Could Navalny’s clever use of social media bring change in Russia?

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The arrest of the leader of the Russian opposition Alexei Navalny after returning to his country following a poisoning attempt late last year prompted mass proteststhe largest for many years, during which police repression, using the excuse of breaches of anti-pandemic rules, and involving serious violations of fundamental rights and intimidationhave as little effect as the Kremlin’s efforts to control internet.

Vladimir Putin, a populist who led Russia for more than 20 years by systematically manipulating the political processnow faces an online activist, Nalvalny, who speaks the language of his mostly young social media followers and creates viral videos accusing the Russian president of Corruption. The latest, posted on January 19, features a luxurious palace on the shores of the Black Sea allegedly belonging to Putin, and which has already inspired pop songs and managed to connect with a generation that hears about institutional corruption in their country since the collapse of communism three decades ago.

In an increasingly authoritarian Russia with control over a variety of online tools, digitization has influenced online activismproviding it, through other encrypted instant messaging tools like Telegram, with connectivity reminiscent of the old Samizdat, hand-distributed underground subversive publications during the time of the Soviet Union. In 2014, Putin was able, thanks to a business maneuverfor take control of the most popular social network in the countryside, CVexpelling its creator, Pavel Durov. Since then the steady growth of Durov’s next creation, Telegrambeen create headaches for Putin.

Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign includes the fight to protect online communication from state surveillance by the Roskomnadzor and successive attempts to censor Telegram, resulting in a mixed model of activism who coordinates online, but is not afraid to take to the streets, even in the middle of Russian winter, to demand the release of the detained leaderin what is surely the greatest erosion of governmental power we have seen over the past 20 years.

As in neighboring Belarus, equally authoritarian but unable to control Telegram, the Russian government is caught between the evidence of its sad political reality and its pathetic attempts to present itself as a modern democracy. Online activist with strong leadership skills, propaganda techniques and speech that connects to strongly internalized messages among the population puts, for the first time in many years, Putin under pressure, closely watched by many countries that have experienced first-hand Kremlin interference in their affairs.

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