When residents in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don decided to protest against the region’s strict self-isolation regime, they chose to gather outside a single local government building. Together, they demanded the payment of social benefits to those who had lost their jobs. Hundreds of demonstrators attended — but not a single person left their home.
The gathering, just like many other protests across the country, was conducted entirely through Yandex.Navigator: a satnav application ran by one of Russia’s biggest digital giants. The popular maps tool allows drivers themselves to report on the traffic situation on roads in real time. Now, that same feature has allowed users with an axe to grind to tag themselves in politically symbolic locations— as well as write protest slogans in their comments. Many are enraged at the financial losses they have suffered as a result of self-isolation, and blame the state for not offering enough support. “No money to pay off loans! What are we supposed to do?” reads one comment. “OK, so cancel taxes, loans, and so on,” and “declare a state of emergency or stop restrictions on people”.
It’s not the first time that comments strictly unrelated to the traffic situation have appeared on Yandex.Navigator. It certainly isn’t uncommon to see enraged messages from angry drivers light up Moscow’s digital maps as the capital’s already congested roads screech to a halt to let the presidential motorcade pass.
But the frustrations and limitations imposed by the coronavirus make the latest wave of digital protests more noticable. They have also spread. “Rallies in absentia” have appeared across the country, including virtual gatherings in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Nizhny Novgorod, where the application showed the empty squares and streets of cities in lockdown as “congested”. By the time the feature had arisen in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, the popular blogger Alexander Plushchev asked the following on his Telegram channel: “I feel that by this evening, digital rallies will have taken over the whole country. Don’t those in the Kremlin get that?”
“Don’t forget that any information about users shouting about a certain “Dutin” who is a “pick” can be handed over to law enforcement agencies”
Such rallies are even more resonant given the notorious bureaucratic difficulties of holding protests “in person” in recent years. In Russia, mass protests require prior authorisation from the police — without it, citizens must protest alone, which has made “lone pickets” a staple of Russian political demonstrations in recent years. Under these conditions, online protest is an attractive alternative, particularly when there has been much to protest against of late. In the space of a year, Russia has seen mass protests against the exclusion of independent opposition candidates from local elections and most recently against proposed constitutional changes which will permit President Vladimir Putin further terms in office. The No! movement has declared an online protest against the latter, to be held on 28 April.
There are no legal obstacles per se to today’s “online rallies”. But it may be too early to gloat. While Russian social media users are increasingly at the mercy of the authorities for strongly expressed oppositional statements online, the comments left on the Yandex.Navigator app were initially not moderated at all. The platform is, admittedly, not the most obvious one for political dissent. However, by late afternoon, a Yandex spokesman told daily newspaper Vedomosti that “any messages which do not concern the situation on the roads or contain profanity are always deleted,” and added that the large number of such messages could interfere with loading the app and therefore navigation.
Yandex did eventually begin to “disperse” online protests by deleting comments. In the days since, users have begun to speculate that Yandex could end up removing the feature on a pretext, such as claiming that the comment system did “not prove popular among users”.
Like Russia’s other major tech firms, the company has come under increasingly strong influence from the government in recent months. It is required to keep data about Russian users in Russian jurisdiction and transfer this data to the security services upon request. in comments to Kod Durova, Sarkis Darbinyan of Roskomsvoboda, an NGO monitoring online freedoms in Russia, quickly pointed out that while Russia’s protesters may have been particularly cunning in finding another platform for dissent, repercussions could still follow. Alexander Khinshteyn, a deputy in Russia’s lower house of parliament and head of its committee on information policy, has already announced following the demonstration that new regulations on the conduct of “online protests” could not be ruled out.
“Of course, [officials] can easily put a stop to all this. Everybody understands that Yandex is on a friendly footing with the presidential administration, and if it issues the appropriate orders, then Yandex will either simply switch off these “little chats” or start cleaning them up manually with the help of its moderators,” said. Darbinyan. “Don’t forget that any information about users shouting about a certain “Dutin” who is a “pick” can be handed over to law enforcement agencies, who can then consider whether to bring a criminal or an administrative case against them.”
This article was originally published by RuNet Echo, a project of Global Voices. to expand and deepen understanding of the Russian language Internet and related online communities. It has been edited and updated to reflect recent developments.