Vertical Crowdsourcing (Russia)
|Author: Gregory Asmolov|
|Affiliation: London School of Economics, UK|
Original text: Gregory Asmolov, London School of Economics, UK
‘Vertical crowdsourcing’ refers to the ways in which digital technologies can be harnessed by state institutions to create a semblance of openness and participation, while in practice neutralising citizens’ activity and exerting control over them. ‘Crowdsourcing’ in its regular sense refers to ‘the practice of obtaining information or services by soliciting input from a large number of people, typically via the Internet and often without offering compensation’. In ‘vertical crowdsourcing’, state authorities solicit such participation in order to fake or control it.
Social media, social networking sites and crowdsourcing platforms can contribute to the empowerment of individual users, including new forms of civic participation. They can also increase transparency and accountability of state activity. Yet those same technologies can also be used by institutional actors to exert surveillance and control over individual users. The ambivalence at the heart of ‘vertical crowdsourcing’ relies on the capacity of digital platforms to simultaneously replicate two layers of the relationship between institutions and citizens. The first layer approaches citizens as subjects for partnership, the while second layer approaches them as objects of governance. While such practices can be found worldwide, this entry focuses on the Russian-language internet (colloquially known as ‘Runet’) as a case study of the various forms vertical crowdsourcing.
In analysing vertical crowdsourcing, it is helpful to view digital users as occupying two simultaneous roles: subjects taking part in activity directed at specific goals alongside institutional actors; and objects of institutional actors’ activity that seeks to control and govern the users. It is the capacity of information technologies to produce symbolic (i.e. fake) constructions of transparency, accountability and user empowerment that enables their users to be constituted as subjects and objects at the same time: the digital user is a subject in the symbolic dimension, but an object of digital governance in the actual dimension. For instance, while on a symbolic level a given technology may propose an increase in transparency or new opportunities for engagement, on the actual level the user is either prevented from taking part in the activity or/and addressed as an object of control.
There are different types of digital tools that deal with transparency and accountability. One group of tools presents open data about the activities of specific organisations. While open databases can promote crowdsourcing of independent analysis and holding an organisation to account, in some cases they provide only limited information, or the data is not provided in a useable format. Accordingly, while in general open data contributes to transparency, providing such data can also be a symbolic act that portrays an organisation as transparent, while in reality contributing little to transparency. A second set of tools dealing with transparency and accountability is crowdsourcing platforms that aggregate information about problems and promise to resolve the issues reported. In 2011 as a part of an initiative by President Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian government launched an online platform ‘Russia without fools’ (Rossiya bez durakov). Medvedev claimed that the purpose of the website was, ‘to find the most nonsensical and harmful bureaucratic practices in Russia.’ He stated that procedures would be changed and some officials might even lose their jobs on the basis of information crowdsourced from the website. However, the website was closed two years later.
Vertical crowdsourcing is often marked by so-called 'Photoshop governance': state authorities using digital technologies to substitute an actual solution in real life with a fake ‘solution’ in digital space. For example, local authorities in many countries use websites in order to allow citizens to submit reports about various type of problems e.g. potholes and other infrastructural issues. In principle, the submission of a report to the website should lead to action taken by the authorities to resolve the problem. However, such websites can serve as tools that satisfy citizens’ need to complain easily, but with no consequent action taken by the authorities – or even worse, the faking of action taken. For example, following the submission of photo of a courtyard blocked by snow to a website run by the Moscow Mayor's Office, a local official reported that the problem was solved by posting a photo showing the yard free of snow. A local blogger reported that the snow was digitally removed with Photoshop, while no actual action was taken on the ground.
The Russian presidential elections of 2012 provided a case of the symbolic construction of electoral transparency. The Russian government rolled out a system of webcams that broadcasted live video streams from 95,000 polling stations in Russia to a dedicated platform (http://webvybory2012.ru), where any citizen could follow the voting in every part of Russia. The Russian authorities used the project to respond to allegations of electoral fraud by claiming that the presidential elections were among the most transparent in international practice. The project thus enabled the government to create a symbolic construction of transparency that supported the legitimacy of the elections. While in theory the webcams enabled public scrutiny of electoral conduct to be crowdsourced, in practice they obstructed it. Crucially, the platform did not allow any action to be taken once a fraud was detected. It was difficult to retrieve data from the video archive, and the courts that considered cases of election fraud did not have a legal foundation to incorporate the webcam recordings as legitimate evidence.
Another set of digital tools portray citizens’ participation as a horizontal, bottom-up action (i.e. regular crowdsourcing), whereas in reality they are controlled and directed from above (i.e. vertical crowdsourcing). In 2014 the Moscow Mayor's Office introduced a website called ‘Active Citizen’ (http://ag.mos.ru) with the ostensible purpose of allowing Moscow residents greater participation in decision-making. But independent experts questioned if the website contributes to participation, with some arguing that through online votes the website produces a semblance of participation in decision making and creates the legitimisation of decisions already made by local authorities, while the actual mechanism of participation including online voting is not transparent and is open to manipulation. An online media investigation exposed falsification of online decisions, while an opposition local council member claimed that, ‘Active Citizen is used by the mayor’s office for imitation of citizens’ participation in decision-making by authorities’.
Following the extensive wildfire in Russia in the summer of 2010, and the severe flooding in Krymsk, South Russia, a number of independent projects proposed crowdsourcing mechanisms to facilitate horizontal, citizen-based responses to national emergencies. In 2012, a state-affiliated organisation of emergency responders, RosSoyuzSpas, proposed developing a website (http://dobrovoletz.rf) as a platform to facilitate emergency response volunteering. Any citizen interested in volunteering in emergency response could register with the website. But unlike citizen-based projects, this ‘vertical crowdsourcing’ platform did not provide data about the specific purposes of activity, and did not allow to the users to select their form of participation. What it actually created was a registry of potential volunteers that was controlled by the owners of the platform. Accordingly, while the official purpose of the platform was supporting citizen engagement in emergency response, its actual purpose was controlling the potential independent volunteers through the development of a digital top-down structure.
State-sponsored platforms can be utilised for astroturfing: the construction of a façade of bottom-up participation which is actually concealed activity by a traditional top-down administration, and often has a paid nature. Examples include state-sponsored trolling and state-sponsored vigilantism. For instance, the MediaGvardia website presents itself as an opportunity to participate in civic internet regulation by finding content which is prohibited according to Russian law (for instance, uncovering so-called ‘gay propaganda’ such as support groups for Russian LGBT teenagers). However, the website relies mostly on members of state-sponsored youth movements. It thus presents a façade of ‘public demand’ for the restriction of internet freedoms while in reality the ‘activists’ are vertically crowdsourced through state support.
Digital platforms and conventional crowdsourcing are typically considered as tools that contribute to transparency and accountability, as well to the participation of users as subjects. But when these tools are used by the state as forms of vertical crowdsourcing, transparency, accountability and participation become merely symbolic. Indeed, the same tools can position users as object of control, contributing to decreasing transparency and accountability and preventing genuine civic participation.
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