I chose to focus my dissertation research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) during elections in repressive states. Why? Because the contentious relationship between state and society during elections is accentuated and the stakes are generally higher than periods in-between elections. To be sure, elections provide momentary opportunities for democratic change. Moreover, the impact of ICTs on competitive events such as contentious elections may be more observable than the impact on state-society relations during the regular calendar year. In other words, the use of ICTs during election periods may shed some light on whether said technologies empower coercive regimes at the expense of civil society or vice versa.
This was certainly the case this past week in Russia as a result of the above crowdsourced election-violations map, which was used to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election viola-tions that span the following categories:
While this map is not powered by the Ushahidi platform (contrary to this claim), the many similarities suggest that the project was inspired by the earlier nation-wide use of the Ushahidi platform in 2010, namely the Russia Fires Help Map. In fact, the major initiator of the Violations Map attended a presentation on Ushahidi and Help Map in Boston earlier this year.
The Elections-Violation Map was launched by Golos, the country’s only independent election monitoring organization and Gazeta.ru, Russia’s leading Internet newspaper. This promotional banner for the map was initially displayed on Gazeta.ru’s website but was subsequently taken down by the Editor in Chief who cited commercial reasons for the action: “Right now we have such a period that this advertisement place is needed for commercial advertisement. But we’re still partners with Golos.”
The deputy editor from Gazeta who had curated the map resigned in protest: “After it became evident that the Violation Map ‘no longer suited the leadership and the owners of the website’, [the deputy editor said,] it would have been “cowardice” to continue the work. Despite Gazeta.ru’s withdrawal from the project, the Violation Map found another partner, “Slon.ru, a popular blog platform (~1 million unique visitors monthly).”
My colleague Alexey Sidorenko argues that the backlash against the Violations Map “induced the Streisand Effect, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction.” Indeed, as one Russian blogger tweeted: “Why are ‘United Russia’ representatives so short-sighted? It is evident that now half of the country will know about the Violation Map.” Needless to say, the Violations Map is one of the trending topics being discussed in Russia today (on election day).
As is well know, Golos is funded by both American and European organizations. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin is not a fan of Golos, as recently quoted in the Washington Post:
“Representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country,” Putin said.
As expected by many, hackers took down the Golos website along with the Election-Violations Map. (The Sudanese government did the same last year when independent Sudanese civil society groups used the Ushahidi platform to monitor the country’s first presidential elections in two decades). Incidentally, Slon.ru seems to have evaded the take-down. In any case, the blocking of websites is just one very easy tactic available to hackers and repressive regimes. Take this other tactic, for example:
According to a Russian-speaking colleague of mine (who also pointed me to this pro-Kremlin activist video), the woman says that “mapping dots is a disease on the map of Russia.” The video shows her calling the Map’s dedicated number to report a false message (she gives a location that doesn’t exist) and subsequently fills out a false report online. In other words, this is an instructional video on how to submit false information to a crowdsourcing platform. A fully translated transcript of the video is available here.
This same colleague informed me that one of Russia’s State Television Channels subsequently broadcast a program in which it accused those behind the Violations Map of making false claims about the falsification of reports, accusing the “Maptivists” of using an American tool in efforts against the Russian ruling party. In addition, the head of Russia’s Election Committee submitted a complaint against the map to the court, which resulted in the organizers receiving a $1,000 fine (30,0000 Rubles).
Gregory Asmolov, a PhD student at LSE, argues that the Russian government’s nervous reaction to the crowdsourced map and its attempt to delegitimize and limit its presence in cyberspace is clear proof of the project’s impact. Gregory goes on to write that the crowdsourced map is an interim product, not a finished product, which serves as a diagnostic system in which individuals are the sensors. He also argues that crowdsourcing mirrors the reliability of society and thus claims that if there is low confidence in the reliability of crowdsourced information, this is a diagnosis of society and not the crowdsourcing tool itself.
Alexey Sidorenko concludes with the following: “The Violation Map incident is just an indicator of a much deeper trend – the growing will for the need of change, exercised by free, non-falsified elections. In previous election cycles, most journalists would not have resigned and no big portal would have been brave enough to advertise election violation monitoring. Aside from the deeper sociological undercurrent, technology plays a crucial role in all presented stories. […] none of these events would actually have happened if Golos and Gazeta.ru had not united in producing the Violation Map. Golos has had an election violation database since 2008, but it never was as influential as it is now. This suggests the success of the project relies heavily on its online mapping element (if any event gets concrete geographic coordinates it automatically gets more real and more appealing) and having a proper media partner.”
My dissertation research asked the following question: Do New ICTs Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive States and Civil Society? In the case of Russia’s Parliamentary Elections, it would seem so. So my next question is this: If Help Map inspired this week’s Election Violations Map, then what will the latter inspire now that many more have been exposed to the power of crowdsourcing and live maps? Stay tuned for the next round of Crowdsourcing vs. Putin.