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From connective to collective action: internet elections as a digital tool to centralize and formalize protest in Russia

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Abstract

Over the past decade, an extensive body of literature has emerged on the question of how new communication technologies can facilitate new modes of organizing protest. However, extant research has tended to focus on how digitally-enabled protest operates. By contrast, this study investigates, adopting Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) threefold typology of action networks as an analytical lens, why, how, and with what consequences a heavily digitally-enabled ‘connective action network’ (p. 47) has transitioned over time to a more traditional organizational form. Specifically, the article scrutinizes the trajectory of the Russian protests ‘For Fair Elections’. This wave of street protests erupted after the allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections of December 2011 and continued into 2013. As is argued, the protests were initially organized as an ‘organizationally enabled connective action network’. However, after eight months of street protests, Russian activists reorganized the network into a more centralized, more formalized ‘organizationally brokered collective action network’. In order to implement this transition, they deployed ‘Internet elections’ as a cardinally new digital tactic of collective action. Between October 20 and 22, 2012, more than 80,000 activists voted online in order to create a new leadership body for the entire protest movement, the ‘Coordination Council of the Opposition.’ As the study has found, activists implemented this transition because, within the specific Russian socio-political context, enduring engagement and stable networks appeared crucial to the movement’s long-term success. With regard to achieving these goals, the more formalized collective action network appeared superior to the connective action form.
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From Connective to Collective Action: Internet Elections as a Digital Tool
to Centralize and Formalize Protest in Russia
By
Florian Toepfl
Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Free University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany
Email: florian@toepfl.de
This is a post-review but not proof-corrected version of the article:
Toepfl, F. (2017). From connective to collective action: internet elections as a digital tool to
centralize and formalize protest in Russia. Information, Communication & Society,
published online first. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1290127
The original article can be accessed at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1290127
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From Connective to Collective Action: Internet Elections as a Digital Tool to Centralize
and Formalize Protest in Russia
Abstract (max. 250 words)
Over the past decade, an extensive body of literature has emerged on the question of how
new communication technologies can facilitate new modes of organizing protest. However,
extant research has tended to focus on how digitally-enabled protest operates. By contrast, this
study investigates, adopting Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) threefold typology of action
networks as an analytical lens, why, how, and with what consequences a heavily digitally-
enabled ‘connective action network’ (p. 47) has transitioned over time to a more traditional
organizational form. Specifically, the article scrutinizes the trajectory of the Russian protests
‘For Fair Elections’. This wave of street protests erupted after the allegedly fraudulent
parliamentary elections of December 2011 and continued into 2013. As is argued, the protests
were initially organized as an ‘organizationally enabled connective action network’. However,
after eight months of street protests, Russian activists reorganized the network into a more
centralized, more formalized ‘organizationally brokered collective action network’. In order to
implement this transition, they deployed ‘Internet elections’ as a cardinally new digital tactic
of collective action. Between October 20 and 22, 2012, more than 80,000 activists voted online
in order to create a new leadership body for the entire protest movement, the ‘Coordination
Council of the Opposition.’ As the study has found, activists implemented this transition
because, within the specific Russian socio-political context, enduring engagement and stable
networks appeared crucial to the movement’s long-term success. With regard to achieving
these goals, the more formalized collective action network appeared superior to the connective
action form.
Keywords: connective action, collective action, social movements, authoritarianism, Russia,
digital repertoires
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Over the past decade, scholars have investigated extensively how new communication
technologies have facilitated new modes of organizing protest (for overviews of this literature,
consider Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, 2015; Earl, 2015; Zuckerman, 2014). Among the most
widely studied, heavily digitally-enabled mobilizations were the Occupy Wall Street protests
in the US, the Indignados in Spain, selected protests at the G8 and G20 summits, and the
demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt (Anduiza et al., 2014; Bennett & Segerberg, 2013;
Jensen & Bang, 2013; Lim, 2013; Poell, 2014). In analyzing these mobilizations, researchers
have typically focused on how such new forms of digitally-enabled activism functioned and
operated. Research questions posed have included how these heavily digitally-enabled
movements have fostered collective identities (Jensen & Bang, 2013; Gerbaudo & Treré,
2015), how they have produced organization (Bennett et al., 2014; Micó & Casero-Ripolles,
2014), and how they have mobilized participants (Anduiza et al., 2014).
By contrast, this study aims to advance this literature by scrutinizing not how one
digitally-enabled mobilization functioned and operated, but how, why, and with what
consequences it transitioned, over time, from one broad organizational type to another. In order
to do so, the study adopts as an analytical lens Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) threefold
typology of protest ‘action networks’ (p. 47), delineated in the authors’ seminal monograph,
The Logic of Connective Action. Specifically, it seeks to respond to Bennett and Segerberg’s
(2013) own call for research that investigates why connective action networks ‘break down and
fail’ and ‘examines conflicts that may develop within them in ways that affect their dynamics’
(p. 195; see also Earl, 2015). In order to work towards this goal, this article presents an in-
depth case study of the trajectory of the large-scale mass protests ‘For Fair Elections,’ which
erupted in Russia after the allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections of December 2011 and
continued into 2012 and 2013 (Greene, 2013; Panchenko, 2012; Sakwa, 2014; Smyth & Oates,
2015). As is argued, when the first street demonstrations were held in December 2011, they
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were organized in a form that broadly resembled what Bennett and Segerberg (2013) termed
an ‘organizationally enabled connective action network’ (p. 47). Bennett and Segerberg (2013)
notably use the term network here as referring to an entire protest movement. This
organizational structure remained largely stable over approximately eight months, until
summer 2012, when the street protests slowly ebbed off. In this situation, Russia’s leading
oppositional activists set out to impose a more centralized and formalized organizational
structure on the connective action network. They reorganized the protest movement into a more
traditional form, which corresponded broadly with Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) third type
of ‘organizationally brokered collective action network’ (p. 13).
