DCU’s Dr Tanya Lokot has spent years trying to understand the place of online activism and protest in the raging information war in eastern Europe.
Troll farms, state propaganda and truly subversive online campaigns that may have changed the course of American history are now synonymous with a Russia once again trying to assert its place as a world power. Between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his government, the country has one of the firmest grasps on the reality of social media and massive online communities.
Unfortunately, for those looking to speak out against the government within its own borders – or particularly the surrounding states that the Kremlin views as being within its sphere of influence – there is a well-oiled machine working to make sure their voices are never heard, or are framed as so-called ‘fake news’.
On the other side of this raging information war is Dublin City University (DCU) researcher Dr Tanya Lokot, whose research and writing focuses on the interplay between technology, digital media and civic actors in the context of augmented protest in eastern Europe. As a journalist, the Ukrainian native has spent years covering the continuing tensions between her country and Russia, and the way both are portrayed in each other’s nations.
However, given that Lokot now calls Ireland her home, she has largely been tracing the latest developments remotely, which she admitted in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com can sometimes be a challenging experience in itself.
“I think my greatest challenge is that I spend too much time on Twitter because it’s a very convenient tool for following various trends, developments and keeping up with the news,” she said.
“Unlike a history researcher who spends a lot of time in the archives, who unearths a lot of information that’s just sitting there, for someone who does research on digital media in society or politics, you really have to have your hand on the pulse of world political transformations and the geopolitical solution, but also the technological developments.”
All it takes is a hashtag
There is also the matter of what personal toll comes with spending so much time on Twitter and other social media platforms – in the context of protests in Ukraine and Russia – which in many cases can result in unrelenting personal attacks. In the case of Russia, the infamous Internet Research Agency works as a focused ‘troll farm’ created to sway national opinion or target individuals critical of Russia, allegedly with backing from the Kremlin.
Speaking with Lokot, I mentioned a time when I interviewed Eliot Higgins – the founder of the highly regarded citizen journalist news site Bellingcat, which uncovered evidence of Russian military operations in Ukraine – and recalled the online attacks I received from anonymous accounts calling him a fraud and charlatan.
Does she experience continuous attacks for her attempts to monitor in and around Russia? “You learn to expect that if you use a certain hashtag or a certain keyword or even just name a certain person, you just know that the bots are going to show up, or the detractors show up trying to discredit you or say this is not a real researcher,” Lokot said.
Speaking of her time at another citizen journalism outfit, Global Voices, she said that her editor there had a more defiant approach to attacks on their character. “My editor used to say: ‘Don’t feed the trolls? No, I say feed them until they choke!’”
The myth of ‘slacktivism’
However, for every troll who is trying to distort reality, there are genuine people who are using social media as the megaphone for legitimate protest. The #MeToo movement is just one example of many instances where something that began online eventually led to physical protests in our streets, and actions in the so-called ‘real world’.
This, according to Lokot, is a sign that the very concept of protest now exists in a “hybrid reality” where we can no longer just dismiss the online segment or online layer of protest as some sort of “slacktivism or clicktivism”.
“Any sort of [attempts at] separation and saying something is more real than the other is kind of artificial because I think most protest groups and campaigns today sort of think of online and offline as different channels or different means of getting to the same goal.”
However, in countries such as Russia where laws have recently been written to ban unapproved youth protests, the online world can act as a safe haven where they can participate in protest. “Even though they can’t [protest in the streets] because they’ve been chased out of the country by the government, it’ll still be meaningful,” Lokot said.
However, despite the familiarity of social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook, geographical – and somewhat surprising – platforms emerge as centres of online political movement.
Within Russia, Lokot highlights the example of LiveJournal, a site established in 1999 by an American high school student to stay in touch with friends that eventually found its way over to Russia. In the years that followed, it became “an important beacon and key platform for political discussion”, despite it being largely a fringe site in its native US.
This changed in 2007 after it was acquired by a Russian media company and subsequently changed its terms of service to align with Russia’s much stricter media laws. This same question of ownership also means users of the huge Russian social network Vkontakte tend not to use it for protest, fearing they are being watched by state security.
Future of protest
So what is the future of online protest in countries where the right to protest is considered a threat?
In Turkey, Lokot said, there is an open crackdown on opposition and critics of the government – be they academics or journalists – in the physical world of protests, pushing groups online for greater safety.
Within this space, virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies have sprung up to mask a person’s location or just to simply access sites or services prohibited under a national law. While secure, the consequence is that “online activism that was previously very public and very visible is becoming not so visible”.
In the case of Russia, the country’s government is actually preparing plans to cut itself off from the rest of the internet, so it would only be accessible through a single government-controlled access point. This would render all VPNs and attempts to work around government control useless within its borders.
“Should [Russians] start investing in satellite internet or do you just wait for Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk to drop that web of satellites that would supply all the world with free internet. Who knows?” Lokot said. “I think there’s some uncertainty.”
Given how little time we have had as a global society to come to terms with the vastness of social media, this landscape will provide fertile ground for uncertainty for years to come.