Cybersecurity and Russian politics are global concerns—but digital technology is playing an intriguing role in Russia’s own upcoming elections too. Russia expert Mariëlle Wijermars explains.
United Russia (UR) holds three quarters of the seats in Russia’s State Duma. Once Boris Yeltsin’s right-hand man, the party’s de facto leader Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000. He hasn’t looked back since. “His promise of stability and prosperity made him popular,” Wijermars says. “UR has been very dominant, but its popularity is plummeting.”
The party’s grip on power is under threat after an unpopular pension reform and declining living standards due to mismanagement, sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, and decreasing oil and gas prices. “Still, the parliamentary opposition mainly consists of smaller ‘loyal’ parties that don’t really oppose UR.” This wasn’t always the case. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian politics initially enjoyed a period of lively opposition. In ’93, President Yeltsin declared a state of emergency and banned several leftist parties because he feared a rebellion. Things culminated in tanks shelling Russia’s seat of parliament.”
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The youth wants change
Electoral reforms have hampered political opposition. Russia has a 5% hurdle, making it difficult for new candidates to enter parliament without the backing of an established party. But there is a way, Wijermars says. “Half of the MPs are determined by party lists; the other half are directly elected in their constituencies in a first-past-the-post system.”
Naturally, the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny has received a lot of attention. The lawyer and anticorruption activist had organised a network of independent candidates pushing for political change. “Electorally, he’s not that relevant really—he’s not allowed to run for president and wouldn’t win if he did.” Navalny is pushing for a smart voting system that would allow the discontented to strategically vote against UR. But Wijermars believes that the Russian left, which would benefit from this system, are likelier agents of change. “They have a substantial base. The communist party is loyal to Putin to an extent, but their membership isn’t homogenous; particularly the young members want change.”
Post truth: made in Russia
Feeling threatened, UR went on a propaganda offensive. “The narrative was something like ‘we’re the only choice’ and ‘change is impossible anyway’. Only a quarter of Russians think that political participation can make a difference. But there’s a dilemma: apart from a big majority, UR needs a high turnout to legitimise the party. That might require more fraud than ever—which can be made public through the internet.”
“Federal TV channels are under state control. Since 2012, you notice a further decrease in the diversity of opinions. Nowadays, the political talk shows are full of propaganda.” There’s been a strategic shift too. “At first, they ignored Navalny; now they offer conspiratorial, nationalist counter-narratives, claiming that he’s funded by Western agents.”
“Post-truth was invented by Russian state TV. Russia started sponsoring extreme nationalist youth movements to make Kremlin rhetoric look more centrist. The idea is to carpet-bomb people with information to undermine trust.” In a confusing world in which the concept of truth makes little sense, unflattering facts are of little importance.
Federal TV channels are under state control. Since 2012, you notice a further decrease in the diversity of opinions. Nowadays, the political talk shows are full of propaganda.
Russia’s most popular search engine, news and social media platform are all domestic products. “The USSR already had a strong tech sector and Russian companies had a head start since they worked with the Cyrillic alphabet. They were the first to establish themselves in the Russian-speaking former Soviet countries.”
Unlike traditional media outlets, however, not all of these companies are controlled by oligarchical conglomerates with personal loyalties to the Kremlin. “Some big players are quasi-independent and the government relies on them to communicate with people. It’s a paradox: the Kremlin needs social media—but it’s even more vital to the opposition, which has no other outlet.”
Yandex, Russia’s leading tech company, runs a popular personalised content platform whose guidelines ban ‘excessively negative’ news that could skew public opinion. “Yandex is a for-profit company; they rely on their credibility and customers. At the same time, they don’t want to fall foul of government regulation. It’s a kind of dance.” Wijermars and her colleagues will use fake profiles to see how Russian newsfeeds change in the run-up to the election.
Taking on the tech giant
Russia also regularly files complaints with foreign-based social media companies—but to little effect. “Russia imposes fines for non-compliance, but companies like Facebook or Google are so unspeakably rich that it doesn’t even register.” Still, Russia was able to throttle Twitter’s bandwidth from the Black Sea to the Bering Strait, making it difficult to load pictures and videos. And Russia’s proposed sovereign internet law would compel internet service providers to install ‘deep packet inspection’: data-processing tools that can identify the source of internet traffic and filter content.
“A standoff with those tech giants would be complex: Google owns YouTube, which hosts investigative videos into election fraud in Russia. It also owns Android, the most popular operating system, so it could retaliate.”
Mariëlle Wijermars is assistant professor in Cybersecurity and Politics at FASoS. She co-edited the Palgrave Handbook of Digital Russia Studies and Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere.
Since the 2000s, the Kremlin has been using bots to simulate grassroots consent on contested issues. “It’s very cheap—certainly compared to military campaigns. Bots amplify certain narratives and undermine others. When they came to the West’s attention after Trump’s election, Russia had already gained a lot of experience domestically and in neighbouring countries.”
Wijermars’ prediction is sombre. “There have already been raids and arrests of candidates. I think there’ll be widespread media repression. UR will win a majority but pay a massive price in the long term. The regime is clinging on but they’re ruining their power base. It’s a shame: there’s so much promise in the country and it’s not allowed to flourish.”