In order to implement this transition, Russian activists adopted a cardinally new,
digitally-enabled tactic: they held ‘Internet elections’ (Internet-vybory). Internet elections, or
‘Internet votes’ (Author, forthcoming), can be defined as the online aggregation of preferences
for individuals who later act as political representatives. In contrast to the more widely studied
tools of e-petitions and e-polls (Earl & Kimport, 2011), Internet elections are thus aimed at the
aggregation of preferences not on issues but on human beings. In the Russian case, activists
from all ideological backgrounds were called upon to vote online between October 20 and 22,
2012, in order to elect the ‘Coordination Council of the Opposition.’ This representative body
of 45 was envisaged to head the entire protest movement. In order to vote, activists had to
register online and verify their identity, either by making a micro-payment from their bank
account or by emailing a photo that showed them holding their passport. In this way, the
principle of one-citizen-one-vote was guaranteed. During the two weeks before the elections,
the oppositional satellite and Internet TV channel Dozhd broadcast two hours of debates
between candidates every night at midnight. Ultimately, approximately 81,000 registered
voters cast their votes. In the months following the elections, the Coordination Council of the
Opposition became the key locus where majority decisions were to be made on when, how,
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and where to protest, according to formal rules of procedure. However, the Council not only
coordinated the street protests, but it also deliberated and agreed upon collective action claims
and programmatic papers.
The overarching research question that this study has asked from this case can be
formulated as follows: Why, how, and with what consequences have Russian activists
transformed their connective action network into a more centralized and formalized structure?
In order to answer this question, the remainder of the article has been structured as follows.
The first section reviews the literature on new organizational forms of digitally-enabled protest.
This is followed by the second section, which identifies the gap in extant research and specifies
five research questions to ask about the case. The third section is dedicated to methods: The
study has adopted a single ‘revelatory case’ (Yin, 2014, p. 52) study design and is empirically
grounded in extensive document analysis and semi-structured one-on-one interviews with key
activists.i The fourth part presents the findings of the case analysis. This is followed by the fifth
part, which discusses these findings against the backdrop of the theoretical literature.
Digitally-Enabled Activism: The Decreasing Importance of SMOs and Leadership
Over the past decade, a variety of approaches have been proposed that have categorized
new forms of protest organization (Flanagin, Stohl, & Bimber, 2006; Bennett & Segerberg,
2013; Earl et al., 2010; Earl & Kimport, 2011; Earl, 2015). Flanagin et al. (2006), for instance,
delineated a typology that locates activist groups within a two-dimensional space, drawn up by
the two axes of (1) the personal versus impersonal mode of interaction and (2) institutional
versus entrepreneurial engagement of activists. Another widely-cited categorization has been
developed by a group of scholars around Jennifer Earl (Earl et al., 2010; Earl & Kimport, 2011;
Earl, 2015). Earl (2015) distinguished four types of Internet activism: (a) brochureware, which
uses technology to spread information online; (b) e-mobilizations (Earl & Kimport, 2011),
which use online tools to facilitate offline protest; (c) online participation, which uses online
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tools to enable online participation; and (d) online organizing of e-movements, which uses
online tools to wholly organize movement efforts online. These four types of activism differ
crucially in the degree to which activists leverage the Internet’s ‘affordances’ (Earl & Kimport,
2011, p. 10). Two of these affordances appear particularly crucial to activists. Firstly, the
Internet sharply reduces the costs of creating, organizing, and participating in protest (cost
affordance). Secondly, it allows individual actions to be aggregated without requiring
participants to be co-present in physical space (co-presence affordance). The more the cost-
and co-presence affordances are leveraged by activists, the lower is ‘the return on investments
to SMOs [social movement organizations]’ (Earl, 2015, p. 39). Accordingly, and particularly
in online participation and e-movements, SMOs may no longer be a mandatory prerequisite.
