“Feeling like One Is in a Game”: How Protests in Moscow are Organised

Social networks, messengers, interactive maps, and even dating applications are actively being used to coordinate protest actions. On the eve of rallies and processions, oppositional activists spread instruction manuals – which in detail explain how to recruit relatives, friends, and apolitical citizens for rallies – through closed Telegram channels. According to sociologists, propaganda is aimed towards the younger generation, organisers exploit the youth’s need to raise self-esteem and to experience new emotions.

At a rally through emotions

Young people aged up to 30 became the most active part of protests. It is exactly they who most often enter into confrontations with the police, shout out slogans, and incite the crowd.

“Youth in any society makes up most of the protest electorate,” explained the sociologist, director of the group of companies “Sociological Scientific Research Institute” Mariya Fil to RT. “Here there is a generational conflict because the authorities are associated with a certain domination of seniors who allegedly impose the rules of the game and behavioural order. I.e., in a broad sense it is generation gap: the youth wants to declare itself, it wants to have more opportunities, and it seems to it, maybe, at the suggestion of a number of propagandists, that these opportunities are not so available now as they would be available if the government was replaced. Oppositional leaders adopt the image of a modern advanced person. The brightest candidates, such as Lyubov Sobol, position themselves like this”.

The rally at Akademika Sakharova Avenue was mainly attended by people of a young age, according to a survey that was conducted at the time, “however it is impossible to say that they were mainly school students or even students at all”. From the 306 persons interviewed, 50% were under the age of 33.

The list of participants of unauthorised “celebrations” in Moscow on July 27th and on August 3rd, according to RT, was even younger.

According to Mariya Fil, the participants of rallies and processions were guided rather by emotional reasons, and not rational ones.

“The majority came because they were baited to it through emotions. They did not deeply analyse why candidates were refused registration, what legislative grounds there were, or what candidates had the chance to challenge this decision. The very fact that ‘we are deprived of the right to choose’ very strongly touches emotions. Concerning the youth, here in some sense we are dealing with a situation similar to the Bolotnaya Square rallies in 2011. Back then their outrage was not in support of oppositional candidates, but precisely in the context that it was an ‘election without a choice’. I am sure that if the participants of the current rallies are asked who they know from these disqualified 57 candidates, they will give five-seven names at best. But such a mass refusal of registration in the opinion of society makes it look like these candidates were swept aside in an organised manner,” explained Fil.

Social networks were the main source of information about protest actions.

64% of respondents learned about rallies from Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, or VKontakte. For the youth a large role was played by hype. The protest efforts of public opinion leaders turned into a trend. In the absence of well-known opposition leaders, the turnout at the rally on Sakharova Avenue and the atmosphere there was provided by super-popular performers who enjoy a multimillion army of followers — IC3PEAK, Oxxxymiron, and the “Krovostok” group.

Gamification – a deliberate attempt to use a game to disguise illegal calls to participate in mass actions – became one more distinctive feature of protests. Protesters were called to “walk” on the Boulevard Ring, even using dating apps for propaganda purposes.  

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“Come at 14:00 to walk on Sakharova Avenue: let’s listen to Face, “Krovostok”, and IC3PEAK, and later we will take a walk in Moscow,” wrote a 20-year-old girl on Tinder. And meanwhile, the “walk” of protesters is met by OMON soldiers with helmets, truncheons, and police detention vans.

“Appeals voiced at the rally were actively spread on social networks, and are very often on the Instagram feeds of people who are distant both from politics and the capital’s problems,” notes Maria Fil. “Among them there were show business stars and just ordinary people, therefore it acquired the character of a snowball”.

On the eve of, and during, the non-sanctioned “celebrations” on July 27th and August 3rd, the secret leaders of protests and volunteers who undertaken the role of propagandists actively used social network accounts, messengers, navigators, and interactive maps.

