Rashid Gabdulhakov | Digital Vigilantism in Russia: Mediated Visibility in the Context of Social Change and Social Harm

Rashid Gabdulhakov | Erasmus University Rotterdam, Erasmus School of History Culture and Communication (ESHCC) Department of Media and Communication Supervisors: Dr Daniel Trottier and Prof. Susanne Janssen | 1 March 2017 – 28 February 2021 | gabdulhakov[at]eshcc.eur.nl

Digital Vigilantism in Russia: Mediated Citizen-Led Justice in the Context of Social Change and Social Harm

As part of an international and interdisciplinary project supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO project number 276-45-004), this PhD research investigates the phenomenon of digital vigilantism in the context of the Russian Federation. The current literature is largely missing a contextual analysis of digitally mediated citizen-led justice in autocratic environments. This project aims to respond to this gap by looking at post-Soviet Russia. As such, in its current conceptualisation digital vigilantism is understood as an act of offence-taking and spontaneous digitally mediated retaliation performed by autonomous citizens. The notion of autonomy and other related definitional characteristics of digital vigilantism are challenged in Russia due to several critical contextual factors, including cases of state mobilization of citizens and nuances of state control over traditional and digital media.

Thus, the research considers the process of emergence and decay of participation and cases of digital vigilantism in Russia; it addresses methods and motives behind participation as well as greater societal impacts of citizen-led justice. The study considers the role of the ruling regime, state structures, traditional media, social media platforms, counter forces, structural and social biases, and other processes, actors and voices in the manifestation of digital vigilantism and responses to it. This multi-method project relies on qualitative content analysis of traditional media coverage of cases and actors, as well as content analysis of media products generated by participants themselves. As cases that take place in Russia have greater cross-border impacts, the project’s fieldwork is performed not only in Russia but in other post-Soviet states as well. Field studies imply semi-structured in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, such as participants, targets, policymakers, media professionals, rights defenders, NGO representatives, academics, lawyers, and law enforcement authorities.

The core objective of this research is to contribute to advancing theoretical boundaries of digital vigilantism as a platform for both social change and social harm in divergent and complex political environments. These complexities inevitably affect respective negotiations of justice matters and mediated representation of such ‘justice’. In order to address a diverse set of nuances that inform digital vigilantism, the following primary and supportive research questions are addressed:

RQ: How are practices of digital vigilantism in Russia manifested through state-citizen and citizen-to-citizen relations?

SQ1: How is digital vigilantism in Russia informed by historically situated practices of outsourced, crowdsourced, and volunteered citizen-led justice, as well as denouncing, shaming, and moralising of citizens by fellow citizens?

SQ2: How is digital vigilantism framed and rendered meaningful by state-owned and independent Russian media?

SQ3: What are the drivers of emergence and decay of digital vigilantism initiatives in the Russian context?

SQ4: How is visibility (including mediated shaming, moralizing, harassment, and embodied acts of retaliation) weaponised by participants in Russia?

SQ5: How is digital vigilantism experienced by targets in Russia in relation to social inequalities, (digital)divides, social frustrations and biases?