Digital Bonapartism

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, pp. 66-71 of the paperback edition.)

In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx coined the term “bonapartism” to describe political leadership by a populist demagogue who seeks to legitimize himself with democratic rhetoric and trappings. The term was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule after the French Revolution: usurpation of popular revolution by military officers, strong nationalist messages, populist rhetoric about reform and equality, and elections lacking strong alternatives. Today, after having thrown off communism, Russia is pioneering a new digital-age version of bonapartism: conservative-nationalist rule unchallenged by viable political opposition despite the formal existence of multiparty parliamentary and presidential elections, which are effectively populist plebiscites, and manipulation of public opinion through the control—both direct and indirect—of digital networks and platforms.

The Russian government does not filter the Internet as China does: antigovernment websites, blogs mocking Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and social commentaries of the most biting and cynical kind are not blocked from view on the Russian Internet. But there are other ways to control online speech. Controls over offline media—particularly broad anti defamation laws that can be interpreted to include a great deal of critical speech, as well as a statute against extremism— have been extended into the online environment. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2010 Attacks on the Press annual re- port, “Particularly in the Russian provinces, criminal prosecution of In- ternet journalists is often coupled with other forms of pressure, including intimidation, assault, and murder.” Most famously, Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who had written critically of Russia’s policies toward Chechnya and authored a book titled Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, was assassinated in 2006. In December 2010 in Moscow, journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin was hospitalized after a brutal attack by two unknown persons who had been waiting near his house with a bouquet of flowers. They left him lying with a broken jaw, a broken leg, a fractured skull, lungs full of blood, and fingers torn off at the joints—one of them had to be amputated. The assailants clearly wanted to keep him from writing ever again, and to send a warning to everybody else who might emulate him.

Online and offline writers in Russia are left with good reason to fear for their lives if they push the envelope too far. At the same time, the Russian government does not engage in the direct blocking of websites. Instead, Russian Internet users are constrained and manipulated by a range of what researchers at the OpenNet Initiative call second- and third-generation Internet controls, including surveillance, debilitating cyber-attacks, and proactive manipulation of the public online discourse of the sort that is deployed with growing sophistication in countries like Syria and Bahrain as well as by Iran and China.

These tactics include what human rights groups call “digital violence,” committed by people who cannot be directly linked to the government— if they can be identified at all. Hackers frequently launch “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks against websites of government critics and opposition groups, taking them offline at times when the public might be most interested in viewing their content. One example is the use of cyber-attacks to sideline the website of jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had challenged Vladimir Putin politically after amassing vast wealth through the oil company Yukos, just hours before the court announced his guilty verdict in December 2010.

Other tactics involve both formal and informal government controls over Russia’s telecommunications companies and web businesses. The Russian-language Internet, known popularly as Runet, is serviced mainly by Russian-language platforms, including LiveJournal, which was purchased by the Russian company SUP from the California-based Six Apart in 2007. Yandex, not Google, is the dominant search engine of the Runet. The OpenNet Initiative reports that “informal requests to companies for removal of information” by government officials are com- mon. Warrantless surveillance of Internet users by the FSB (the KGB’s successor) is also a built-in feature of the Runet, thanks to a law passed in 2008 requiring Internet service providers to purchase and install equipment that would enable FSB personnel to directly monitor the online activities of specific users. This legalized surveillance capability, according to the OpenNet Initiative, has become “standard” through- out the nations of the former Soviet Union and is believed to be the reason for a number of arrests of Internet users who have posted anonymous antigovernment comments in several former Soviet states.

Even so, the blogosphere has become the lifeblood of Russian political discourse. Internet users are not completely cowed or silenced by any means. With newspapers and television under the government’s thumb, the Internet is where Russia’s most robust discussions of public policy and the country’s political future can take place. The range is broad: there are both nationalist extremist bloggers and progovernment communities. Reformist bloggers expose corruption and malfeasance. In the summer of 2010, a loose network of Russian bloggers created a “Russian Help Map” to coordinate firefighting efforts after it became clear that local fire departments were incapable of handling these efforts on their own. One of Russia’s most popular political bloggers, Alexey Navalny, runs an anticorruption whistle-blowing website, Rospil.info.