For coordination in real time messenger chats were used – behavioural tactics, the gathering place, and other important information were actively discussed.

At the same time, the appeals often looked very aggressive.

“By the way, it is actually possible to bring a saluting battery. People will enjoy it and the cops will piss in their pants a little bit because of the suddenness

Users who sent such messages, as a rule, did so under fictitious names and fake avatars. They incite young people and shared the secrets of street protesting. Agitators stoked the situation in advance, as if preparing the participants not for a peaceful walk, but for a massacre.

Some called not just for disorder and violence, but for forms of actual political terror. 

In order to involve a neutral, “conditionally dissatisfied” audience that can be incited to come to protest action, bots, advertising and “like” falsification were used.

For example, on the eve of the meeting on Akademika Sakharova Avenue on August 10th 2019, new announcements appeared on websites that offer fake “likes” and comments in exchange for money. With such services the user can actually sell their social network pages. Customers at such online exchanges publish the task of putting a “like” on a Instagram photo, to write any conscious comment below a post on VKontakte or Facebook.

Thus, on Friday, August 9th 2019, the blogger Yury Dud published a video address featuring an appeal to come to Sakharova Avenue. By the evening orders were placed on the exchange for writing provocative comments below this message. For example, someone for 40 points, which is much higher than the average cost of orders at the exchange, wanted to see under Dud’s post appeals to “tear things down and cut them into pieces, to trash shop windows”. Dud is an online influencer who has millions of followers, therefore the chances that such a comment will be seen and, perhaps, conceive the necessary effect, are manyfold higher.

At some point in the comments section threats even appeared: “Freaks, quickly get to Sakharova. Or we will find all those who refused and we will speak in a different way”.

On the eve of the non-sanctioned protests on July 27th and August 3rd, in completely apolitical VKontakte groups made-to-order publications with obviously oppositional implication were posted.

For example, in a group of an online shop that sells sneakers there were posts featuring appeals to support the opposition and the pseudo-analysis of social-economic phenomena with a bias in the debate “what was the country brought to”.

RT found out that “political” posts with identical contents and photos appeared in five neutral car and music groups and in one online store. The posts were published during the period from July 15th to July 30th. The most widespread publication is a photo showing a woman holding a poster bearing a recognisable design in the style of Navalny supporters and an inscription criticising tax reform and raising the retirement age. Under the photo of the group admin there is an identical inscription: “Show support!”

According to VKontakte, in seven groups these posts were seen more than 1.5 million times. As RT, found out, the placement of advertisement posts in such groups can cost from several tens to hundreds of thousands of rubles.

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“Come to the barricades and bring mother”

According to the volunteer organisation “Bely Schyotchik”, about 60,000 people took part in the “Boulevard walk”. According to a poll, 14% of participants obtained information from acquaintances, family, or neighbours.  

Shortly before the events, on social networks an instruction about how to persuade relatives to come to rallies and how to involve apolitical citizens in protests was actively spread. The employee of the headquarters of the unregistered Moscow City Duma candidate Lyubov Sobol, Aleksey Minyaylo, became one of the main persons involved in this project (he was arrested for two months on a charge of organising mass riots). The distribution of instruction manuals was carried out through a closed chat on the “Komanda A” Telegram channel.

After gathering members in “Komanda A”, Aleksey Minyaylo invited all interested persons to a separate Telegram chat via email.

“Friends, hi! I am Lyosha Minyaylo, a businessman, an observer, a civil activist, and a trainer,” wrote Minyaylo in an email. “I coordinate our cool team of special troops… Many thanks to those who joined. We will attract many people at the rally on July 27th and we will test a technology that is new to the Russian political reality, which will soon help to involve millions of Russians in political actions and to bring Beautiful Russia of the Future closer”.

