The Dynamics of Political Protest and Repression on Social Media in Authoritarian Settings: The Case of the 2021 Protests in Russia
In the past decade and beyond, social media technologies have played a significant role in shaping political protests in different societies worldwide. Although existing research has explored the ways in which social media platforms and their affordances have facilitated political dissent and activism in western democracies and some repressive regimes (e.g., Faris, 2010; Lotan et al., 2011; Tufekci & Wilson, 2012; Tucker et al., 2016), less attention has been given to how authoritarian governments and their supporters use social media to suppress political protests (e.g., Morozov, 2011; Zhuravskaya et al., 2020; Ruohonen, 2021; Feldstein, 2021), and even less is known about the interplay between protest and repression on social media over time (Keremoğlu & Weidmann, 2020). This paper aims to address this gap by exploring the communication and coordination patterns within pro-democracy and pro-regime camps on Twitter during the 2021 pro-Navalny protests in Russia and connecting them to offline protest events.
The pro-Navalny case represents the largest anti-government movement in authoritarian Russia, involving digitally mediated communication on a grand scale. It provides a unique opportunity to study networked communication not only among dissidents but also those who try to suppress dissent. To achieve this, we developed a tool to identify and analyze coordinated networks (Giglietto et al., 2020; Keller et al., 2020) based on Twitter API v2 data and applied it to a large dataset of tweets published during the 2021 Russian protests in relation to the protest events.
The findings of this study reveal that Navalny supporters were more active and coordinated significantly more on Twitter than their opponents from the pro-regime camp, especially during the first month of the protest movement. However, the tweeting and coordination activity from both sides declined after one month and remained low before and during the protests in April, which were the last large-scale nationwide demonstrations.
By further implementing Granger-causality tests, a commonly used time series analysis technique to assess the relationships between two or more series, we also found that pro-government tweeting activity caused pro-Navalny counteraction on Twitter during the February 14 protests, and conversely, pro-Navalny tweets caused the pro-regime reaction during the protests on April 21. These findings suggest that social media platforms are not only used by protesters to organize and mobilize but also by authoritarian regimes and their supporters to suppress and counteract dissent.
We discuss possible explanations for these findings, including the role of social media manipulation, censorship, and propaganda by the regime and its supporters. We conclude by identifying questions for future research on the role of social media in the dynamics of political protests in authoritarian settings. This study highlights the importance of understanding the complex dynamics between political protest and repression on social media in authoritarian regimes and provides novel insights into the ways in which social media technologies can be used to both facilitate and suppress political dissent in a coordinated way in authoritarian regimes.