News / Europe

Moscow Protests Get Legs with Social Media

Japhet Weeks

A Moscow march to protest election fraud unexpectedly drew tens of thousands of people on Saturday. With 40 percent of Russian adults online, many say social media, including the Russian social networking site VKontakte, has made it possible for a long stalled opposition movement in Russia to organize a rally that size.

Last Saturday Danila Lindele stood in downtown Moscow tweeting about the revolution.

Dressed in a sweater his mother knit him, the 23-year-old is a new breed of Russian activist more likely to reach for an iPad than a bullhorn. "When it comes to the rally today, Internet has played an extremely vital role in making it happen because nothing was broadcast on television. Everything is disseminated through Twitter, Facebook and through our VK site," he said.

After recent parliamentary elections, YouTube was flooded with videos alleging vote rigging by the country's ruling United Russia party.

Russia's state-run media on the other hand was conspicuously silent.

Protesters like 22-year-old student and first-time election observer Denis Kandrotenko are keenly aware of the information divide between television and the Internet. "I know the real amount of votes United Russia received during the elections. It received very few votes. And because of that the people, rose up and came out today. They want fair and honest elections, not what they show us on TV," he said.

According to a report by Russian search giant Yandex, Russia has over one million Twitter users. A five-fold increase over last year.

And nearly 40,000 people signed up to attend Saturday's rally on Facebook, despite efforts by state-run television to brand such gatherings as dangerous and the protesters themselves as violent rabble rousers.

Masha Lipman, an analyst at Carnegie Center Moscow, admits the Internet is an important tool, but says it was election fraud, not micro-blogging, that galvanized people. “As soon as the mood was one of action, not just sitting there and grumbling, the Internet came in very handy and indeed played a huge role ... in actually planning and organizing the rally that brought together an unprecedented number of people," she said.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Moscow on Saturday, the largest number to rally since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago. Organizers were keenly aware they couldn't have done it without the Internet.

“I want to say a big hello to Twitter and Facebook. Hoorah Internet! Today they [points at Kremlin] can't control us thanks to social networking sites and us," said writer Sergei Shargunov.

Still, Carnegie's Masha Lipman said, "There were revolutions before the age of Internet and even before radio and television. We had a powerful showing of public sentiments and public activism back 20 years ago, late 80s. ... our rallies were 10 times bigger than what we had in Russia on Saturday."

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