Internet to thank for rise of Russian civil society, but with downfalls

Professor at Princeton University Mark Beissinger spoke to the College about the internet and social media's influence on Russian civil society. (Ashley Long / Photo Editor)

The internet and social media outlets are proving to do more than strengthen the relationships between its users; they are also strengthening societies.

Mark Beissinger, a professor of politics at Princeton University, tackled the current and historical nuances of Russia’s civil society and how the advent of the internet and social media has affected and strengthened it at the College on Tuesday, March 13.

Beissinger defined civil society as the voluntary actions of a populace, separate from the state and economy, to make associations, institutions and social interactions.

The professor started by giving perspective on the recent historical nature of the Russian political scene and the way Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has ruled.  He helped characterize the autocratic tendencies of Putin’s rule by showing a photo collage of important moments during his rule, showing a Simpson’s video doing the same and presenting data showing how Russia’s Freedom House score has grown progressively worse under Putin’s rule.

After displaying how Russia has suffered under the thumb of autocratic rulers for years, Beissinger commented on the Russian people’s reaction.  “Civil society in Russia has always been weak,” he said.

Beissinger displayed the lackluster Russian civil society by citing facts about the Russian populace’s distrust of non-governmental organizations, which are important mobilizers for civil society, and Russian’s lack of involvement in social movements like petitions, strikes and involvement in voluntary organizations.

Beissinger believes that internet and social media organizations are providing a virtual substitute for developing relationships that can’t be done through conventional means.

Russia is the second largest internet user in Europe, according to Beissing, and citing social scientists, he also said that using virtual techniques makes it easier for community movements to reach the critical mass necessary to make an impact.

On top of the networking aspect of the internet, cell phone cameras allow activists to post their proof of injustice online for the world to see. Beissinger showed a cellphone video taken by a Russian citizen that showed proof of rigged Russian elections.

Beissinger talked about the positive effect that the internet has had on Russia’s civil society, and several large movements that have occurred since it has taken hold.  However, many questions remain unanswered about the ability to maintain intensity or motivation in a virtual civil society.  According to Beissinger it is much easier to rally people with the internet, but it is much easier for people to leave as well.

“The wind has come out of the sails of many movements in Russia,” he said. “But it is up to them to demonstrate if the internet can sustain civil society movements.”