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Can the Internet Help Curb Corruption in Russia?

Even twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia continues to struggle with its post-Soviet baggage. Case in point: according to Transparency International, the Russian Federation is the second-most corrupt country in Europe, topped only by another post-Soviet state – Ukraine. The world’s largest country is ranked 127th out of 177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which scores countries based on how corrupt a country’s own citizens perceive its public sector to be.

This places Russia just behind Pakistan and Nicaragua in terms of how much trust the public places in government. Suffice to say, that leaves much room for improvement. So, to repeat the Russian author Nikolai Cherneshevsky’s well-known query, one must ask: “What is to be done?” Much ado has been made about the internet’s capacity to promote openness and transparency; therefore, it is worth examining these claims to determine whether the internet can help achieve such goals in Russia.

The Seoul Declaration for the Future of the Internet Economy, drafted and signed by member nations of the OECD, provides a classic example of the kinds of just such claims about the internet’s – almost emancipatory – potential to enable good government and accountability. As the Seoul Declaration proclaims, the expansion of the internet “will bolster the free flow of information, freedom of expression, and protection of individual liberties, as critical components of a democratic society and cultural diversity.” Certainly that is the intention behind many of the internet’s wonderful tools, such as Twitter. Still, in the wake of the Wikileaks and NSA scandals, critics have been lining up to deconstruct this notion of the innately liberating net.

Such arguments take a more philosophically realist approach to the issue by calling into question the notion that the internet is even “inherently” anything. The tech critic Evgeny Morozov has pointed out serious flaws in the narrative claiming the internet has special powers. Take, for example, the fact that while social media can help in organizing protests, it is also helpful in cracking down on protesters in the aftermath. He also notes that information posted by bloggers can help authoritarian elites maintain legitimacy by alerting them to local instances of corruption that they can tackle without having to take on systemic corruption.

There is one other point to make that seems especially relevant in the case of Russia: “we hear a lot about cyber activism,” Morozov states, “but we hear very little about cyber hedonism.” The bulk of users’ time on the net, naturally, is spent pursuing various kinds of entertainment and not engaging in political struggles.

How Russians use the internet

It is important to note, then, how many people in Russia use the internet and what they use it for. Recent polls conducted by the independent Levada Center [Russian] demonstrate that about 36% of Russians do not use the internet. Of those who do, however, only 10% claim to read the news "regularly." Another 33% read the news "from time to time" and 31% read the news "occasionally," but 27% of Russian internet users never read the news online. This does suggest that many Russian internet users are still engaging in “cyber hedonism.”

Another set of facts relating to media use in general in Russia is sobering. In its portrait of the Russian media landscape, the Levada Center has shown that 90% of the population [Russian] gets most of its news and information from television, which remains almost completely dominated by state-owned media.

Further information disparities become more apparent when comparing cosmopolitan Moscow to the provinces; in Moscow 42% of respondents claim to get news from internet publications, whereas in the regions only 24% claim to do so. The “free flow of information,” in other words, is still a long way off in Russia, and the enormous social, let alone geographical, divide between Moscow and the regions presents a considerable obstacle to that development.

20-year-old Masha studies computer science and linguistics in the far-flung Republic of Buryatia. She described the kinds of internet habits her peers have as follows: “probably the majority of young people in Russia just use the internet for entertainment and social networks. But imageboards are quite popular, and they usually discuss news and stuff. For example I usually get to know news from there,” she said.

Much like the infamous 4chan, popular imageboards such as 2ch and apachan thrive on openness and anonymity; 2ch describes itself as a place where “any point of view has a right to life,” and apachan’s front page declares that “basically, [anonymity] lets us do everything we always wanted to but couldn’t because of religion or karma.” In other words, these online communities give young people a chance to vent their feelings, which may or may not be acceptable amongst their peers, especially in distant regions.

As a result, the content varies from serious discussion and internet memes to absurd, even vile, humor. It would be a mistake to classify this as a haven of cyber activism, of course, but this kind of content hardly falls into the category of cyber hedonism, either. What is significant in any case is that such online communities have enabled a culture of free speech to take root, albeit in a mixed way.

How Russian internet freedom is under threat

The right to anonymity and free expression on the Russian internet are under threat. New laws passed by the Russian Duma will significantly curb the freedoms the internet once provided by forcing internet companies like Facebook, Google, and others to store their data in Russia or risk being shut down in the country. Having their data stored in Russia will allow authorities access to their users' data and thereby keep them under surveillance. And although Russia may have granted whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum after he leaked information about the NSA’s PRISM program, Russia has a PRISM of its own, known as SORM. Without the safety granted by anonymity, it is difficult to imagine average citizens speaking out against corruption on the net.

Ultimately, the roots of corruption may be beyond the internet’s grasp. Aleksandr Baunov, an editor at the business website slon.ru [Russian], speaks about the near futility of taking on corruption in Russia: “the problem here is a very high tolerance toward corruption; people are more or less ready to pay. What is worse – they are ready to take, too, if and when they are in the appropriate position. It’s a sort of ‘national fatalism.’” Corruption, in other words, sometimes seems like ‘just part of the culture,’ making it exceedingly difficult to confront. “This fatalism starts changing in the younger urban class – here the internet is very important – but to change the same fatalism among more ‘grassroots’ people the internet is not enough.”

This divide is as much geographical as it is generational; Baunov notes that many ordinary Russians are suspicious of “those who are criticizing the authorities on the web.” He emphasizes the fact that the fall of the USSR was a traumatic experience for average people – a trauma primarily associated with the intense criticisms of the day: “after the mass campaign of critics in the later days of the USSR their country really was destroyed.” By being wary of criticism, “they think they are wising up enough ‘not to step on the same rake with the same foot’ again,” as the Russian folk saying goes. For that reason, he thinks the impetus must come from above: “around the world many anti-corruption campaigns have been organised at once by the people and by authorities, even in authoritarian countries. We need something of the sort.”

Again, corruption in Russia is prevalent on a similar scale as that in Pakistan or Nicaragua. Without significant intervention from the state, loosening its grip on society remains near unthinkable. The internet can play a role in getting authorities to respond, of course, but is powerless on its own. As the specter of an internet crackdown looms, moreover, the internet’s powerful potential for surveillance and domestic spying purposes must be a grave reminder that all new technologies are equally fraught with the potential for liberation and enslavement.

Still, muffling the one free outlet for many young Russians who, whether supportive of the government’s actions or not, do not remember the straightjacketed days of the Soviet Union could prove unwise in the long run. Even if there are no immediate protests, worries about sanctions and economic stagnation will increase tension in society over time. That tension will find release eventually, either by pressuring the government into taking action against corruption, graft, and lack of oversight for the sake of the economy, or by assigning blame to others – likely foreigners, foreign countries, outsiders or undesirables. The likelier scenario is that the government will blame Western sanctions for all its troubles, but even that strategy can only last for so long.

 

James Neimeister spent 2013-2014 in Russia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and is a freelance writer.

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James Neimeister

James Neimeister spent 2013-2014 in Russia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and is a freelance writer.

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