A third, and arguably currently the most influential categorization of new modes of
organizing protest has been suggested by Bennett and Segerberg (2013), in their seminal
monograph The Logic of Connective Action (for critical reviews of their lines of argument,
consider Bakardjieva, 2015; Gerbaudo, 2016; Treré & Gerbaudo, 2015). In this monograph,
Bennett and Segerberg (2013) distinguished three types of large-scale action networks: (1)
crowd-enabled connective action networks, (2) organizationally-enabled connective action
networks, and (3) organizationally-brokered collective action networks. While type 3 follows
the traditional logic of collective action, types 1 and 2 operate according to a cardinally new
logic of ‘connective action’ that ‘uses broadly inclusive, easily personalized action frames as a
basis for technology-assisted networking’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 2). More
specifically, Bennett and Segerberg (2013) have argued that crowd-enabled connective action
networks (type 1) are ‘organized by the crowd largely without central or “lead” organizational
actors’ (p. 46). Rather than traditional collective action frames, these heavily digitally-enabled
networks tend to produce personalized action frames. By personalized action frames, Bennett
and Segerberg have understood ‘more open, sometimes inclusive action framing’ (p. 35). An
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illustrative example is the personalized action frame promoted by the Occupy movement, ‘We
Are the 99 %.’ At the other extreme of their typology, Bennett and Segerberg (2013) have
situated traditional, organizationally-brokered collective action networks (type 3). This type of
protest network is ‘already well understood in the study of contentious politics’ (p. 3). It
depends heavily ‘on brokering organizations to carry the burden of facilitating cooperation and
bridging difference’ (Bennett & Segerberg, p. 46) and uses more exclusive collective action
frames. In between these two extreme types, Bennett and Segerberg (2013) have positioned the
hybrid form of organizationally-enabled connective action (type 2). Characteristic of
connective action, this type tends to rely on personalized action frames. However, typical of
traditional collective action, SMOs are involved—but they behave differently than in collective
action. In particular, they deploy ‘discourses and interactive media that offer greater choice
over how people may engage’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 48).
Identifying the Research Gap: How and Why Connective Action Networks Transition
Drawing on these three highly influential analytical frameworks, scholars have
produced an impressive body of empirical research on digitally-enabled mobilizations across
the globe (Anduiza et al., 2014; Bennett, Segerberg, & Walker, 2014; Ganesh & Stohl, 2013;
Lim, 2013; Micò & Casero-Ripollés, 2014; Poell, 2014). This study aims to contribute to this
literature in primarily one respect. Previous research has concentrated on how heavily digitally-
enabled activism functions and operates (Anduiza et al., 2014; Bennett & Segerberg, 2013;
Ganesh & Stohl, 2013; Gerbaudo, 2016; Gerbaudo & Treré, 2015; Poell, 2014). By contrast,
this study scrutinizes why, how, and with what consequences a mobilization that could be
characterized in Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) theoretical framework as an ‘connective
action network’ transitioned to a more traditional form, a ‘collective action network’ (p. 47).
At this point, two premises of the present study need to be highlighted. Firstly, the empirical
analysis in this article is consistently presented within Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013)
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theoretical framework and terminology, in an attempt to sidestep the ‘confusing polyglossia’
(Bakardjieva, 2015, p. 983) that has recently characterized this field of research. Secondly, in
this article, Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) three types of action networks are understood, just
as by the authors themselves, as ideal types. We are thus fully aware that the Russian protest
network ‘For Fair Elections’, whose broad shift from more resembling one ideal type to more
resembling another we have traced in this article, has been shot through, at many points in time,
by a certain number of ‘hybrid organizational forms’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 26). By
opting for this different focus of analysis, the present study is able to address a set of research
questions that have not been answered in extant research, for instance, on what activists
perceive as weaknesses and strengths of connective action networks, on why activists decide
to reorganize their protest into more traditional forms, and on how Internet elections can be
deployed as tools for implementing such transitions.
The relevance of this type of research question has been highlighted by the three groups
of leading scholars cited above, albeit from slightly different perspectives (Flanagin et al.,
2006; Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Earl & Kimport, 2011; Earl, 2015). For instance, Bennett
and Segerberg (2013), whose lines of research this study primarily seeks to continue, have
explicitly called for more research on connective action ‘networks that break down and fail’
and on ‘the limits on organizational and political capacities of connective action’ (p. 195). In
order to respond to this call, this study has posed the following questions for the Russian case:
How was the protest network ‘For Fair Elections’ organized before and after the Internet
elections (RQ1)? Why did Russian activists set out to transition their protest network (RQ2)?
Why did they specifically use ‘Internet elections’ as a digital tool to accomplish this transition
(RQ3)? How were the Internet elections designed and implemented (RQ4)? And, finally,
according to the activists’ own evaluations, did the new organizational form that emerged from
the Internet elections meet their expectations (RQ5)?
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Methods of Data Collection and Analysis
The rationale for case selection was that of focusing on a single ‘revelatory case,’ with
the empirical phenomenon under investigation (Internet elections as a digital tool to transform
a protest network) being ‘previously inaccessible to social science enquiry’ (Yin, 2014, p. 52).
Accordingly, the goals of the case study were partly exploratory (identifying questions for
future research on transitions of protest networks), partly descriptive (contextually describing
the use of Internet elections as a novel tool to transform protest organization), and partly
explanatory (explaining why activists chose to transition their connective action network, and
why they specifically opted for Internet elections as a digital tool to do so). The process of data
collection and analysis broadly followed a strategy of ‘relying on theoretical propositions’
(Yin, 2014, p. 136). Drawing on the theoretical literature on new forms of digitally-enabled
protest (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Earl, 2015; Earl & Kimport, 2011), a series of initial
research questions to ask of the case were developed. These questions were then continuously
adapted and refined in the research process, going back and forth between the empirical data
and the theoretical literature.
Following this strategy, the process of data collection and analysis proceeded broadly
in two steps. In the first step, a wide range of documents were scrutinized, including screenshots
from the Internet election platform, YouTube campaign videos, newspaper articles, TV
broadcasts, think-tank reports, and entries on the social media accounts of leading activists.
