Online Patriots and Traitors: The War, Authoritarianism, and State-Sponsored Digital Vigilantism in Russia

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Maxim Alyukov looks at how the Putin regime is encouraging digital vigilantism to crack down on anti-war dissent
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on the war in Ukraine.]

On February 24, Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Strategically, this decision was a miscalculation based on poor intelligence and information loops which led Putin to underestimate the Ukrainian military and citizens and overestimate the capabilities of the Russian military.1Vladimir Gel’man, “Why the Kremlin Invaded Ukraine,” Riddle, March 12, 2022, https://ridl.io/en/why-the-kremlin-invaded-ukraine/">https://ridl.io/en/why-the-kremlin-invaded-ukraine/ However, despite Russia’s military failures, the campaign seems to have achieved a number of political goals at home. Namely, it has become a turning point in the process of autocratization of Russia itself. While sweeping waves of political repression had largely crushed opposition to the regime before the war, the war with Ukraine allowed the regime to further solidify these gains and consolidate a more overt form of dictatorship.

As Russia is a highly digitalized country, the process of democratic backsliding has been deeply interwoven with the use of digital technologies. The regime did not consider the online media sphere as a significant political threat up until the end of the 2000s.2Sarah Oates, Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Sphere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). However, the recent decade has witnessed a proliferation of advanced techniques of control and censorship of the online public sphere, such as blocking, capturing Internet infrastructure, creating a legal environment to normalize online censorship, manipulating digital intermediaries, and pro-actively shaping online discussions via bots and “trolls.” The assault on Ukraine has been leveraged to increase the regime’s control over information space even further. Banning remaining independent online media and global media platforms under the pretext of national security during wartime, the government has reinforced control over information space.

While the Kremlin has been experimenting with various techniques of control over the online sphere for a decade, the war has brought new strategies to the fore. In addition to censoring or manipulating information, the war has encouraged and facilitated state-sponsored digital vigilantism as a part of authoritarian consolidation. In contrast to previous forms of online control implying the passivity of citizenry, the government has started to rely on the potential of digital media to empower those who are loyal to the regime to provide assistance in persecuting fellow citizens who oppose the war.

The online sphere has long been considered as a democratic space encouraging participation and the free flow of information. However, as authoritarian states started to adapt to digital challenges in the late 2000s and early 2010s, many scholars emphasized how digital media can be used to strengthen authoritarian control. Tech-savvy autocrats embraced the power of digital media building various forms of what Rebecca McKinnon calls “networked authoritarianism.”3Rebecca McKinnon, “Liberation Technology: China’s “Networked Authoritarianism,”” Journal of Democracy 22, no. 2 (2011): 32–46. In line with this trend, Putin’s regime has been experimenting with advanced techniques of control. For instance, it has invested significant resources in developing pro-regime online state media,4Ilya Yablokov,  “Conspiracy Theories as a Public Diplomacy Tool: The Case of Russia Today (RT),” Politics 35, no. 3–4 (2015): 301–315. manipulating search engines5Daria Kravets and Florian Toepfl, “Gauging Reference and Source Bias Over Time: How Russia’s Partially State-Controlled Search Engine Yandex Mediated an Anti-Regime Protest Event,” Information, Communication, & Society (2021), Advance online publication. and news aggregators,6Françoise Daucé and Benjamin Loveluck, “Codes of Conduct for Algorithmic News Recommendation: The Yandex.News Controversy in Russia,” First Monday 26, no. 5-3 (2021). and using bots7Denis Stukal, Sergey Sanovich, Richard Bonneau, and Joshua A. Tucker. “Detecting bots on Russian political Twitter,” Big data 5, no. 4 (2017): 310–324. and paid “trolls”8Anton Sobolev, “How Pro-government “Trolls” Influence Online Conversations in Russia” (Preprint, 2019), http://www.wpsanet.org/papers/docs/2019W-Feb-Anton-Sobolev-Trolls-VA.pdf. to manipulate online discussions and social media algorithms to shape public opinion online. However, these techniques were rarely designed to actively engage citizens. Similar to other authoritarian regimes, Putin’s regime practices demobilization. Instead of actively engaging citizens in politics, it has been relying on political apathy attempting to keep citizens away from politics.9Maxim Alyukov, “Making Sense of the News in an Authoritarian Regime: Russian Television Viewers’ Reception of the Russia–Ukraine Conflict,” Europe-Asia Studies 34, no. 3 (2022): 337–359. Adopting new digital technologies, the authorities have been attempting to manufacture consent and present the leadership as popular, either by restricting alternative information flows or unleashing bots and paid trolls to create the visibility of popularity, rather than actively engage citizens in politics similar to more violent regimes of the past.10Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, “Informational autocrats,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 33, no. 4 (2019): 100–127.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents both a continuation of and a break with the previous strategy. On the one hand, the regime has used the war as a pretext to expand its grip one the online sphere, further advancing what Gregory Asmolov calls a “disconnective society” — a state of dominance over information flows and isolation from global media space.11Gregory Asmolov, “Russia, Ukraine, and the Emergence of “Disconnective Society,” Riddle, April 21, 2022, https://ridl.io/en/russia-ukraine-and-the-emergence-of-disconnective-society/. Ultimately, this strategy aims at making citizens less informed and passive by limiting access to alternative information and creating the visibility of massive support for the invasion. On the other hand, using the new opportunities provided by social media and open-source data, the government has introduced multiple initiatives to encourage digital vigilantism and give those who are supportive of the regime and its actions in Ukraine the tools to assist in persecuting other citizens who are considered disloyal.

