The Russian Cyber-Dystopia Under Threat

Digital slacktivist Alexey Navalny does nothing but look out the window all day.

The cyber-dystopian thesis of Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion has taken quite a drubbing thanks to the inconvenient Arab Spring, which began shortly after his book was published. Yet the problem of effective digital activism is not limited to the Middle East and North Africa. The cyber-dystopian ideal, founded on the principles of censorship, surveillance, and propaganda, is under threat in Russia as well, where the government’s elegant policy of cyber-hedonism and breast-centric web programming is not successfully defeating the dangerous forces of digital activism. I think I just became disillusioned.

Not only does research by the Berkman Center’s Internet & Democracy Project indicate that the Russian government’s online propaganda is not drawing much of a following (“pro-government bloggers are not especially prominent [in the Russian blogosphere] and do not constitute their own cluster”), but there are actual digital activists not – not! – engaging in meaningless slacktivism but actually calling government officials to account in powerful crowdsourced projects. The New Yorker reports:

Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and blogger known for his crusade against the corruption that pervades Russian business and government… cuts a striking figure, and in the past three years he has established himself as a kind of Russian Julian Assange or Lincoln Steffens. On his blog, he has uncovered criminal self-dealing in major Russian oil companies, banks, and government ministries, an activity he calls “poking them with a sharp stick.”

Three months ago, he launched another site, RosPil, dedicated to exposing state corruption, where he invites readers to scrutinize public documents for evidence of malfeasance and post their findings…. Since RosPil started, it has registered more than a thousand users and five hundred experts. According to a tally maintained on the site, the project has caused requests for tender worth 188.4 million rubles, or $6.6 million, to be annulled….

Last fall, when Moscow was waiting for the Kremlin to appoint its new mayor, Russia’s leading newspaper, Kommersant, held an informal online election for the post. Navalny won in a landslide, with forty-five per cent of the vote.

Yes, very impressive, Mr. Navalny. You appear to be using digital technology to defund corrupt projects across your country while using a mere blog to become an influential public figure. But I won’t give up on my cyber-dystopianism. I know that the Internet has great potential to give dictators the upper hand in their noble battle to defeat the forces of democracy. I refuse to give up hope.

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