Within the semi-free Russian media environment (Oates, 2013; Author, 2011), these sources
featured relatively unfettered, real-time commentary from a multiplicity of individuals,
including leading activists, voters, ruling elites, and political observers. In the second
consecutive step, seven semi-structured ‘one-on-one interviews’ (Mosley, 2013, p. 5) with
purposefully selected key activists were conducted to obtain information on details that were
not covered in the publicly available documents (for more information on the selection of
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interviewees, the interview process, and the data analysis, consider the supplementary online
file).1 The goal of this methodological approach was to consider the widest possible range of
sources (source triangulation) in order to develop ‘converging lines of inquiry’ (Yin, 2014, p.
120). At the most abstract level, this case study is thus grounded in a positivist epistemological
tradition, with both interview and documentary data being treated as ‘a means of generating
objective knowledge’ (Mosley, 2013, p. 10). To increase the reliability of the study, a structured
case-study database was compiled.1
Findings
RQ1: How was the protest network organized before and after the elections (RQ1)?
The Russian protests ‘For Fair Elections’ began immediately after the polling districts
closed on December 4, 2011, with a series of small-scale demonstrations held across the
country. These protests culminated one week later, on December 10, in approximately 50,000
people gathering in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square (Greene, 2013; Panchenko, 2012; Sakwa,
2014). Two weeks later, on December 24, more than a hundred thousand protesters gathered
on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue, making it the largest protest event in Russia since 1993
(Greene, 2013). Similar large-scale street protests followed in subsequent months, at intervals
of approximately two to six weeks. Russia’s authoritarian elites reacted with a strategy that
oscillated between ‘concession and repression’ (Sakwa, 2014, p. 2), with repressive elements
gaining dominance over time. An important shift towards repression was marked on May 6,
2012, when more than 400 activists were detained in Bolotnaya Square (Sakwa, 2014).
During these initial months, the movement was organized broadly in a form that
Bennett and Segerberg (2013) typified as an ‘organizationally enabled connective action
network’ (p. 47). As is characteristic of this type of network, Russia’s leading oppositional
organizations, like the election monitoring group Golos, the human rights advocacy group
Memorial, and the opposition party PARNAS, were important nodes (Greene, 2013). Yet, these
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formal organizations were ‘relegated to background roles’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 49).
Most notably, the protests were not coordinated by one of these formal organizations or a
coalition of organizations, but by the so-called Protest Coordination Committee (Orgkomitet
protestnykh deystvii). This informal group met in cafes and other public spaces and included
anybody who showed up, numbering sometimes up to 300 individuals (Davidis, personal
communication, 2015;1 Greene, 2013). It typically consisted of journalists, oppositional
politicians, artists, writers, bloggers, celebrities, and ordinary activists (Navalny, personal
communication, 2015). It was this Orgkomitet, and not formal legacy organizations, that
‘devised a schedule and agenda for further rallies, raised money, and negotiated with police
and municipal officials’ (Greene, 2013, p. 42). Similarly, the key Facebook groups through
which protesters were mobilized were not branded as related to any of the legacy organizations
(Panchenko, 2012). As likewise characteristic of connective action networks, technologies
became ‘prominent organizational agents’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 46). For instance,
activists entitled to speak on stage could be elected by Facebook users (Bilunov, 2012). In
addition, as also characteristic of connective action, the protest network produced broadly
inclusive ‘personalized action frames’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 35) that could be easily
shared by activists from all ideological backgrounds. Two of the most visible frames were ‘For
Fair Elections’ and ‘We Were in Bolotnaya Square and We Will Return’, which gained
popularity as the names of two of the most widely followed Facebook groups (Panchenko,
2012; Greene, 2013). In summer 2012, however, the street protests gradually waned. In this
context, leading activists set out to transform the organizational structure by announcing the
Internet election (Central Election Committee, 2012d).
Held between October 20 and 22, 2012, the Internet election created and legitimized
the ‘Coordination Council of the Opposition,’ a superordinate leadership body of 45, to head
the entire protest movement. The Council can be considered a new SMO, as it, in line with a
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definition by Kriesi (1996), mobilized ‘a constituency for collective action’ and did so ‘with a
political goal’ (p. 152). Moreover, the Council featured a high level of ‘internal organizational
structuration’ (Kriesi, 1996, p. 154): It was
(a) highly formalized (with a clearly circumscribed constituency of 80,000 voters, a
fixed—albeit inexpediently large—leadership body of 45 council members, and written
rules on the appointment of leaders and decision-making);
(b) internally differentiated (with working groups of council members performing
different tasks); and
(c) vertically integrated (with decision-making power centralized in the hands of 45
council members).
After the Internet elections, the Council as a highly formalized SMO took on all tasks
regarding the coordination of the protest network’s activities (Davidis, personal
communication, 2015; Gelfand, personal communication, 2015). It was within this Council
that, after the elections, the most important decisions were made, ‘routinely’ and according to
‘established procedures’ (Staggenborg, 1988, p. 587), about when, where, and how to protest.
During its official one-year term, the Council gathered 11 times in Moscow (KSO-
Russia.org, 2012a1). In between these sessions, council members used an online voting tool to
make decisions (Demokratiya2.ru, 2012). This illustrates how, as also characteristic of
collective action networks, digital technologies were now deployed swiftly by a formal
organization to ‘manage participation and coordinate goals’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p.
