks and everything that takes the minds of the online public in Russia and worldwide.  Internet fame, does it really matter? Yesterday I mentioned some of the prominent media personas that were born in the cyberspace.

Welcome to .Ru! As usual we'll be looking at all things online, blogs, websites and social networks and everything that takes the minds of the online public in Russia and worldwide.  Internet fame, does it really matter? Yesterday I mentioned some of the prominent media personas that were born in the cyberspace. But what about another popular use for the social medium? Activism and politics!

And sometimes online fame only gives an illusion of importance and popularity. This mostly could be said about politics. Someone becomes the center of online attention, his story is spread through blogs, social networks and online media, but when push comes to shove, online support rarely translates to real world results. Exhibit A: Alex Navalny. He became the star of the Russian blogosphere late 2010 after his expose on alleged mass corruption in the oil industry. He became the online activist number one in the country, launched the portal Rospil.Ru. It was actually one of the first harbingers of a new segment of the Russian cyberspace - the digital activists. RosPil is an anti-corruption project aimed at bringing to light suspicious government procurement auctions. In order to facilitate smooth operation, Navalnyy hired a team of legal experts to weed through user-submitted claims. This, of course, needed financing. He opened it up for donations, basically crowdfunding the project, promising to be as transparent with the project budget as possible. The target maximum sum was set to be 5 million rubles. Much to anyone's surprise, over 900,000 rubles were donated in the first 2 months, a few weeks later the total amount has surpassed  6 million rubles. His name became synonymous with activism for a while and some people predicting him becoming a real politician and even running for president. But surveys conducted about a year ago demonstrated that online fame in Russia means little in the real world. The confusion started with quantifying the audience. Different organizations provided different number for the so-called "Internet users", a description that really should be more specific. The major Russian NGO specializing in analytical and market research, Levada Center, provided the following numbers late in 2010: 43%, or around 60 million, of Russians used Internet at least once; 28-30%, around 40 million people, indicated that they use the Internet regularly.  I personally don't quite understand what is meant by that, "regular" Internet usage. Well, you see, only 18% of the Russians spend over 10 hours a week online, that's around an hour and a half per day. And a total of 5 to 6% of the general population spend over 2 hours online daily - that's 7 to 8 million people. Now that is the number of people who use the internet regularly - seriously, you can't do much online in less than 2 hours. So that was 8 million people who potentially have time to read about something less mainstream than email and websites of traditional media. The latest numbers for this year, by the way, were presented a few weeks ago at the annual Russian Internet Forum - the most specific figure was a 22% growth of the daily internet audience - over 44 million Russians now go online on a daily basis. Again, I believe this number to be misleading and not depicting real engagement. What do they do online? How much time to they spend? Do they consume information, media, do they actually contribute anything except for chatting with friends? I could not find any such figures for 2011. But anyway, let's get back to last year for a while. According to the research provided by Levada Center, the mindset of the Internet user is not so much influenced by his or hers use of the Internet per se, but rather by his or hers trust in professional online media, such as respectable media agencies and analytical websites. At the same time, those visiting the web are primarily there for entertainment and communication purposes and are less interested all this activism mumbo-jumbo, politics and such. Most of these users classified themselves as completely apolitical who sympathize with no parties, movements, activists or political figures. So out of 8 million people who might actually know who these online activists are, most prefer to spend their time in social networks and don't like to worry their heads with serious matters. At least that's the extrapolation. Who knows, maybe these premises are wrong? Well, turns out, they're not.


During a survey last March the very same Levada Center asked Russian citizens to name 5-6 politicians who they trust.  Alex Navalnyy, the bloggers' champion, got to 31st place in this rating of sorts with a 0,5% percent. By the way, the statistical error for this sort of a survey is 3.2%, so .5% is, well, negligible. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev led the rating with 39% and 34% respectively. Given that the former does not really favor the Internet as ground for expression and the latter regularly blogs and tweets, this did not look good for the Internet as a source of political influence in Russia. Oh, and 0.5% that Alex Navalnyy had secured equals to about 7 million people - very close to 8 million Russians who are avid internet users. If we take .5% only from the adult population then the number is even less.

