Three days before New Year’s Eve, Russian anti-Kremlin, underground hero Alexei Navalny posted a video to YouTube calling for nationwide protests against Russia’s “sham” presidential election in March. But there was one problem: YouTube immediately blocked it.
Confusion ensued, and by the time the video was back up less than two hours later — with an apology from YouTube for “accidentally” flagging the video as “spam” — Navalny had already turned that blip to his advantage, painting the move on his blog as a likely attempt at censorship by the Kremlin, and transforming just another of his videos into an international news story.
The video ended up with 1.6 million views and sparked a fresh round of Western press coverage. It also helped boost Navalny’s YouTube traffic in December to levels not seen since the first half of the year, according to an analysis by the web analytic company VeeScore provided to VICE News.
The incident highlighted Navalny’s deft mastery of YouTube, a tool he’s wielded to become Putin’s most threatening challenger in the upcoming presidential elections, despite being barred by the state from running. Navalny’s fiendishly simple plan now is to sabotage Putin’s inevitable victory by promoting a national boycott of the vote that humiliates the Russian president with low turnout figures, and puts the authority of his nearly two-decade-old regime into question.
YouTube is central to that insurgency.
Ironically, the same Kremlin that stands accused by the U.S. Congress of using social media to influence America’s 2016 election is now fumbling to respond to a internet-driven challenge to Putin’s own reelection, Russia watchers said, and Navalny is the source of this anxiety.
“YouTube is the new battleground.”
Barred from national television himself, Navalny has turned to social media, especially YouTube, to poke the bear.
“About two years ago, we discovered the whole brave new world of video,” Vladimir Ashurkov, one of Navalny’s top allies and Executive Director of Navalny’s nonprofit, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, told VICE News. “Video really changed, to a big degree, how we communicate with our audience. And the primary tool for dissemination is YouTube.”
That dynamic puts big American social media companies in the hot seat — again. Already under fire for allegedly enabling Russian meddling in the U.S. election and failing to properly police abusive content, they’ll likely want to avoid being seen as bending to the Kremlin’s will, said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies
“YouTube doesn’t want to look like it’s in the Kremlin’s pocket,” Oliker told VICE News.
A politician born on the web
“Navalny is first and foremost an internet blogger,” said David Szakonyi, an expert on Russian politics at George Washington University. “In many respects, he wouldn’t exist without social media.”
From the modest beginnings of a blog about corruption, Navalny has built an impressive social media empire that cranks out several videos every week in which he and his allies take aim at Putin's administration in a conversational tone far less stilted than the public presenters on state television.
Navalny’s personal YouTube channel, founded in 2013, now boasts 269 million views. A separate channel, Navalny Live, has 55 million views.
“He’s running the underground campaign.”
While Navalny maintains an active presence on Facebook and has 2.2 million followers on Twitter, his most important internet assets are YouTube and his blog, navalny.com, said Sergey Sanovich, a graduate research associate at New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation lab specializing in Russian politics and social media.
“YouTube is the new battleground,” Sanovich told VICE News. “If Navalny lost access to his YouTube account, that would, at the very least, slow him down considerably.”
A poll in December indicated Navalny would earn just 2 percent of the national vote against Putin’s 66 percent in a head-on election.
Online, his numbers look much better, however. Russian videos with Navalny’s name in the title or description pulled in over 18 million views in December, or two-thirds of the 27 million views for videos featuring Putin’s name, according to VeeScore.
Moves to silence Navalny seem to bring him more attention, said Oliker of CSIS.
“He’s running the underground campaign,” Oliker told VICE News. “So the more the authorities crack down on him, the more they see him as a threat, the more appealing he looks to people seeking an alternative.”
An anti-corruption crusade
Navalny’s key message is that Russia’s corrupt elite are looting the country, and taking your money, buddy. To prove it, he’s fired off slick videos aimed at exposing the secret, glittering wealth of Russia’s top officials.
The most successful, launched in March, features footage captured by flying a drone over a fabulous Italian villa and other properties reputed to effectively belong to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. That video continues to receive 10,000 views a day, according to VeeScore.
The Kremlin long ago established dominance over traditional media — television, radio and print — but Russia was slower to move on the internet.
As recently as 2010, a study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University concluded that “the Russian blogosphere is a space that appears to be largely free of government control.”
That freedom aided Navalny’s rise from small-time blogger to political activist — before using that momentum to become a leader of the 2011-2012 protests against Putin’s last re-election. By 2013, Navalny surprised both his fans and critics by winning second place with 27 percent of the vote in the race for mayor of Moscow against Putin ally Sergey Sobyanin.
When it comes to dueling online, Navalny has run rings around his enemies.
In July, when Navalny took his wife Yulia to France on vacation for her birthday, the pro-Putin tabloid Life offered 50,000 rubles ($875) to anyone who could provide video footage of the anti-corruption crusader living it up abroad.
To the editors’ delight, they got the video, which they pushed out on their website, crediting the footage to a “citizen journalist.”
Navalny then revealed a full version of the video himself, including a few extra seconds at the end in which he pivots to the camera and exclaims that he’s just “trying to make 50,000 rubles off those fools at LifeNews!”
Turned out his wife shot the video — and claimed the cash prize as a donation for Navalny’s presidential campaign (though he mocked Life for only delivering 10,000 rubles).
In May, a Russian court ordered Navalny to stop distributing the film he’d made about the Prime Minister and that 17th century Italian villa.
Naturally, his allies responded to the news by posting the video to Pornhub under the title “RUSSIAN CORRUPTED POLITICIAN FUCKED HARD.”
The sly turn again demonstrated his team’s ability to turn a setback into yet another opportunity to mock the elite, using the world’s most popular porn site as a conduit for his politics and again garnering international attention.
But the offline world hasn’t been so kind to Navalny.
For years, he’s beared the brunt of a omnipotent Kremlin, facing repeated arrests and convictions, and multiple suspended sentences. This year he was nearly blinded after someone threw caustic green dye in his face in an attack he insists was “hired by the government.” His brother, Oleg, has been jailed over charges Navalny has said are just another attempt to shut him down.
In an interview with CBS News in August, when asked about his chances of getting killed by the Kremlin for his actions, he responded: “50 percent.”