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Breaking the Stalemate of Leaderless Protest: Internet Elections as a Digital Tool to Centralize Collective Action in Russia

Mon, June 13, 9:30 to 10:45, Fukuoka Hilton, Kusu

Abstract

Keywords: collective action, connective action, protest, Russia, case study method, social movements
Extant research on the consequences of the internet for collective action has typically posited that protest relying heavily on digital technologies encourages not formalized but informal, and not centralized but “leaderless”, forms of organization (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012; Flanagin et al., 2006; Earl & Kimport, 2011). Adopting a single critical case study design, this article presents evidence from Russia that invites to carefully interrogate these widely held assumptions. In the wake of the allegedly fraudulent elections of 2011/12, Russian activists organized alternative internet elections to centralize and formalize the anti-regime movement. 80,000 activists voted online and created the “Coordination Council of the Opposition” as a new leadership body. Grounded in document analysis and in-depth interviews with key participants, this presentation traces why, how, and with what consequences this cardinally new mode of digitally enabled collective action was adopted.
In brief, the case can be summarized as follows: In order to vote, citizens had to register online and verify their identity, either by making a micro-payment from their bank account or by emailing a photo that showed them holding their passport. In this way, the principle of one-citizen-one-vote was guaranteed. In addition, a limited number of offline polling stations were set up in major cities. In the two weeks before the elections, the opposition satellite and internet TV channel Dozhd broadcast two hours of debates between candidates every day at midnight. Between 20 and 22 October, 80,000 registered voters cast their votes. In so doing, they created the “Coordination Council of the Opposition”, which subsequently claimed to act in the name of all Russian citizens who did not believe in the legitimacy of the country’s authoritarian leadership During its one-year term of office, the Coordination Council met 12 times and took more than 50 decisions.
The presentation locates the Russian internet elections within extant typologies of new digitally enabled protest tactics and protest organizations. In concluding, it also discusses the potential role of internet elections as a new tactic of collective action, both in democratic and authoritarian contexts. Most recently, for instance, also the Podemos movement in Spain (2014) and the British Labour Party (2015) have conducted internet elections to fill leadership positions.

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