Ugly Vibes on the Runet

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the webcams installed at 90,000 Russian polling stations for the March 4 presidential election. Although the cyber-shenanigans I had predicted did not materialize, the webcams did catch some good old-fashioned fraudsters at work. If you missed the live stream on webvybory2012.ru, the images were flashed around the Ethernet, alongside thousands of videos, pictures, blogs, microblogs and updates discussing, debating and condemning the March 4 process. The Runet—as the Russian portion of the Internet is dubbed—became the Russian political arena, the dawn of a fifth estate in Russian politics.

Monitoring thousands of comments, tweets and blogs during the election period helps draw a realistic picture of current political trends. (51 million Russians—about half the active population—are now connected to the Internet.)

One conclusion is easy to draw: If the election had been held on the Runet, Russian Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin would have had considerably fewer votes than he did according to the official results. To some extent this reflects a bias characteristic of the types of people who chatter on social media. But it also reflects the work of those ballot-box stuffers caught by the webcams or by ordinary citizens armed with iPhones.

I used #Путин—Putin—to monitor systematically various social networks and blog-sites. Beyond the general observation that the official election results did not reflect the views of Russian Internet denizens, and the general anti-Putin tenor of most posts, some interesting nuances emerged.

I found that, at least according to the chatter reflected using #Путин, overt skinhead-style nationalism was uncommon. Nonetheless, there was a distinct ugly nationalist tone to many comments. Restoration of Russia’s great power status, the Great Russian Narod (people or nation) and ethnic slurs were common themes.

Anti-American themes were also plentiful. Make no mistake; whether they are anti-Putin or pro-Putin, Russians have little love for America. “The United States,” writes one blogger, “is trying to use the instability in Russia.” Another says, “Gosdep (the US State Department) is funding them to create a revolution.” Do not imagine that the Russian opposition is more favorably disposed toward America, or even more democratic, than the Kremlin.

A close look at Russian social media during the presidential election period reveals a real hard-line element among anti-Putin forces. “With the request of the Americans, in March 2001,” writes one blogger, “you (Putin) drop to the bottom of the Pacific the Mir Space Station, which yielded 30% of all (Russian) intelligence information.”

Not everyone pursued this line. However, one blogger who took a different stance appears to be part of a distinct minority. “Live Journal,” he writes, “is full of users, Russians, who, for reasons unknown to me, hate America bitterly.” Another writes, “Could you tell me specifically what kind of bad things the United States did to you?”

Further conclusions should be based on deeper research, particularly using different search terms. We look forward to pursuing a full analysis of politics on the Runet, which we will share on this blog.

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