Emily Parker – Voices From the Internet Underground


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In 2010, ordinary Russians launched a rather unusual protest. This protest was inspired by Moscow’s notoriously bad traffic. Just to give you an idea. Making matters worse, were the VIP cars of the rich and powerful. You could recognize these cars by their blue lights. Those lights signaled that drivers could navigate the roads with impunity exempt from normal traffic laws. Anger over Russia’s blue lights, or rather anger over Russia’s VIP drivers bubbled over in 2010 when an executive killed two women with his Mercedes. Around that same time an older internet video resurfaced. This video featured a man who put a blue bucket on top of his car. His point was just to make fun of the blue lights, and to taunt the police. He posted it on Youtube. A well known radio host saw this video and put it on his blog. He called on other Russian drivers to take their blue buckets out for a spin. “I can see the beginning of a new mass movement” he said. Road regulations apparently allow for the transport of goods by car. So the idea was; you go to a toy store, you buy a blue bucket, you tape it to the top of your car and if anyone asks you about it you say “I’m just transporting a good by car.” So that’s what people did. The blue bucket’s protest were silly and fun, at least for the drivers. The police were a little bit less amused. Some put blue buckets on their cars, others honked their horn in solidarity. Videos of blue bucket drivers popped up online. Other media picked it up. This protest obviously was not just about traffic. In Moscow there were not a lot of places where ordinary Russians could speak truth to power. But there was at least one space where Russians of all stripes had no choice but to interact. That place was traffic. The blue bucket protest allowed ordinary Russians to send VIP drivers a message that they could not ignore. More important, it allowed ordinary Russians to send a message to each other. They would see other blue bucket drivers on the road, and know that they were not alone. And this empowered them to keep fighting for change. Now did the blue bucket protest cause a Russian revolution? Obviously not. Still, this protest marked a critical moment in Russia’s internet history. These protests, which were largely organized online demonstrated that the internet could be used as a tool of collective action. And that is a real threat to governments all over the world. Governments who censor the internet may appear to be worried about freedom of speech but they are far more concerned about freedom of assembly. And therein lies the power of the internet. It is both a gathering place, and a platform for collective action. I just wrote a book that chronicles the lives of internet activists in China, Cuba and Russia. The title of the book is actually a quote from the Chinese activist Michael Anti who spoke here yesterday. Ten years ago I asked Anti if the internet could really make a difference in China given that there was so much censorship and surveillance. Anti said “yes, because now I know who my comrades are.” In a country like China, there are not a lot of physical places where critics of power can meet in person. But on the internet at least, Anti knew who was on his side. He knew that others were fighting the same fight. China, it’s worth noting, is far more concerned about collective action than freedom of expression. Researchers from Harvard found greater censorship of online content related to collective action. So here you can see high censorship during collective action events. And the red signals the count censored, you can kind of see those big red spike. Compared to low censorship on news and policy events. So again, you’ll want to look at the red here, news and policy events and collective action events. Just to give you an idea. So now, back to Russia. I’m sure many of you have noticed that Putin has been cracking down on the internet with various laws and regulations. Again, this is not only because he wants to control the flow of information. The opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny did not rise to fame simply by leeking sensitive information. Rather he built an online following by mobilizing people to act. To give one example; he encouraged Russians to report pot holes that needed repair to report them online and try to get them fixed. On a much larger scale, he tried to crowd source scrutiny over suspicious government contracts. And over the years, Navalny and his followers scored various victories. Maybe they’d get some pot holes fixed, maybe they would get an official to resign maybe they would get some suspicious contracts annulled. These campaigns helped show Russians that they could use the internet to solve problems together. And these campaigns also helped Navalny rise from an ordinary blogger to one of the most prominent opposition figures in today’s Russia. Now, it’s no coincidence that Navalny was placed under house arrest. Nor is it a coincidence that Russia’s internet crackdown began in earnest after late 2011 and early 2012 when tens of thousands of Russians came out to the streets to protest election fraud. Social media played an important role in these protests, and not simply by telling people where to meet. People could go to Facebook, for example, and see that if they went out onto the streets they would not be alone. Authoritarian regimes try to isolate critics from one another. In the internet age, this is difficult to do. The power of the internet does not lie in freedom of speech, but in freedom of assembly. And yes, not everyone on the internet is a pro democracy advocate. Nationalists, racists, whoever, use the internet too. And authoritarian governments also try to use the internet to their advantage. But over the long-term, it’s not clear that these governments will win. Even in the most repressive environments the internet is helping to create a new kind of citizen. These citizens are networked, unafraid and ready for action. Thank you.

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