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Friday, July 11, 2008

Annals of the Kremlin's Internet Crackdown

Paul Goble reports:

The Kremlin has dispatched its own “agents of influence” to political forums on the Internet both to portray itself as having more support than it has and to suggest that its opponents who would like to see a more democratic Russia with closer ties to the West are an ever more marginal group, according to an intriguing online analysis. In a three-part study, the Independent Consumers Association (ICA) noted a striking difference between those who post on these sites and those who take part in surveys where it is possible to vote only once from a single computer.

Having noted that the percentage of forum participants with liberal and democratic views formed 70 to 80 percent in 1999 while four years later, their opponents, who backed more anti-democratic positions constituted 60 to 80 percent of those posting messages, the ICA asked what could explain such a change. And what it found was that “such a sharp quantitative jump did not correspond to the spectrum of public opinion and essentially diverged from the data of Internet voting on key problems of contemporary Russian life” – and moreover diverged along a single anti-democratic and anti-Western axis.

Today, the ICA analysts note, “80 percent of the authors on all web forums very aggressively and with unanimous curse the United States. But in voting on those sites where it is possible to vote only once from a single computer, 84 percent of the Russian-language users of the Internet support the United States.” This divergence between the content of the forums and voting of this kind is found “everywhere,” the ICA analysts say, an indication that a relatively small number of people are flooding the forums with messages listed under various screen names in order to distort the picture of Russian opinion online. “In liberal and neutral social-political forums of the Russian segment of the Internet, the activity of an extremely large number of similar personages has grown” to the point that they sometimes come to define the core of that forum, especially since they share so many common features that set them apart as a distinctive group, despite their claims of diversity.

The ICA analysts refer to members of this group as “the agents of influence of the siloviki” or “Commando G” [for “gosudarstvenniki” or etatists] and point to a number of their common characteristics, both in terms of the approaches they adopt and the specific positions they put forward in their posts. Among these are “round-the-clock presence on the forums” rather than during peak hours as is the case with most users, a close tracking of the positions of the Russian government no matter how often they change, “unlimited devotion” to the Russian leader, and positive characterizations of the Soviet and Russian security services. The ICA analysts then list some more specific attitudes of Commando G including their specific and consistent attacks on opponents of the regime, the “low cultural level and characteristic language” of its members, and the tendency to denounce anyone who disagrees as “an enemy of Russia.”

Many of these Commando G types frequently change their screen names or use more than one, the ICA study concludes, all the better to suggest that there are more people who agree with them than is in fact the case and what is probably even more important that there are far fewer who disagree with the Kremlin line. The ICA study also provides additional evidence of specific links between Commando G and the Russian security agencies and acknowledges that the Russian government, given its desire to control all the media, has no choice but to adopt such innovative measures in order to try to bring the Internet forums to heel.

Obviously, ICA is not able to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt in the sense that many of the attitudes and patterns of behavior it points to could in fact be true of the rapidly growing Runet itself. But its conclusions are not only intriguing but suggestive of some of the innovative ways researchers may be able to track government involvement online. However that may be, the ICA study concludes on what is an optimistic note for all those who care about media freedom, the basis of democracy and an open society. What the Kremlin and its security agency allies have been doing, the ICA analysts say, is generating some countervailing forces the Russian leadership did not expect. “People on Internet forums attempt to defend and support one another” whenever they are confronted by a coordinated action of groups like Commando G. That act of cooperation is highly empowering, as is the fact that however much power this pro-Kremlin group may have there are ways to post a response, including reports like the one ICA has prepared.

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