Now, coming back to 2012. Let's assume that the number of active users has grown accordingly to the total audience - we have 10 million people who probably get their news from the world wide web, including blogs and social news websites rather than the old media and their websites. That's still less than 1% of the total Russian population.  And here's another story, concerning another prominent Russian blogger slash activist - Ilya Varlamov. He has spearheaded several initiatives what aim to make our lives a little better. Such projects include "Photos are allowed" - fight against illegal power abuse by authorities prohibiting taking pictures in places where the law allows it; "Country without stupidity" - an umbrella term for the civil initiative of brining attention to ineptness of Russian civil servants; and Ridus-News, a civil journalism web portal that helps anyone become a reporter. He also takes a lot of pretty pictures and writes interesting stories about all sorts of apolitical things - that's probably one of the reasons for his online popularity. Anyway, a few weeks ago he suddenly decided to... run for the mayoral office. April 18th he tweeted: “Submitting documents to the city electoral commission”. He chose the city of Omsk. Why Omsk? Well, it was the first city where people who don’t support old-school politicians decided to unite and put forward a unified candidate with backing from all of those with oppositional views. The initiative was called “Citizen mayor”.

Anyway, regional media later wrote that Ilya Varlamov, better known by his LiveJournal nickname zyalt, has won local primaries within the framework of the civil-political project “Citizen mayor”. He thus became the unified candidate on the mayoral post representing non-systemic opposition. So what were his prospects? Well, the online survey that tried to predict the outcome of the mayoral election had the following results:  <15% voted for the head of the regional wing of the Yabloko party Sergey Kostarev, 17% voted for the senior professor of the Omsk State University Igor Fedorov and a whopping 42% voted for Ilya Varlamov. So if the online poll was representative than that means the blogger should have no problems becoming the next mayor of Omsk. Only, as you might have deducted from last year’s figures, the digital and real worlds are inhabited by different people, at least here, in Russia.

About two weeks have passed. May second the electoral office of Ilya Varlamov has ceased its operation, putting a premature end to the blogger’s political career. After winning online polls with a landslide, Varlamov was faced with a task to secure 10,000 signatures – real signatures from real citizens of Omsk. He noted that colleting such an amount of signatures is basically an invitation to the elections given by 1% of the local population. Quote “It’s become clear that we’re not getting such an invitation. It’s normal.” Unquote. Maxim Katz, his head of the electoral office, shared some of highlights of the pre-electoral process. A large number of signatures were being submitted to their office from just one collector. Quote “We started suspecting foul play and decided to check the papers. Soon we figured out that dates are the same on a lot of papers – meaning that someone was sitting and forging signatures. In reality, instead of 3,000 signatures we have only 1500 of honest ones. Thus we’ve shut down our campaign. We don’t know who and why was forging signatures or whether it was a provocation or if someone tried to ‘help us’ this way” unquote. So what’s the aftermath?

Varlamov wrote that his first impressions of real politics were mostly in the form the “seasoned political strategists” who provided him with price lists. Signature collection was priced at 500,000 rubles, a good marketing campaign – 20 million. Paid collectors started offering databases with personal data of local citizens. Quote “For everyone signature collection is a formal stage, but not for us” unquote.

Alex Navalny of course did not miss a chance to comment on the actions of his brother-in-arms of sorts. Speaking of the oppositionist primaries, he said “however ridiculous they were, they were held” and added “honest primaries mean everything for us”, meaning that only united the opposition has a chance to give the establishment a real political struggle. However, he did criticize Varlamov’s electoral office for his inability to collect 10,000 signatures. He explained that this was the realm of existing politicians and if Varlamov refused to play by the rules, his place was not in the electoral list, but on the “Fair election rallies”. Other oppositionists also critized the blogger for failing to make any progress after scoring the first victory, discrediting the Russian bloggers as capable of playing in the big league.

Thank you for listening to the Voice of Russia. This was .Ru and your host, Peter Lekarev. You can drop me a line, check out the links and leave your feedback at our page on the Voice of Russia website, english.ruvr.ru.  You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Stay safe and stay online!

    and share via