Digital vigilantism is not a new phenomenon in the online world. Benjamin Loveluck defines digital vigilantism as “direct online actions of targeted surveillance, dissuasion or punishment which tend to rely on public denunciation or an excess of unsolicited attention, and are carried out in the name of justice, order or safety.”12Benjamin Loveluck, “The Many Shades of Digital Vigilantism. A Typology of Online Self-justice,” Global Crime 21, no. 3–4 (2020): 213–241. There are at least four different types of digital vigilantism, such as flagging (alerting others of uncivil behaviors, rather than individuals, on social media), investigating (naming specific individuals suspected of wrongdoing on social media), hounding (an intense form of investigating driven by public outrage, supported by incriminating evidence, and ultimately humiliating the suspect), and organized leaking (leaking sensitive information about institutions and organizations). However, a defining feature of these forms of digital vigilantism is that they are carried out by the members of the public on their own initiative. Rarely, if ever, vigilantes attempt to provoke the response of the authorities or the state itself entrusts citizens with performing the functions of law enforcement.

Unlike bottom-up forms of digital vigilantism, Putin’s regime has been attempting to initiate vigilante practices from above exploring the potential of social media and open data. There are different forms of state-sponsored vigilantism. For instance, the organization called The Committee for the Defense of National Interests (CDNI) has been involved in collecting data from open sources and social media to create a dataset of citizens disloyal to the state and critical of the war. The profiles of disloyal citizens are published on CDNI social media profiles on Vkontake, Odnoklassniki, and Telegram. While the organization presents itself as a group of “concerned citizens,” it is connected to the party in power (“United Russia”) and a number of regime-controlled civic organizations. Before the invasion of Ukraine, it was collecting a database of citizens critical of the government. Since 2012, Putin’s regime has introduced a series of repressive “Foreign Agent Laws” targeting political opposition. These laws are used to shape negative attitudes towards critics of the regime, but also to impose financial and bureaucratic restrictions on political opposition to impede their activities. As the government has limited resources, it labelled only eighty-five organizations, forty-five media outlets, and 121 individuals as foreign agents at the time of writing. Based on media appearances and social media data, CDNI compiled a much larger database of around 1,000 individuals presented as foreign agents.

CDNI labels prominent Russian journalists Dmitry Muratov, Yuriy Dud, Leonid Parfenov and a singer Boris Grebenshikov as traitors for expressing anti-war views. Their statements on social media are presented as incriminating evidence.

After the beginning of the war, the organization changed its target and started to collect information about “traitors” (Russian citizens critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and “enemies” (citizens of Ukraine and other countries critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). For three months of the war, it created more than 300 profiles based on social media profiles and media appearances. As CDNI is not burdened by bureaucratic regulations, it complements the work of much slower state agencies. As a result, digital vigilantes perform some of the roles of the repressive apparatus by using the potential offered by digital media: a wealth of publicly available data, the speed of social media, and anonymity.