47). Likewise, the personalized action claims produced by the previous connective action
network were being gradually replaced with traditional collective action claims, such as, for
instance, a common call to free political prisoners and an agreement on ‘The Goals of the
Protest Movement’ (Parkhomenko, personal communication, 2012). In order to agree upon this
type of ‘ideologically demanding, socially exclusive … collective [action] frames’ (Bennett &
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Segerberg, 2013, p. 33), the Council as a brokering SMO now needed to carry ‘the burden of
facilitating cooperation and bridging differences’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 46). At the
most abstract level, the centralization and formalization of decision-making power at the
highest level in the Coordination Council, as a newly created SMO, can thus be interpreted as
a fundamental shift that changed the organizational structure of the entire protest movement.
With reference to Bennett and Segerberg’s (2013) threefold typology, it can be argued that it
broadly turned the previously ‘organizationally enabled connective action network’ into an
‘organizationally brokered collective action network’ (p. 47).
RQ2: Why did activists usher in a transformation of the connective action network?
A key reason why Russian activists ushered in the transformation of the connective
action network, highlighted most consistently throughout the interviews and the documents
scrutinized for this study, was a widely perceived ‘legitimacy crisis’ (Navalny, personal
communication, 2015) of the previous informal leadership body, the Orgkomitet (see also
Bilunov, 2012; Bilunov, personal communication, 2015, Novaya Gazeta, October 21, 20131).
According to activists (Davidis, personal communication, 2015; Davletbayev, personal
communication, 2015; Parkhomenko, personal communication, 2015), the legitimacy deficit
of the Orgkomitet had negative consequences on at least three levels, concerning the
relationships (1) between leading activists and rank-and-file activists, (2) between leading
activists from different ideological backdrops, and (3) between leading activists and the
Kremlin. At the first level, after eight months of protests without a political outcome, rank-and-
file activists fiercely challenged the legitimacy of the informal leadership body to coordinate
the protest. Members of the Orgkomitet were confronted with a steady stream of questions like
‘Who are you? Why are you in charge here?’ (Gelfand, personal communication, 2015). At the
second level, conflicts that emerged between informal leaders from different ideological
backgrounds were becoming increasingly difficult to resolve, due to the absence of a
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commonly acknowledged hierarchy (Parkhomenko, personal communication, 2015). Thirdly,
given the lack of formal leadership, authoritarian elites were free to choose which activists to
enter into negotiations with, and they were doing so in ‘extraordinary smart ways’ (Navalny,
personal communication, 2015). To summarize, what participants referred to here in their own
words as a ‘legitimacy crisis’ of the Orgkomitet could also be referred to, in academic terms,
as a low level of stability and formalization of the connective action network.
The second rationale stressed by Russian activists in response to the question of why
they had initiated Internet elections was that they had sought to create a leadership body that
could perform a set of tasks broader than merely coordinating street protests. As they had
hoped, an elected coordination council would ‘not only coordinate, but lead the protests’
(Gelfand, personal communication, 2015), engage in a ‘more substantial type of work’
(Davletbayev, personal communication, 2015), and also take on ‘political functions’
(Parkhomenko, personal communication, 2015). In essence, activists longed for a new
organizational structure that would be able to broker and bridge the interests of different
factions of the movement, produce more concrete, commonly supported collective action
claims, and foster a shared collective identity among activists (Davletbayev, personal
communication, 2015; Gelfand, personal communication, 2015; Parkhomenko, personal
communication, 2015). With regard to accomplishing all these tasks, activists considered a
collective action network headed by a central leadership body created via Internet elections to
be superior to the previous connective action form.
RQ3: Why did activists specifically adopt Internet elections as a tool?
As one of the interviewees centrally involved in the initiation of the Internet elections
put it, the idea of creating a formal leadership organ that would ‘make legitimate decisions for,
roughly speaking, Bolotnaya Square’ had been ‘in the air from the very beginning of the
protests’ (Bilunov, personal communication, 2015; see also Parkhomenko, personal
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communication, 2015; Volkov, personal communication, 2015). It was only in July 2012,
however, that the initiative to create such an organ by conducting ‘Internet elections’ was
vigorously promoted by a small group of activists around Alexei Navalny, the protests’ most
prominent leader (Bilunov, personal communication, 2015; Navalny, personal communication,
2015). According to Navalny’s (personal communication, 2015) own recollection, he pushed
for the Internet elections because he had long been a supporter of ‘electronic democracy.’ In
addition, he had been inspired by a visit to Estonia shortly beforehand, where he inspected a
series of e-democracy initiatives. The vigorous support of the idea by Navalny, as the network’s
most popular leader, can be considered a key factor in the explanation of why the tactic was
adopted (Bilunov, personal communication, 2015). The second reason consistently stressed in
the material was that conducting elections to create a leadership organ appeared perfectly in
line with the movement’s key action frame, that is, the call ‘For Fair Elections’ (Navalny,
personal communication, 2015; Central Election Committee, 2012). A new organizational
form grounded in online elections appeared to be what Clemens (1996) referred to, in academic
terms, as a perfect ‘pairing of organizational form and collective identity’ (p. 7). Additional
goals associated with Internet elections, mentioned repeatedly in the interviews and documents,
were to remobilize participants for the street protests by involving them in the election
campaign and the vote (Parkhomenko, personal communication, 2015) and to recruit new,
talented leaders via the electoral mechanism (Navalny, personal communication, 2015;
Krashenninikov & Volkov, 2012).
