The digitally mediated reality offers a number of affordances to social media users for communication, self-expression and exercising political agency. But these affordances aren’t always possibilities for action: often, they can limit the potential for empowering citizens, as governments seek to use digital media to reaffirm their control over the public sphere. This paper focuses on understanding how the work of Russian digital rights advocates connects to the broader context of political activism and how it modifies the concept of networked citizenship in Russia’s conditions of networked authoritarianism (Marechal 2017).
The Russian government’s crackdown on free speech online has seen social media users jailed and fined for publishing critical content. Many RuNet users today see the classical affordances of networked publics – permanence, replicability, scalability, searchability (boyd 2010) and visibility (Pearce et al. 2018) – as threats to their freedom and their livelihood. This narrowing of free space for critical debate has also led activists to seek out less public, less visible and more ephemeral means of exercising their citizen agency. While digital rights activists have implored Russians to delete their accounts on platforms that cooperate with law enforcement (such as VK), they have also advocated for the use of secure tools, such as VPNs, proxy servers or encrypted messaging. Increasingly, Russians are taking their political discourse to messaging platforms like Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp that offer encrypted chatting and disappearing messages. Activists have also been moving to host their websites on servers outside Russia to make their work less susceptible to Russian state censorship, blocking and filtering. In view of all this, I argue that Russian digital activists are seeking to redefine the affordances of social media for active networked citizenship.
Using public statements and online posts by Russian state regulators and by key Russian digital rights activists from 2015-2019, I conduct a comparative narrative analysis of how both parties interpret networked citizenship and what these narratives can tell us about specific affordances of networked media. I find that the networked authoritarian Russian state embraces the ideal of the ‘dutiful citizen’ online as visible, vulnerable and controlled, exploiting the melding of public and private aspects of networked publics. Instead, Russian digital rights activists advocate for a ‘self-actualising citizen’ (Bennet 2008) who exercises their agency online by becoming less visible, more ephemeral, and therefore more secure. This reinterpretation contests boyd’s traditional concept of affordances of networked publics (2010) and questions conventional ideas of citizenship, agency and digital rights. I also suggest that the “below the radar” activities of digital activists, though harder to trace and to study, are all the more important for understanding how the affordances of social media can diverge from the traditional Western-centric models when applied to undemocratic, authoritarian or totalitarian environments.