In the chat he described the action plan: “While everyone is acting via conventional means, we will try something new… What we will do is a technology tested from elections to charity: the involvement of friends, relatives, and acquaintances in a common cause. People trust most of all what they hear from people who they personally know. A personal appeal is the most effective. So we… let’s work on the beliefs of acquaintances, friends, and relatives in order to make them come with us on July 27th, we will gather and discuss new methods of involving people in rallies”.

Detailed instructions then followed. At first, the participants were demanded to make a list of ten acquaintances who they think are the most likely to come to a rally. The conversation with them must be started sneakily: do they know about the situation with the Moscow City Duma election? If not, then tell them and start to ask further: are they happy with the situation, do they want to change something, and do they support the opposition? If the interlocutor comes across as being apolitical, then there is a need to use more grounded arguments.

“If the person, according to you, is politically active, then use arguments rather about democracy and values. If the person is not really interested in politics, then begin the conversation with the concrete advantage that your interlocutor and Moscow will receive from the presence of opposition at the Moscow City Duma,” it is said in the instruction manual.

A large part of the text has psychological analysis: ten options for arguments and counterarguments for people who do not want to go an illegal rally are given and try to argue on this subject with the inciter. 

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For example, according to the instruction, the inciter must respond to “I will not go because I do not want a revolution” by saying: “It is just a rally against revolution. Think about it: if lawful elections are not defended, if the people are not given lawful means to influence events in the country, then there are revolutions. And it will be decided by much less peaceful people than the candidates who we fight for. You do not want a revolution — then come to the rally. While there is still an opportunity to resolve issues by peaceful rallies. If these issues are not resolved now, a revolution is inevitable”.

By the way, the authors of the instruction avoid to mention the fact that the rally on July 27th 2019 was not sanctioned.

The head of the department of clinical psychology of the Russian Academy of Medical Science and candidate of psychological sciences Sergey Enikolopov, who, at the request of RT, studied the techniques used in the preparation of instruction manuals, notes that they are aimed at creating in the person a feeling of self-importance and exclusiveness.

“‘Hi, fighter!’ is not an abstract appeal, it is a specific one. It is always pleasant for people when they are addressed personally. Military lexicon — ‘fighter’, ‘special mission’ — this is incitement not just for a rally. When you are referred to as a ‘fighter’, you start to feel in opposition, to oppose subconsciously ‘us’ and ‘them’. And ‘them’ are de-personalised, turned into Mordor, a ‘black force’, and ‘us’ represents light, of course. Because of this the self-confidence and internal readiness to be ‘fighter’ raises. There is the glorification of the act, there is a readiness for some specific actions. It is possible to assume that this document was made by professionals who are familiar with psychology,” said Enikolopov to RT.

Mariya Fil agrees that the text filled with mobilisation rhetoric was perhaps developed by experts.

“They try to convince that something depends on your individual behaviour: ‘You will succeed, it is your chance. You are such Gavroche who has to come to the barricades and bring your mother’. For the modern person who seldom feels their importance or does not feel it in general, this is a very attractive topic. The topic of combatting a certain evil, which is represented exaggeratedly, is also quite attractive. All Hollywood products and all computer games are always a standoff between a hero and a villain. And such propaganda allows a young man to feel like they are in a game. Only it is already not a computer game, but real life. Indeed there are also real ‘villains’ here, it is also possible to get into some critical situation. For a young sheltered Moscow resident, being put into a police van is the equivalent to an adventure. It something that can become the brightest test in their life because no real tests in their life existed previously,” summarised the sociologist.

The instruction manual reminded Sergey Enikolopov of the precepts of the American political strategist Gene Sharp — the ideologist of applying “soft power”. 

“Sharp is considered to be the father of ‘colour revolutions’. He analysed how there are such mass actions and how protest scenarios are implemented. His book contains specific technologies of nonviolently overthrowing authorities in power. These methods have already been tested in Egypt, Tunisia, Yugoslavia, and Georgia. What we see in this document is, in fact, a version of his concept but processed in modern realities,” concluded Enikolopov.


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