RQ4: How were the Internet elections implemented?
In order to implement the Internet elections, a core group of activists, emerging from
the Orgkomitet and backed by the protest’s most prominent figure, Alexander Navalny, created
a Central Election Committee (Bilunov, personal communication, 2015; Navalny, personal
communication, 2015). The Central Election Committee consisted of seven individuals: three
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representatives of different ideological currents within the protest movement, three
representatives of non-governmental election-monitoring organizations, and the chairman
Leonid Volkov (Volkov, personal communication, 2015). In the course of organizing and
implementing the Internet elections, Russian activists heavily leveraged the two primary
affordances of the Internet for collective action: the cost and the co-presence affordances (Earl
& Kimport, 2011). The cost affordance of the Internet allowed activists to meaningfully
aggregate, within the world’s largest territorial state, individual preferences for political
representatives from a potentially nationwide constituency. Digital photography, email, and
online micro-payments afforded cheap ways to verify voters’ identities and guarantee the
principle of one-citizen-one-vote (Cvk2012.org, 2012a). User-generated content facilitated a
meaningful election campaign: The profiles of the candidates were published online, an essay
contest was held on the project website, and many of the candidates published their own blogs
(Central Election Committee, 2012c). Finally, in the two weeks prior to the election, debates
between candidates were broadcast via an oppositional satellite and Internet TV channel
(Central Election Committee, 2012b). According to the organizers (Krashennikov & Volkov,
2012; Volkov, personal communication, 2015), the total budget for the project amounted to not
more than 3.5 million RUB (115,000 USD, 1.5 USD per voter) and was raised via the
participation fees of candidates, donations from individual citizens, and a major contribution
from a co-founder of the Russian search engine Yandex.
In addition, the Internet’s co-presence affordance was heavily leveraged by activists.
Firstly, this affordance played a crucial role in the process of organizing and coordinating the
elections. For instance, the chairman of the Central Election Committee, Leonid Volkov
(personal communication, 2015), was based not in Moscow but in Ekaterinburg. Secondly, the
co-presence affordance was heavily leveraged by activists during the election campaign. Many
candidates from remote regions conducted their campaigns primarily from their homes. Even
17
for the TV debates, many candidates called in on Skype (Central Election Committee, 2012b).
Finally, casting votes also did not require the presence of voters at a specific place in
geographical space. Activists could vote from any Internet-connected computer across the nine
time zones of the world’s largest country (Central Election Committee, 2012a).
RQ5: Did the new organizational form meet the expectations of activists?
In the interviews and the documents scrutinized for the analysis, activists highlighted a
series of positive outcomes of the Internet elections. First of all, the Internet elections indeed
resulted in stabilization and formalization of the protest network. In the first months after its
election, the Coordination Council of the Opposition was widely accepted as a new leadership
body by activists from all ideological backdrops (Krashenninikov & Volkov, 2012).
Oppositional mass media, too, paid ‘colossal attention’ (Navalny, personal communication,
2015) to the Council’s activities. Secondly, the participatory undertaking as such, with 80,000
registered users casting their votes, was widely considered a success in terms of mobilization
(Bilunov, personal communication, 2015; Davletbayev, personal communication, 2015).
Thirdly, as many activists had hoped, a number of promising new leaders could be identified
via the electoral mechanism (Bilunov, personal communication, 2015). Finally, the successful
implementation of Internet elections was consistently seen as an important expansion of the
tactical repertoire of the Russian opposition. According to Gelfand (personal communication,
2015), for instance, the idea that ‘such a mechanism could be deployed and that it worked’ was
an important outcome per se. In a similar vein, Navalny (personal communication, 2015)
argued that the elections were an ‘important achievement’ with regard to the ‘infrastructure of
political work.’ In 2015 and 2016, for instance, the opposition drew on these experiences when
planning to hold primaries across a coalition of parties (Sharkov, 2016).
On the other hand, the new organizational form was also perceived as completely
falling short in primarily two respects. Firstly, the Council as a new leadership organ failed to
18
effectively bridge differences between members from different ideological backgrounds, that
is, members of nationalist, leftist, and liberal convictions (Davidis, personal communication,
2015). As, for instance, Gelfand (personal communication, 2015) recalled, in every ideological
fraction, ‘there were people whose goal was not to come to an agreement.’ Moreover, activists
also lamented that the Internet elections had not centralized the protest network to a sufficient
degree (Bilunov, personal communication, 2015; Davidis, personal communication, 2015).
While the power to make decisions was now concentrated in the Council of 45 activists, the
participatory project envisaged no formal provisions for creating a top-level leadership organ
within the Council. After the elections, all attempts to appoint a ‘chairperson’ or a ‘steering
committee’ of the Council failed (Navalny, personal communication, 2015).
A key contextual factor in the explanation of these two and other failures of the Council
was, as stressed consistently throughout the materials, the changing opportunity structure for
protest in Russia: Over the course of 2012 and 2013, the window of perceived opportunity for
protest closed. As one activist argued, the ‘elections were held when the protest wave was
already ebbing off’ and the ‘space of social freedom was shrinking’ (Davidis, personal
communication, 2015). In a similar vein, Navalny (personal communication, 2015) argued that
‘both the street demonstrations and the Council were a response to the Russian regime as it
existed until summer 2012.’ Subsequently, the regime became ‘more authoritarian, […] more
repressive,’ with many former council members being forced abroad, prosecuted, or
imprisoned (Navalny, personal communication, 2015). This change in the opportunity structure
was also the key reason why, at the end of the one-year term of the Council, very few members
were willing to engage in organizing and participating in a second round of elections (Gelfand,
personal communication, 2015; Navalny, personal communication, 2015). As one council
member put it, it appeared that there was ‘in a way, nothing left to co-ordinate’ (Gelfand,
January 19, 2015). The Council ceased to exist.
