The following is a blog post from Rashid Gabdulhakov, whose article “Citizen-Led Justice in Post-Communist Russia: From Comrades’ Courts to Dotcomrade Vigilantism” appears in the latest issue of Surveillance & Society.
The idea of writing my article entitled “Citizen-Led Justice in Post-Communist Russia: From Comrades’ Courts to Dotcomrade Vigilantism” came to me rather early in the journey of tackling the subject of ‘concerned’ citizenry manifesting itself through social media. As a member of an international team of researchers working on the topic of digital vigilantism, with Dr Daniel Trottier and Qian Huang at Erasmus University, I was exposed to a diverse set of cases, contexts and conceptual approaches that inspired me to dive back into history, in order to get a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on today. My aim was to debunk and spotlight this unique case of new forms of mediated activism, where citizens take justice matters into their own hands, yet an intricate relationship with the state is maintained. Self-organized citizens in Russia address a wide set of perceived offences: wrong parking, unscrupulous retail, pedophilia, illegal migration, drinking/smoking in public spaces, etc., etc. Replacement of state functions with subjective acts of justice performed by citizens, equipped with smartphones and social media, challenges the very concept of justice.
Replacement of state functions with subjective acts of justice performed by citizens, equipped with smartphones and social media, challenges the very concept of justice.
They say that everything new is well-forgotten old. Though citizen participation addressed in the paper benefits from new affordances of social media, the shadow of the state in this activism is not a novel phenomenon. Delegation of control and justice matters to selected citizens was widely practiced in the country’s communist past, when denunciation and snitching were part of everyday life. With this in mind, I decided to compare current digitally mediated vigilante practices in Russia with the Soviet phenomenon of comrades’ courts. In the Soviet state, citizens engaged in improvised court hearings and shamed fellow citizens for misconduct, much like digital vigilantes do when they expose and shame targets in video clips disseminated on social media. Thus, the study builds upon nuances of state-citizen and citizen-to-citizen relations in matters of surveillance, control and imposition of subjective justice back then and now. With the focus on Russia’s unique case, my humble hope was to contribute to and enrich the current theoretical conceptualization of digital vigilantism, as the paper features a system where the state can instrumentalize participants.
It is fundamentally important for surveillance scholarship to focus on technologically-advanced reincarnation of past practices, especially in the former totalitarian societies with recurring autocratic inclinations. Keeping active and tech-savvy citizens on the hook of financial support and endorsement ensures their loyalty and prevents the ruling regime from falling target to these very citizens. At the same time, the scheme helps the autocratic state with projecting a facade image of active citizenry flourishing in the country, while dissent is suppressed. I sincerely hope that research on digital vigilantism in Russia not only contributes to this interdisciplinary field in a scholarly sense, but can be of use for the tough and courageous work of rights defenders in the country who assist targets and victims of mediated retaliation.