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.
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).
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.