19
Discussion
Drawing on the empirical findings presented above, the following Discussion section
first identifies the key features of Russia’s authoritarian socio-political context that rendered
Internet elections as a digital tactic of collective action possible. Subsequently, it discusses why
activists, in this specific socio-political context, considered a collective action network as
superior to a connective action organizational form. Thirdly, it elaborates on the specifics of
Internet elections as a novel digital tool available to activists in the 21st century. The conclusion
points out promising pathways for future research.
Russia’s Semi-Authoritarian Regime: Key Features of the Opportunity Structure
At least three elements must be highlighted that distinguished the opportunity structure
of Russia’s semi-authoritarian political regime (Levitsky & Way, 2010), at the time of research,
from that of more closed authoritarian polities, such as for instance China (Yang, 2014). Firstly,
in contrast to China, the mass media landscape in Russia was only partly controlled by
authoritarian elites (Author, 2011; 2013; Oates, 2013). While the country’s leading national
TV channels had to be considered mouthpieces of the ruling elites, a range of niche oppositional
mass media were available on the Internet and in print that kept fiercely criticizing the country’s
political leadership (Author, 2011). Without the orchestrated support of these oppositional
mass media, most crucially of the TV channel Dozhd, Internet elections of this scale could not
have been implemented. Secondly, unlike in China, the Russian Internet as a communicative
space was not subject to large-scale technological filtering (Yang, 2014; Oates, 2013). Most
visibly, the website for the election project and the campaign materials of the candidates were
not censored or taken off the web. Thirdly, and again in sharp contrast to China, opposition
groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and parties were able to operate legally in
Russia. Even though many SMOs were facing constant harassment and key opposition parties
were denied registration in elections (Cheskin & March, 2015; Yang, 2014), these
20
organizations were key elements of the organizationally-enabled connective action network
that emerged in December 2011 (Greene, 2013). Without these organizations serving as
mobilizing structures, the Internet elections could hardly have been implemented.
The Virtues of Collective Action in the Russian Socio-political Context
A related question concerns why, in the specific Russian socio-political context,
activists perceived a collective action network as superior to the previous connective action
form. Earl (2015) has highlighted three situations in which formal organizations may still be
‘critical organizing vehicles’ (p. 45): (1) when activists do not leverage the unique affordances
of the Internet, (2) when movements need to be enduring to secure long-term success, and (3)
when stable networks are important. In the Russian case scrutinized in this paper, the first
argument does not apply, as activists heavily leveraged digital technologies. Yet, rationales 2
and 3 appear very much to the point. After one year of massive street protests without
consequences, it was clear that Russian activists needed to secure long-term mobilization to
achieve their key political goal of toppling the regime. In line with this argument, the decision
to usher in the transitory process was made by activists precisely when the mobilization
capacity of the connective action network appeared to dwindle. Secondly, creating a more
stable network also appeared pivotal to achieving the movement’s goals, as a stable network
was considered by activists to be more efficacious with regard to bridging the ideological rifts
between different groups. Within the Russian movement, it was regarded as almost common
wisdom that a key problem of the opposition, for more than a decade, had been a blatant lack
of coordinated action and unity (Bilunov, 2015, personal communication). This problem
definition, which was widely shared among activists, distinguished the ‘value-system’
(Gerbaudo, 2016, p. 4) of the Russian protest movement fundamentally from that of many
recent mobilizations in Western contexts, such as, for instance, Occupy and the Indignados.
The latter vigorously aspired to implement, as Gerbaudo (2016) has argued, the ‘techno-
21
libertarian principles’ of openness, leaderlessness, and horizontality, understood as ‘the
rejection of hierarchy and a demand of radical equality’ (p. 8).
Internet Elections as a Novel Digital Tool to Centralize Protest Networks
Extant research has typically focused on how digital technologies can be leveraged by
‘crowds’ of activists to organize in the absence of SMOs and formal leadership (Bennett &
Segerberg, 2013, p. 47; Earl & Kimport, 2011; Earl, 2015; Tufekci, 2014; Wells, 2014;
Zuckerman, 2014; for an exception, consider Gerbaudo, 2016). By contrast, this case study has
illustrated how Russian activists have heavily leveraged a wide range of Internet-based
technologies to pursue the squarely opposite goal: that of creating a new social movement
organization, a Coordination Council, in order to centralize and formalize an entire protest
movement. With regard to Internet elections as the key digital tool by which this organizational
transition was implemented, at least two conclusions merit being highlighted. Firstly, as van
Laer and van Aelst (2010) put it, large-scale Internet elections are not merely an Internet-
supported but an Internet-based tactic of collective action, that is, a tactic that can ‘exist only
because of the Internet’ (p. 1148). Before the spread of the Internet as a new technology, the
meaningful aggregation of preferences for candidates for political leadership from large
constituencies required enormous resources. The application of such electoral mechanisms was
thus frequently adopted to fill the highest offices of nation states, but it was prohibitively costly
to have it deployed by large, loosely organized protest networks. By contrast, as illustrated in
the case study, within Internet-based communication environments, large-scale electoral
authorization mechanisms can now be implemented with very limited resources. The
possibility of organizing large-scale Internet elections can thus be seen as an intriguing addition
to the ‘digital repertoire of contention’ (Earl & Kimport, 2011, p. 180) available to activists in
the 21st century.
