Sign Up

Welcome to Russian Consumer Democracy

How are bloggers giving birth to a vigorous consumer democracy emerged in Russia, of all places?

October 23, 2007

How are bloggers giving birth to a vigorous consumer democracy emerged in Russia, of all places?

For more than a week now, a rapidly growing community of Russian bloggers has been stalking a small pharmaceutical company. Moscow-based Farmit has made it its business to sell overpriced and ineffective drugs to naive seniors, promising them cures for almost every ill.

It all started with a blogger nicknamed Brockhurst, who wrote an angry post about the company and how it swindled his mother.

She learned about one of Farmit’s drugs, Gravikol21, from a radio infomercial. Not only did she fall for the drug’s alluring qualities, but she also called her son to borrow money from him to buy it. This eventually unleashed a gigantic wave of protests aimed at paralyzing Farmit’s business activities.

Russia’s digital Robin Hoods chose a very creative — and effective — means of attack. They encouraged all those who felt solidarity with the way seniors are taken advantage of by unscrupulous, greedy businessmen to call the company in massive numbers.

The purpose was to overload Farmit’s call center — as well as to try to stretch out its logistical operations. The latter was achieved by placing delivery requests to non-existent addresses far from the city center, thus sending couriers on unnecessary trips.

However, the attack became even more powerful after bloggers spread the company’s phone number all over the Internet, promising inexistent cheap rent, excellent new cars — and even escort services.

One blogger estimates that more than 21 million calls were made in the first five days of the campaign. The goal was to slow down Farmit’s sales to its existing customer base, most of whom are pensioners who believe everything they hear on the radio, as in the old Soviet days.

The bloggers’ efforts were not wasted. Outside Russia, all one may hear about is a toothless Russian parliament. But in classic democratic style, all it took to move the story toward resolution was one member of the Russian Duma.

It took just a few days for Evgeny Roizman, a Duma deputy from Ekatirenburg, to announce on his blog that he had filed an investigation request with the prosecutor general’s office. No sooner had that happened did the relevant regulatory body — the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) — promise to look into the legality of Farmit’s business if it received an official complaint. (Since then, several templates for such complaints have circulated on the Internet.)

To come to that determination, the FAS investigators used a straightforward test without much hesitation. Selling for more than $1,000 a drug that costs about a dollar to produce looked like reason enough to suspect a case of consumer fraud.

Not to be outdone by FAS and the prosecutor general’s offices, one of the biggest state channels in Russia — called RTR — also featured the case, along with the blog-launched flash mob, prominently in its prime-time slot. The campaign could have hardly gotten better publicity, and it appeared that Farmit would face a lot of unpleasant attention from several official bodies.

In light of all these developments, does the Farmit case present a rare victory for social justice in a country that is not really used to such a turn of events? In some ways, it is still too early to tell because the authorities have not yet announced their decisions.

But even at this juncture, the indications are that social justice — in this case, at least — is on the forward march. It surely demonstrates several promising — as well as threatening — roles that blogging can play in a country as complex, if not outright Byzantine, as Russia.

Among the biggest positives, which still outweigh the negatives at this point, is the emergence of a fresh and networked public sphere that is so badly needed in Russia.

For a presumed “lame and tame” democracy, the number of issues raised in several thousand comments that appeared in relation to the original angry post is mind-boggling. That at least indicates a vital democratic spirit in the raw.

The issue also offered a good opportunity for Russian citizens active online to deliberate on subjects such as the commercialization of the medical industry and most hospitals.

Discussing related issues — including the lack of state funding that pushes hospitals in this direction (and the overly aggressive marketing and viral sales campaigns that accompany this commercialization), the lack of proper media controls on deceptive advertising and many others — broadened the base of people interested in the discussion “thread” well beyond the bloggers and their readers.

In fact, the blog post touched off a mini Russian revolution. It’s hard to remember a time when a program on Russian TV or an article in a Russian newspaper did the same. Most of them today are, at best, just dull — and have little of the vitality and vigor of the discussions that are happening online.