Although connected to the regime, CDNI is created by “concerned citizens.” Since the beginning of the invasion, Putin’s regime initiated a more direct, top-down form of digital vigilantism: anonymous reports on those who oppose the war based on open data. On March 4, 2022, Russian parliament passed Federal Law no. 32 criminalizing criticism of the actions of the Russian military. Penalties for violations of this law can range from significant fines to up to fifteen years imprisonment. At the moment of writing, there have been around 2,000 administrative cases and sixty criminal cases under this new censorship law. To facilitate implementation of the law, the government created Telegram bots for reporting violations of the law. Telegram bots are third-party applications running inside this platform. Bots can perform a variety of functions, such as collecting information, automatically running Telegram channels, and integration with other services. Local governments in seven regions created bots collecting anonymous reports about citizens protesting against the war. Similarly, the ruling party “United Russia” created its own bot (er_stopfake_bot) inviting users to submit information about citizens who spread “fake information” about the Russian military or protest against the war. After submission to the bot, the party claims to submit this information to security services. In late April 2022, the party claimed to have received 5,000 reports from citizens.

However, these attempts to use digital media for anonymous reports and denunciations often meet resistance. For instance, the bots created by local governments have identical names ZaPravdu5XX_bot, where XX stands for the number of the region. As bots were created for only seven regions, users critical of the war quickly responded to this initiative by creating bots and Telegram channels with identical names for other regions not targeted by the government. While the bots are dysfunctional and used to confuse those who want to report on fellow citizen, channels meet wannabe vigilantes with anti-war statements, alternative information about the war, or humiliating messages condemning the practice of denunciations.

For instance, when one accesses ZaPravdu39 bot to submit information about violations of the censorship law, it appears to be a channel which refers to two articles of the Russian Criminal Code – 353 (“Planning, preparation, launching, or waging an aggressive war”) and 354 (“Public calls to start an aggressive war”). These laws prescribe prison sentence for up to twenty years. This message suggests that the attack on Ukraine is a crime, and president Putin and the government should be punished by law. Bot ZaPravdu55_bot provides a list of links to Telegram channels of independent media providing objective reporting on the war. Some channels disguising as bots simply make anti-war or humiliating statements, such as “Did you want to rat on somebody, bitch?” (ZaPravdu50_bot, Zapravdu77_bot, and ZaPravdu99_bot), “No to war. Did you want to rat on somebody? Motherfucker” (ZaPravdu71_bot), “Denunciations in the style of Pavlik Morozov are bad. It will not lead to anything good” (ZaPravdu12_bot).

A bot created by the government inviting users to submit evidence of provocations and violations of the law (on the left) and a public channel with similar name listing articles of the Criminal Code establishing punishments for starting a war (on the right).

So far, the number of counter-bots created by critics of the government is several times higher than the number of original bots created by the state. As it is fairly easy to find the original bots, these counter-measures are unlikely to prevent committed regime supporters from reporting. However, it is likely that at least some of the vigilantes get lost in a multitude of identical dysfunctional bots or at least feel public condemnation of reporting as a practice.

Scholars have long warned that rather being “liberation technology”13Larry Diamond, “Liberation technology,” Journal of democracy 21, no. 3 (2010): 69–83. by default, digital technologies are repurposed and used by both by citizens and governments for democratic and non-democratic goals.14Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Authoritarianism Online: What Can We Learn From Internet Data in nondemocracies?” PS: Political Science & Politics 46, no. 2 (2013): 262–270. One of the non-democratic ways governments can use digital media is surveilling citizens and collecting data for repressions.15Evgeny Morozov, The Net delusion: How not to Liberate the World (Westminster, UK: Penguin Books, 2011). State-sponsored digital vigilantism represents a new stage in the evolution of non-democratic use of digital media. Using the war as a pretext for further autocratization, Putin’s regime outsourced some of its repressive functions to vigilantes willing to engage in surveillance voluntarily and persecute fellow citizens. By embracing the potential of digital media, the regime not only turned user-generated content in one of its tools, but also handed this tool over to those who are willing to use it.

Notes[+]

Alyukov, Maxim. "Online Patriots and Traitors: The War, Authoritarianism, and State-Sponsored Digital Vigilantism in Russia." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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