Secondly, Internet elections as a novel digital tool appear to be particularly suited to
22
centralizing and formalizing protest groups and networks. As the case study has illustrated, one
peculiarity of this digital tool is that it facilitates the creation of new, widely acknowledged
representative ties between leading activists (as representatives) and rank-and-file activists (as
the represented). The strength and specific nature of these ties may vary across empirical cases,
depending on the design of the participatory mechanism and the custom-made technological
platforms adopted. Highly consequential differences may concern, for instance, the rules for
proposing candidates, the number of votes assigned to each user, and the allocation of fixed
numbers of seats in the elected body to different ideological camps (the latter sparked
particularly intense controversies among activists in the case scrutinized in this article). These
and other – socially constructed – features of the design of the participatory mechanism must
be considered as crucial to the success and the efficacy of the emerging organizational form.
Pathways for Future Research
By explicitly focusing on the transitory process of a connective action network towards
a more centralized and formalized organizational form, the present study has been able to
address a set of research questions that had not been answered in previous research (see above).
However, the single revelatory case design adopted in this exploratory study also entails one
key weakness: It offers only limited potential to generalize from the specific Russian case
scrutinized to a wider regional or global level (Yin, 2014). The first promising path for future
research is thus to adopt multi-case-study designs aimed at investigating how, why, and with
what consequences connective action networks have transitioned elsewhere (Bennett &
Segerberg, 2013; Bimber et al., 2009; Earl, 2015). In Egypt, for instance, the Muslim
Brotherhood ‘seized the legacy’ (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, p. 201) of the previous
connective action network. In Spain, the Podemos party followed, allegedly, in the footsteps
of the Indignados’ connective action network (Anduiza et al., 2014; Castro, 2014). Intriguing
questions for future research on the trajectories of these connective action networks are, thus,
23
at what point in time these action networks shifted from more resembling one of Bennett and
Segerberg’s (2013) ideal types to more resembling another; who has managed these transitions;
how these transitory processes were implemented; and which segments of these networks have
won – and respectively lost – power.
Another promising avenue for future research appears to be ‘Internet elections’ as a
specific digital tool of collective action. While this article has been the first academic study
dedicated to this tool, similar Internet-enabled electoral mechanisms have been recently
deployed by a variety of activist groups across the globe. In Russia, in the wake of the
pioneering online elections at the national level, Internet elections were later implemented by
activists at the local level in the towns of Zhukovskiy and Voronezh (Freezhukov.org, 2015;
Kravchenko, 20131). In both cases, the key goal of the elected local councils was to monitor
city authorities. At approximately the same time, in Iran, a group of activists organized online
elections that paralleled the authoritarian regime’s Presidential elections (Recknagel, 2013). In
contrast to the official elections, however, the activists’ Internet elections featured not only the
eight officially approved candidates, but also 12 more, ranging from people who failed the
official vetting process to political prisoners (Recknagel, 2013). In a completely different
socio-political setting, in democratic Spain, the Podemos party, which allegedly emerged from
the Indignados movement, used a similar electoral mechanism to organize ‘citizen primaries’
in 2014. In these pre-elections, Podemos created a list of candidates to run in the elections for
the European parliament (Castro, 2014). As these examples illustrate, activist groups around
the globe have recently been experimenting with Internet elections as a novel digital tool. It
appears, therefore, an extraordinarily intriguing avenue for future research to investigate how
activists in distinct socio-political settings designed such Internet votes, what key purposes they
set out to pursue, which of their expectations associated with implementing this novel tactic
were met, and which of their hopes remained, for what reasons, unfulfilled.
24
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Acknowledgements
This research was supported by an Emmy Noether grant sponsored by the German Research
Foundation DFG. I owe deep thanks to Andrei Zavadski, who organized and conducted the
seven personal interviews.
Short Biographical Note
Dr. Florian Toepfl is a Junior Research Group Leader at Free University of Berlin, heading a five-year
project entitled “Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism – The Power of the Internet in the Post-Soviet
World.” He received his PhD from the University of Passau, Germany, in 2009. Since then, he has
been a postdoctoral fellow at the Harriman Institute for Russian Studies at Columbia University, New
York, a postdoctoral researcher at LMU University, Munich, and a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at
the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political
Science. His work has been published in major academic journals, including the Journal of
Communication, the European Journal of Communication, Europe-Asia Studies, and New Media &
Society.
i All non-academic sources cited in this manuscript, further details on the process of
selecting interviewees and analyzing the interview data, and the full transcripts of all interviews
conducted can be accessed through an online supplementary file, available at
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/2d5lmuiqdqvh33f/AADxLwfaK5mHBjvtd1pGmSp5a?dl=0
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... Contemporary protests and social movements have been identified as using different styles of organization and communication known as connective action [21]. These types of protests and movements are primarily focused on: (1) individual preferences and (2) mobilization through personal communication. ...
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