As far as Russia’s future is concerned, and the pervasive questions about its democratic path, the networked aspect of this public sphere may be the most important of all considerations. It has the potential for fostering greater social and political change in the country.

In today’s Russia, Live Journal — the most popular blogging platform in the country — is more like a Parisian salon in that it cannot be missed by anybody who aspires for a public career.

As more and more influential people join the ranks of bloggers, they become much more accessible to regular people — and all sorts of collaborations start to take shape.

This is how the Farmit case attracted the comments of lawyers, politicians, journalists, NGO workers, businessmen and representatives of many other non-blogging professions. It’s unimaginable that all of them would be given the same time and attention in the tightly controlled professional media.

The Farmit case was not the first one where the Russian bloggers decided to intervene because they felt that a great injustice is taking place. In fact, there have already emerged certain rituals and rules that are closely followed in all such cases of cyberactivism.

Community-drawn cartoons, banners and logos are not a novelty anymore. What was novel, though, was the use of the Internet to distribute the text and layout of a leaflet that anybody could print out and distribute in their own neighborhoods, in order to warn seniors about medicines like Gravikol21.

The bloggers have also mastered the art of getting on top of all possible and impossible ranking systems. To be sure, ranking in the top five of a popular Russian blog search service means close attention from the non-blogging media public. To get there, all efforts are concentrated on leaving as many comments to the original post as possible, thus boosting its popularity with the system.

The Farmit case, once again, proves that we are witnessing the emergence of a certain set of useful rules that are not only to be followed, but are perfected with every new flash mob.

As an example of such an innovation, consider the bloggers’ concerted effort to have a question about Gravikol21 included in the nationwide Q&A with President Putin that took place on October 18, 2007.

Although the bloggers did not succeed in forcing Putin to answer the question, they surely did enough to bring the question to the attention of many people in his administration.

Or the step one blogger took when he suggested to repeatedly fax a copy of the Russian criminal code to Farmit’s fax number — to render it dysfunctional as soon as possible.

Then again, the ease with which a relatively small group of outsiders managed to disrupt operations of a whole company — albeit a small and totally secretive one — is disturbing.

After all, the pattern displayed here reflects the particular blend between cyber- and real-life warfare that was first tried in countries like Estonia in May 2007. It was subjected to the so-called denial of service attacks that paralyzed a great deal of the country.

And while the cause appears completely legitimate in the Farmit case, such real world disruptions performed by human actors present a real threat to companies and governments.

After all, the hyper-networked environment of the Internet allows information — or, what’s worse, disinformation — to spread within seconds, leaving the potential victim of the attack very little space for maneuvering.

It’s fine when the object of the attack is a “do-evil” company that deserves it. Yet now that this model has been successfully tested, there is no reason why somebody’s rage wouldn’t be pointed at those who are perfectly legitimate, but just happen to have a different view on a specific subject.

And sometimes, the reaction chain is even more obscure, or potentially sinister, than that. Curiously, the radio station that carried infomercials for Gravikol21 was “Echko Moskvy,” the most oppositional radio station in Russia.

Not surprisingly, many bloggers decided to direct their anger at the station — rather than at Farmit. One wonders what would have happened had all of them done so. The Kremlin, for one, must have liked the potential silencing of one of the country’s few remaining independent media voices.

While its overall impact on the state of cyberactivism in Russia has yet to be understood, the Farmit affair has broken a long-standing myth about apathy that has poisoned any social and political engagement of the Russian youth.

The campaign to get rid of Gravikol21 proved that these young people are very much engaged with social problems. They just show their engagement differently — and in ways that are hard to capture through traditional measurement methodology.

Yet just by looking at the solidarity that this younger generation exhibited with the generation of their parents and grandparents, one can feel perfectly safe in the assumption that LiveJournal has not killed their humanity.

Instead, it may have amplified it and made the suffering of others more transparent, more immediate — and more