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Georgiv Lobuskin works for VKontakte (VK), where last month the offices in St. Petersburg were raided by officers.  Police were investigating a car accident and allegations that the founder of the site, Pavel Durov, only 28 years old, had run into a local cop.  Not only had they disrupted the workday, but they took equipment, rifled through several of the offices, and searched the home of his parents as well.  Loubouskin says Durov doesn’t even own a car and doesn’t drive.  The claim is more likely about the government trying to crack down and intimidate VK who allow all manners of protestors and activists to have VK pages.

Not long after, matters got even more risky for the social media company.  “A fund manager loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly acquire da 48 percent stake in VK and has spoken openly about reviewing what he called its ‘illegal content”.  Now Durov has vanished, only occasionally resurfacing online.  He claims that he has no interest in making money through VK and just wants to allow anyone to be able to use the site.  But the real issue is, if social media sites like VKontakte are regulated by the government, doesn’t it go against the whole purpose of social media?  Will the very outlet that has become a leader in freedom of speech and expression cease to exist?

Almost a year ago, the Russian parliament passed a law that called for the regulation of online content, which they claim is aimed at stopping child pornography and extremism online.  But it really seems like a way to control freedom of speech and anti government activity and stop anti-Putin protesters who use VK to organize and spread their message.  The government has even tried to use social media themselves to stop anti-Putin individuals in January 2012.  By poorly doctoring a photo of opposition leader Alexei Navalny alongside a controversial oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, the government hoped to smear his reputation.  However, it backfired and did just the opposite.

Courtesy of Navalny's Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Original Undoctored photo of Alexey Navalny, Courtesy of Navalny’s Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Courtesy of Navalny's Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Doctored photo of Alexey Navalny with Boris Berezovsky, Courtesy of Navalny’s Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

What followed was a wave of internet memes showing Navalny with several other figures to show how easy it is to photoshop.  “The reaction – more effective than any bland denail – was to release online a succession of images showing Navalny in the company of Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, a cartoon alien, and, most unlikely of all, Vladimir Putin himself” (bbc.com).

Courtesy of Navalny's Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Doctored photo of Alexey Navalny with Unidentified Extra Terrestrial, Courtesy of Navalny’s Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Courtesy of Navalny's Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Doctored photo of Alexey Navalny with Lord Voldemort, Courtesy of Navalny’s Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Courtesy of Navalny's Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

Doctored photo of Alexey Navalny with Vladimir Putin, Courtesy of Navalny’s Blog (http://navalny.livejournal.com/661833.html)

In Central Eastern Europe, VKontakte proves to be far more popular than Facebook.  However, Facebook does not have the same controversy that VKontakte has regarding government regulation.  VKontakte, the Russian counterpart to Facebook, was launched in 2006 after Durov started an online student forum at St. Petersburg State University where he studied.  Today, the site has roughly “200 million users, 50 million of whom use it daily.  That’s about 10 times the daily users Facebook has in Russia”.  Maybe the government regulation issue could be fixed by Russian citizens adopting Facebook instead, but what about justice for VK and their survival as a groundbreaking tool for Russia?  And how does social media activism work when the actual outlet of social media is at stake?  Perhaps memes and other online tools could prove to be the answer.

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One thought on “Can a Meme Save Internet Activism?

  1. I think that the concept of justice being served in VK versus Putin and his government has already occurred, especially since VK’s founder Durov is considered the “Mark Zuckerburg of Russia.” The charges levied against him could be considered serious and (possibly) deserved, especially due to VK’s total lack of consideration for anti-piracy laws, but Durov does have a point against the government for its attempts to censor him and VK.

    However, the majority of political and social activists in Russia don’t use VK necessarily for their posts against oppression and brutality. As the majority of VK’s 46 millions users are teenagers in need of watching some subtitled “How I Met Your Mother,” Facebook is seen as the tool for most of those who “form the backbone of the opposition” and acts as the preferred tool for political engagement (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/07/is-russias-social-network-chief-really-a-free-speech-martyr/). True, some activists are targeted on VK by the KGB and unfairly interrogated and imprisoned for believing in a different government (http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/18552.html); but I don’t believe that the shut down of VK would be the most disastrous event to occur in Russia.

    Now, in regards to the original question if memes can save internet activism in Central and Eastern Europe, I think that while memes are a great source of internet knowledge and know-how, I would hardly call them the savior of social activism. Yes, this Alexey Navalny photo doctoring meme was funny, but I’m sure it stayed prominent in the minds of Russians for about as long as Harlem Shake was relevant in America (which made it’s way to Moscow and the rest of Eastern Europe, apparently: http://english.ruvr.ru/2013_02_22/Harlem-Shake-video-meme-seeps-into-Eastern-Europe-VIDEO/). While Russia may not have the same amount of information overload that Americans and Westerners experience on a daily basis, their methods of approach to memes are not that dissimilar from America’s own methods of positing captions under funny photos of President Obama and Joe Biden; especially since the photo capture of Putin’s own hysterical reaction to topless rioters, which as since become a meme sensation both within and outside of Russia (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/14/world-photo-caption-contest-putin-topless-protest_n_3081236.html). At least the Russian parliament and Putin himself can get some cheap laughs out of that.

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