In Russia, the Internet enables the government to embrace a more populist style—engaging people with a more personal relationship with the government—without actually committing to protect the rights of unpopular dissenters, minorities, and people the regime believes threaten its stability. In 2006 when then-president Putin conducted his first-ever live webcast with Russia’s netizens on Yandex, he famously responded to questions about when he had lost his virginity and whether he had ever tried marijuana, in addition to addressing questions about military con- scription, immigration controls, and other civic issues. Such interactions are now an accepted component of Russian politics. Current president Medvedev has moved beyond Putin in his embrace of social media, set- ting up a Twitter account and conducting online chats, as he cultivates a more liberal image in contrast to that of his predecessor.

Yet most activists say they are under no illusions that the Internet and social media are at best driving a slow and circuitous evolution of the political agenda, if not system. As Navalny told Global Voices contributor Gregory Asmolov in an interview in late 2010:

Actually, Internet for the government is some kind of a focus group. The Russian government is very populist.They just like to do what the people want. I mean, if it doesn’t contradict their own interests. The political agenda, however, will be tested on the Internet. And this is why it will have an influence—but no direct impact.

As elections approached, pressure on bloggers like Navalny grew. In late May he was called in for questioning over whether his website’s logo desecrated the Russian state emblem. Even more chilling, people who had made donations to his project began to receive mysterious and threatening phone calls. All of them had donated through Yandex.money, an online payment system run by the financial services arm of the search engine. One of these supporters described receiving a call from a woman claiming to be a reporter named Yulia Ivanshova from the newspaper Our Time, but who clearly had access to the blogger’s account information. The conversation, as translated by Ashley Cleek of Global Voices, proceeded as follows:

Yulia Ivanshova: Tell me, why do you support Alexey Navalny?

Me: I don’t understand the question.

YI: Why do you support Alexey Navalny?

Me: I heard the question, I don’t understand it.

YI: Money was sent from your Yandex account to support Alexey Navalny, is this right?

Me: (a little taken aback by the lady’s knowledge) And where did you get this information from?

YI: We have our sources, it’s public information.

Me: (even more shocked by the words “public information”) Why won’t you share with me who these sources are, if it is public information?

YI: No, I will not. But you didn’t answer my question. Why do you support Alexey Navalny?

Me: Well, then, let’s exchange information. You tell me how you know about transactions from my Yandex account, and I will tell why I support Alexey Navalny.

YI: Who transferred money to you to support Alexey Navalny?

Me: I took [the money] from my paycheck and transferred it.

YI: That’s not true. Ten minutes before you transferred the money, money appeared in your Yandex account from a Moscow Credit Bank ATM. In the Yandex account from where you transfer money, there is not a single Moscow Credit Bank ATM.

A few days later, the BBC Russian service reported that Yandex .money had handed over the financial and personal records belonging to Navalny’s donors to the Russian secret service, or FSB. When queried by journalists, Yandex executives explained that they had no choice in order to remain in compliance with Russian law. One of Navalny’s supporters managed to trace the identity of the person who had left him a vaguely threatening message and who had used her real name. He discovered an online profile in which she listed herself as a member of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement. Navalny and his supporters concluded that the FSB had shared the Yandex.money account information with Nashi, although the group officially denied the allegations. The message to potential supporters of opposition groups is nonetheless clear: Watch out, or you never know who might gain access to your financial transaction records; and who knows what those angry young patriots might do if they decide to take matters into their own hands.

It remains to be seen whether a more genuine form of democracy, in which dissenters’ rights are protected from extrajudicial threats and vigilante violence, will emerge from Russia’s digital bonapartism. In the meantime, a new model has emerged that can be replicated elsewhere: government leaders use the Internet to carry out a much more direct and populist discourse with citizens in ways that were not possible before the Internet, thus bridging an emotional and psychological gap between rulers and ruled, and building greater public sympathy for the leaders as people. The Internet serves as a “focus group” and early-warning system for the government, alerting policy makers when certain policies just are not working or need modification to prevent unrest. More negatively, pro government bloggers and journalists are encouraged to mount slur campaigns to discredit reformists and activists who pose serious challenges to the regime’s credibility. Anonymous threats against activists who cross the line also help. A full-ranging public discourse about the nation’s political future is thus constrained and stunted, and the status quo power arrangements are more easily maintained. This dynamic begs an uncomfortable question: To what extent are the world’s oldest, most established democracies vulnerable to digital bonapartism?

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