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Social Media and Cyber Utopianism: Civil Society versus the Russian State during the “White Revolution,” 2011-2012

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In December 2011, a young Russian blogger and activist named Ilya Klishin used Facebook to organize an anti-electoral fraud, anti-Putin mass protest in Moscow. The protests quickly spread to cities across Russia. Academics, Russia-watchers, and the international and domestic media alike drew comparisons to contemporaneous pro-democracy protests around the world, such as the Arab Spring, in which social media played a central role. Russian activists pointed to social media as the single most important factor in the advent of their movement. The perception that social media in Russia is primarily pro-civil society, however, is misleading. In this paper I examine the “cyber utopianist” (to use Evgeny Morozov's term) celebration of social media as “free and pro-democracy,” in relation to the recent Russian protest movement, as well as the state's increasing presence on, and use of, social media. I argue that the cyber utopianist view is flawed. I further argue that the state, as it increasingly perceives the banning of certain websites as counterproductive, has negotiated new strategies for engaging with the social media sphere, which closely reflects the “civil society sphere.” Most importantly, the emergence of cyber utopianism in Russia has implications not only for the role of social media in Russian politics but for the future and viability of civil society, and for the outlook for stronger democracy in Russia overall.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2013

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  • The St Antony's International Review (STAIR) is the only peer-reviewed journal of international affairs at the University of Oxford. Set up by graduate students of St Antony's College in 2005, the Review has carved out a distinctive niche as a cross-disciplinary outlet for research on the most pressing contemporary global issues, providing a forum in which emerging scholars can publish their work alongside established academics and policymakers. Past contributors include Robert O. Keohane, James N. Rosenau, and Alfred Stepan.
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