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The Internet, the Ballot Box and the Russian Presidency

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, December 6 2011

In Moscow today, protesters took to the streets for a second day of demonstrations over Russian elections on Sunday that were marred by widespread reports of fraud and attempts to suppress election monitoring — the climax of a conflict over political power in that country that has been playing out on the Internet for months.

There's certainly a lot more to the current state of affairs in Russia than a running battle over Internet freedom and unrestricted political speech online. But throughout this year, dissidents have worked online to fight what they say is widespread corruption in the Russian state under Vladimir Putin. And an online tool for anonymous reporting of campaign or election irregularities is a key point of contention between Russia and the U.S. State Department — which complicates an existing relationship between Russia and the U.S. that specifically sought to focus on the uses of technology for civil society.

On Friday, a Russian court ruled that the makers of an Ushahidi-style map set up to document questionable campaign tactics leading up to election day actually violated Russian law.

The platform, launched by election monitoring organization Golos and the Internet newspaper Gazeta.ru, drew the attention Tuesday of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"We're also concerned by reports that independent Russian election observers, including the nationwide Golos network, were harassed and had cyberattacks on their websites which is completely contrary to what should be the protected rights of people to observe elections, participate in them and disseminate information," Clinton said today.

This is a much different tune than the one the U.S. was singing with Russia in September. On the weekend of Sept. 24, held under the auspices of a joint U.S.-Russia bilateral presidential commission, there was an international event co-hosted at American University and the Moscow headquarters of the Russian search engine Yandex that asked software developers in both countries to collaborate on applications that would serve civil society purposes in either country.

Now Golos, which Ushahidi's Patrick Meier and Bruce Etling of the Internet & Democracy Project at Harvard's Berkman Center point out is supported by U.S. and European organizations, has been branded by Putin and his allies as a source of "outside interference" in Russian elections. Golos' map of citizen-reported irregularities in the run-up to Sunday's voting was so provocative to the United Russia party, Meier notes, that this video appeared — in which an attractive young woman makes a false report on the platform and says, in Russian, "mapping dots is a disease on the map of Russia."

In The New Yorker, Julia Ioffe suggests that Golos' version of events is closer to reality than Putin's. After the below passage, she describes witnessing election workers shuffle curiously well-stacked piles of ballots in with the ones that came spilling out of ballot boxes after a day of voting:

It had been a tense couple of months going into the vote. The ruling United Russia party, created in 2001 to support Vladimir Putin, who was then the President and is now Prime Minister, had been steadily, swiftly sinking in the polls; Putin, despite his high approval ratings, was being publicly booed. After he and Dmitry Medvedev announced, in September, that they would trade places, giving the Presidency back to Putin, people seemed to be in a sour mood—a mood to protest and do what Russians, especially the educated and cosmopolitan among them, never do: vote. In response, the Kremlin appeared to panic, and cracked down, harassing election monitors. On election day itself, there were denial-of-service attacks on prominent media outlets and on LiveJournal, the country’s most important blogging platform.

This was not the general feeling this summer, when a Ushahidi map was used to help track wildfires plaguing one area of the country.

Meier points out that the United Russia attacks on Golos may have had an effect opposite to what Putin's supporters were hoping they would have. He explains:

My colleague Alexey Sidorenko argues that the backlash against the Violations Map “induced the Streisand Effect, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction.” Indeed, as one Russian blogger tweeted: “Why are ‘United Russia’ representatives so short-sighted? It is evident that now half of the country will know about the Violation Map.” Needless to say, the Violations Map is one of the trending topics being discussed in Russia today (on election day).

The Harvard Berkman Center's Bruce Etling, who heads up their Internet & Democracy project and has done extensive recent research into the impact of the Internet on Russian politics and society, couches this as part of a broader push on Putin's and United Russia's part to brand Golos and other not-state-controlled media as "outside influence." (Golos is funded by American and European organizations.) Etling writes:

The election watch dog group Golos has been the target since last week of a government campaign against ‘outside’ influence in the election (they are funded by US and European groups). They were the subject of a thirty minute NTV special last week after warnings about outside interference in the election from Putin. The primary Russian blogging platform LiveJournal, which hosts the majority of blogs focused on politics and public affairs has also been attacked. The number of sites attacked at once seems unprecedented, and taking place during the Duma election cannot be considered a coincidence. As usual with DDOS attacks, it will likely be difficult if not impossible to determine who is behind the attacks.

Current reports suggest that LiveJournal in Russia was muzzled by denial-of-service attacks on election day, but it wouldn't be the first time that happened this year.

And it wouldn't be the first attack directly at dissident bloggers. Western media watching what happened after the elections Sunday also immediately looked for Alexei Navalny, the Russian rabble-rouser whose blog Rospil has became a flashpoint for citizen response to corruption, and blowback from Russian authorities.

He used his blog to urge readers to turn out to protest after the election, the BBC reports, and was among 300 people arrested in the streets of Moscow on Dec. 5.