Russian Digital Protest: Online Memes as the Means of Carnivalesque Resistance in Social Networks

The 2011-2012 Russian protest mobilisations were largely enabled by the rise of social networks. Social and technological advancements paired to pave the way for “the biggest protests since the fall of the USSR” (BBC, 2011). Ubiquitous and uncensored social media empowered the liberal masses to share their grievances, discuss and unite online, and then mobilise and coordinate for the offline protest. The emergence of a large number of digitally savvy protest publics marked an important gap between the government’s conception of the society and the real state of resistance.

The change in Russian society did not occur in one day but was gradually happening since the mid-2000s and by 2011 ‘the organizational and cultural apparatus for large scale protests was already in place’ (Robertson, 2012: 2). The uprising of the 2010s indicated an open call for new power relations in the society. The population was ready to express their discontent and felt empowered to openly do so. Curiously, the 2011 protest employed a lot of humour, satire and irony. The comic tone of the protest communication suggested that people felt free to laugh at the government, and this signified an important turn from the decades of fear. Educated urban middle-class citizens were at the forefront of the newly emerged protest mobilisation, and the digital technology was one of their strong mobilisation and organisational weapons.

My presentation at Connected Life 2015 will focus on the highly creative way the online community discusses political issues. Resistance communication in social networks employs Internet memes – artful images, texts, slogans, videos – that go viral, entertain and spread the political message at the same time. Satirical by nature, these texts create an alternative political discourse and are studied from the grounds of Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) theory of the carnival. Carnival is a form of dissent, a legal activity that allows for the promotion of alternative discourse, multiplicity of styles, and an intentional polyphony. Carnival is a metaprotest as it opposes media propaganda and the state’s spectacle in a subtle and joyful way. In the digital era the carnivalesque resistance has been studied as the “e-carnival” (Boje, 2001).

In the 2010s Russian government has imposed a number of highly restrictive laws on the freedom of speech and assembly including those on censoring the traditional and online media; almost prohibiting criticism of the government and implementing controlling devices on social networks. In this media ecology digital carnival and memes are becoming an essential part of the remaining resistance communication. Internet memes avoid censorship, generate alternative political discourse and promote a discussion among like-minded users.

Assumingly, memes have become a new coded language of dissent communication in the Russian Internet. Memes are studied from two sides: as the produce and at the same time as the “glue” that helps to build social networks and affinity spaces with a strong sense of community and solidarity among its members. In addition to Bakhtin’s work, theories on tactical media and alternative political activism, emotional storytelling and participatory culture are used to analyse the structure and function of online memes in the current Russian political resistance online.

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