Russia’s Citizen Journalists

Citizen journalists played a key role in discovering evidence related to the recent Malaysia Airlines plane crash in Ukraine. Sleuths posted images of what was purported to be a missile launcher near the crash site, and fellow netizens tracked down corroborating images and information. Similar instances have helped to contribute to intelligence on the conflict in Ukraine.

In Russia, citizen journalists often act as alternative information sources to the state-controlled media outlets. These individuals expose important issues and coordinate with others to bring about change in their communities. According to a 2012 report, about 60 percent of Russians are Internet users, and Russia ranks third worldwide for social media users as 86 percent of its Internet users are on social media sites. Citizen journalists distribute eyewitness accounts and graphics from events as they happen, such as the Moscow metro bombing in 2010.

The Internet has become another public sphere for Russians, where relatively greater freedom of expression makes civic participation less risky. Public discussion of important issues occurs in an online environment with less polarization than in the United States and where many bloggers try to approach political topics objectively. This promotes an open forum with diverse views represented. Bloggers such as Alexei Navalny root out government corruption, and top political videos on YouTube cover transparency and government abuses. Bloggers keep an eye on the government online, where information about election violations and climate change can spread widely and gain traction in state media and public discourse.

Blogging platforms such as LiveJournal have been used to mobilize huge groups of people to action on specific problems. The Anti-Seliger protest was organized online as an alternative to a protest by Nashi, a pro-Putin youth movement. A report by Harvard’s Berkman Center showed these online movements have clear goals and the dedication to reach them. In contrast, pro-government bloggers do not have an organized following, though they do have a strong Twitter presence.

Citizen journalists are facing increasing scrutiny of their online activities. The bloggers law, which went into effect August 1, requires bloggers with more than 3000 daily readers to register with the government, allowing the authorities to target particular dissidents. This adds to the growing list of legal barriers and manufactured criminal charges against online activists. Alexei Dymovsky, a former police officer, posted a video to YouTube decrying the corruption in the police forces, only to be fired and receive threats on his life. Blogging sites have faced distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which overwhelm servers and can make sites inaccessible for days. These attacks have occurred during protests and shortly before the 2011 elections, preventing information about elections violations from spreading.

There are several ways to equip Russia’s citizen journalists to take on these challenges. Verification is increasingly important and easier to do with a wide variety of online tools. This enhances the credibility of these sites as alternatives to state media, which succeed due to their appearance of professionalism. It is vital to teach citizen journalists about information security, especially when they are covering sensitive issues such as corruption. With these skills, citizen journalists can produce high-quality work and continue to help their communities in a meaningful way.

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