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Russia is in the midst of a strict COVID-19 quarantine. Although protesters cannot take to the streets, they continue to carry out mass demonstrations – digitally.
On Monday, April 20, residents of the southern city of Rostov gathered outside the local government building to protest against the strict self-isolation regime in force in the region since early April. They also demand the payment of social benefits to those who have lost their jobs as the country struggles to contain the pandemic.
These “meetings” are being held through Yandex.Navigator, an application managed by Russia's biggest digital giants. The popular SatNav tool allows drivers themselves to report the traffic situation on the tracks in real time. That feature has allowed vested users to tag in politically symbolic places and write protest slogans in their comments. Many are furious at the financial losses they have suffered as a result of self-isolation, and blame the state for not offering enough support. “There is no money to pay the loans! What should we do? ”Says the comment in the screenshot on the left in the image above. “Okay, then cancel taxes, loans and the rest,” and “declare a state of emergency or put aside people's restrictions,” say those in the center and the right.
Local media, such as the television channel Don-TV, soon noticed the protest:
– Дон-ТР (@VestiDonTR) April 20, 2020
A virtual protest is taking place in Rostov due to the introduction of new permits (ie the restrictions of the quarantine regime).
Just a few hours later, these “absent demonstrations” spread across the country, from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod. From one moment to the next, the application showed the empty squares and streets of quarantined cities as “congested”. By the time the show started in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, popular blogger Alexander Plushchev asked a question on his Telegram channel:
Чувствую, к вечеру цифровые митинги охватят всю страну. В Кремле еще ничего не поняли?
Alexander Plushchev, Telegram, April 20, 2020
I believe that by tonight, digital protests will have invaded the entire country. Do those in the Kremlin see that?
These protests resonate more given the already well-known bureaucratic difficulties of conducting “in person” protests in recent years. In Russia, mass protests need prior authorization from the Police — without that, citizens must protest alone, which has made “lone pickets” a classic of Russian political demonstrations in recent years. Under those conditions, online protest is an attractive alternative, particularly when there has been so much protest against it lately. Within a year, Russia has seen massive protests against the exclusion of independent opposition candidates in local elections and more recently against proposed constitutional changes that will allow President Vladimir Putin more terms in office. The movement No! has declared an online protest against those modifications, to be held on April 28.
There are no legal obstacles to current “online demonstrations”. But it may be too soon to show off.
Although Russian social media users are increasingly at the mercy of the authorities for their strong online oppositional statements, at first the comments on the Yandex.Navigator app had no restraint whatsoever. The truth is that the platform is not the most obvious for political disagreement. However, a Yandex spokesperson told the Vedomosti newspaper that “all messages that do not refer to the situation on the streets or that contain profanity are always removed,” adding that most of those messages could interfere with the load on the application and, therefore, with navigation.
In the end, Yandex began to “disperse” the online protests by removing the comments. Oleg Stepanov, coordinator of the offices of prominent opponent Alexey Navalny, suggests writing more, with renewed vigor:
Прямо сейчас Яндекс разгоняет «несогласованный митинг» против Путина на Красной площади!
Москвичи оставляют сотни комментариев, но администраторы их мгновенно удаляют. Попробуйте сами https://t.co/RCrZAqosdp pic.twitter.com/yYmpvYzqMH
– Олег Степанов (@olsnov) April 20, 2020
Right now, Yandex is dispersing an “unauthorized protest” against Putin in Red Square!
Muscovites are leaving hundreds of comments, but administrators are deleting them in crowds. Test (for you to see).
Yandex, like other digital giants in Russia, has grown stronger government influence in recent months. It is required to retain the data of Russian users in Russian jurisdiction and transfer this data to the security services on request. Sarkis Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda, an NGO that monitors online freedoms in Russia, noted in comments to Kod Durova that while Russian protesters may have been particularly resourceful in finding another platform for disagreement, it did not necessarily make them more secure:
Конечно, лавочку эту могут быстро прикрыть. Всем понятно, что Яндекс уже давно на короткой ноге и если будут соотвествующие указания из АП, то Яндекс либо просто выключит “Разговорчики” либо начнёт ручками своих модераторов всё чистить. При этом не забывайте, что информация о пользователях, кричащих про некого Хутина, что он Пуй, может быть передана в правоохранительные органы для принятия процессуального решения о возбуждении уголовного либо административного дела.
Of course, they can easily stop this. Everyone understands that Yandex is on good terms with the presidential administration, and if it issues merciless orders, then Yandex will simply turn off those “little conversations” or start cleaning them manually with the help of its moderators. In addition, they do not forget any information about users who shout about a certain “Cutin” that is a “both” that can be turned over to the authorities, who can then assess whether they initiate a criminal or administrative proceeding against them.
With this background for this colorful story, it is important to remember that some Russian citizens are violating the self-isolation regime and are really protesting. On April 20, hundreds of residents of Vladikavkaz, capital of the Republic of North Ossetia, took to the streets to call for the resignation of the governor of the impoverished region of the North Caucasus. They argue that they cannot afford self-isolation, and ask for financial compensation. That is not a virtual protest – and most worrying is that some prominent protesters have conspiracy theories about the pandemic, and believe that the virus does not pose threats to their health.