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After Mass Protests In Russia, Is The Kremlin Using Facebook To Ease The Pressure?

After posting a message on Facebook ordering officials to look into reports of possible violations at polling stations during the December 4 vote, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's page has been overwhelmed by negative comments.

Within two hours the post had more than 3,500 comments. Today it has over 10,000.
The line from most media outlets, including this piece in "The Telegraph," is that somehow the message backfired:
The post was the first official response from a visibly nervous Russian government and its misfiring is another sign that the Kremlin is struggling to comprehend a movement which has grown at such speed since 5,000 first came out to protest after the Dec. 4 elections.
While the Kremlin is visibly nervous, I'm not sure that this tactic is in any way "backfiring." Instead, by using Facebook to address the protesters and by allowing them to vent online, the Russian authorities are trying to take the steam out of the protests. Rather than bureaucrats bumbling their way through social media, taking on kids with iPads and livestreams, they appear to be more than aware of the depth of the crisis and are deliberately using social media as a considered and measured response.

(In another tactic targeting social media, spam has also been used to drown out chat on Twitter.)
The concept of "slacktivism," where physical protests can be diminished by ineffectual activity online, and the relationship between online rhetoric and street-level political activism is still poorly understood. (In Arab Spring protests, for example, research has shown that social-networking sites could both push people out onto the streets and keep them at home.)

But for a regime under pressure, addressing some of your key constituents (many of them middle-class and tech-savvy) on one of their key platforms, Facebook, and allowing them to vent seems to be a savvy way of tweaking the release valves. It presents the impression at least that the Russian authorities are listening to the people's concerns. The Kremlin has always been as concerned with narrative-shaping as it has been with crude censorship.
In the immediate term, using Facebook is entirely consistent with other tactics the regime is using to tamp down the pressure, in particular the unprecedented decision for state media to offer up relatively straight-up news coverage of the protests, a good example of when the power of social media makes protests too big to ignore.
In the long term, addressing Russian citizens on Facebook and allowing them to respond is consistent with the government's view of the Internet as a facilitator of "direct democracy" in Russia, as opposed to Western democracy with all of its tiresome emphasis on the rule of law. This is Medvedev speaking last year:
Thanks to unprecedented access to knowledge and communication, we are reaching a new level of democracy. I already had the chance to discuss this today. It is evident that not only indirect or representative democracy are in store for us, but also immediate or direct democracy, democracy where people will be able to instantly convey what they want and achieve concrete results.
This Internet-fueled brand of "direct democracy" isn't just useful in creating the appearance of a democratic process when one actually doesn't exist, but is also a valuable piece of sentiment analysis. (You don't have to be a "political technologist," however, in the Kremlin to deduce that people aren't very happy with you.)

I'll leave the Kremlinology to my colleague Brian Whitmore at The Power Vertical, but a pessimistic scenario for Russia is that Medvedev will be the fall guy while a new, tougher, less-reform-prone Putin consolidates power. With that scenario in mind, Medvedev's Facebook page (rather than, say, the official Russian government's page) is the perfect receptacle for such anger.
These Russian elections and subsequent protests are another fascinating case study in digital activism and repression. So far there have been reports of DDoS attacks, hostile hashtag takeovers, maps crowdsourcing election violations, protests organized on Facebook, "carousel voting" filmed on mobile phones, and localized jamming.
Expect more in the run-up to the presidential election in March.

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