How to control the digital domain? That is now a top priority for the Russian regime. The research of PhD candidate Rashid Gabdulhakov (Erasmus School of History Culture and Communication) shows how the ruling elites are using new media to their advantage. He also demonstrates how far-right groups publicly humiliate minorities and mobilize fear by hunting down progressive people.
A call to ruin a sushi restaurant chain because they used a black model in their Instagram post is something unimaginable in 2021 but in Russia this seems to be a trend. The Dutch Broadcaster NOS recently reported that a nationalist group promoting patriarchy, called the ‘Male State’, mobilised its followers on social media to place fake orders, engage in cyberattacks and otherwise harm the restaurant. Most businesses apologize in fear of the consequences, as was the case with the supermarket chain Vkusvill (with branches present in Amsterdam) who withdrew pictures of a lesbian couple they featured in an ad and called it ‘a mistake’. The Male State says such ads are a way to ‘propagate progressive values on the Russian people’.
PhD candidate Rashid Gabdulhakov is well aware of the power of groups like the Male State. For the last four years he studied the relatively new phenomenon of digital vigilantism and its manifestation in Russia. (Read more about this research at EUR in an interview with Daniel Trottier) “My colleagues and I refer to digital vigilantism as cases of citizen-led justice with the use of social media. In the Netherlands, a famous example is paedophile hunting.” One of such cases led to the deadly assault on a 73-year-old man who got ambushed by teenagers staging a sex date.
In Russia, some vigilante groups act in a systematic manner, targeting alleged paedophiles, drug dealers, or ethnic minority merchants, allegedly selling expired products. The process of retaliation is filmed and uploaded on YouTube. “This can be problematic, because how can you know if a person is a paedophile or not? Sometimes they frame sexual minorities as such. With no innocence presumption, a single video can ruin a person’s life.” Far-right groups go as far as shaving-off hair or forcing targets to drink urine.
State powered ‘Stop a Douchebag’
A seemingly less extreme group Gabdulhakov studied is called ‘Stop a Douchebag’. Participants confront and film people who misbehave in traffic. They shame the drivers by placing a sticker reading “I’m a douchebag, I park where I want” on their windshields. The process is filmed and uploaded on YouTube. Videos generate millions of views and have a huge impact. “Parking in a city like Moscow is hell and the group addresses an important issue. They were even awarded financial grands form the president.” At a certain point Stop a Douchebag started targeting people with high ranks, such as politicians and famous athletes. As a result, their relationship with the state worsened. “I can’t prove a direct link, but funding stopped and instead of being referred to as ‘volunteers’ or ‘avengers’ in the mainstream media, they were referred to as ‘hooligans’.”
Besides the development that civilians act as the judge, the jury and executioner, there are blurred lines between the state and vigilante groups as some of them are endorsed by the government, says Gabdulhakov. The Male State is one those groups the state seems to tolerate. On the other hand, counter-state groups are being actively silenced. “Russia forced Instagram to remove content from the Navalny supporters exposing a deputy prime-minister on a yacht with an oligarch and his escorts. Amid the exposure of corruption, state control over the internet is now a top priority for the regime”.
Not only did Gabdulhakov study hours of video material, but during his trips to Russia he also conducted interviews with various actors, ranging from journalists to rights defenders, police and paedophile hunters. This led to interesting insights in the motives of different groups. “Knowing Russian and coming from a post-Soviet country helped in understanding the cultural context and allowed me to connect with different actors on the ground”, he explains.
Vulnerable groups more vulnerable online
“Digital vigilantism as such is neither fundamentally good nor fundamentally bad”, says Gabdulhakov. It can be useful in the battle against corruption. But it can also get problematic, as his research points out that vulnerable groups like migrants, women and state critics are even more vulnerable online. “Some patriarchal groups in Russia target migrant women for dating people outside the diaspora. They humiliate women, physically assault them and film the process. These videos can have a dire impact on their lives and cause further shame in their home country.”
Another problematic aspect is the increasing self-censorship in Russia. “If posting something or even liking something on social media can suddenly turn into a prison sentence for extremism, eventually people will think several times before they speak or become politically active. This is absolutely tragic”. Studying these phenomena is import for Gabdulhakov. “Already having terminology such as ‘digital vigilantism’ entering discourse helps. As a social scientist, it is also my responsibility to give victims a voice, and to make their stories heard in scholarly works and classrooms.”