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A protest in Astrakhan, Russia, published on June 14, 2022 (Rom T via Unsplash)

Deep Dive: Cracking Down in Russia

A new study examined interactions between pro-Navalny social media users and their pro-government counterparts.

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Rom T

In New Media and Society, Aytalina Kulichkina, Nicola Righetti, and Annie Waldherr look at how protests spread — and, in turn, faced crackdown — in Russia in 2021, a moment they chose because it was a “significant milestone” in the struggle for political change in modern Russia: tens of thousands came out across Russia to rally for Alexei Navalny, the arrested opposition leader. 

They did this by looking at social media: specifically, at the online dynamic between the pro-Navalny protest movement and the pro-government countermovement playing out on social media. The goal of the study, the authors wrote, was to integrate social media’s potential to both build up and break down protests. They also considered “the role of coordination in connective action, discerning three related yet distinct characteristics of coordinated networks: synchronization, centralization, and modularity.”

They sought to understand the relationship between events that happened online and those that happened offline.

Tweeting Patterns

Both those who organized and tried to call people out to the streets for the rallies and pro-government individuals and groups urging people not to join used social media.

The authors note not only the importance of these protests because of Navalny and the moment in time in relation to Russian politics, but also the uniqueness of this moment: the protesters rallied during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning both that organizers depended more on social and digital media to organize rallies and that officials thus tried to suppress online dissent. Twitter, now X, was of particular concern to the government, the authors write, despite its limited use in Russia.

The goal of the study, the authors wrote, was to integrate social media’s potential to both build up and break down protests.

The authors thus gathered data from Twitter and then set about answering two questions: “How do the tweeting patterns of pro-Navalny and pro-government accounts relate to protest events and each other?” and “What are the synchronization, centralization, and modularity characteristics of pro-Navalny and pro-government coordinated networks on Twitter?”

Pro-Regime vs. Pro-Opposition Reactions

They did find a difference between coordination and clusters: “pro-Navalny accounts were more active and coordinated within more centralized Twitter networks than pro-government accounts. Contrarily, the pro-government camp employed preventive communication tactics and coordinated in more clustered networks.”

Also, Granger causality tests showed that while tweets in support of Navalny resulted in more pro-regime reaction during protests, posts backing the government led to others backing Navalny during other protests.

The authors do suggest treating these findings with caution, since sample data does not account for deleted tweets. For future research, the authors suggest that researchers “collect data as close to the dates of protest events as possible while monitoring and documenting observations on trending hashtags.”

Still, they argue that their study contributes to the understanding of digital protest and repression under authoritarian regimes.

Emily Tamkin

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