От А до Я: Weaponization of Social Media with Dr Rashid Gabdulhakov

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In the nineteenth episode of the От А до Я podcast I have the pleasure to be joined by Dr Rashid Gabdulhakov – assistant professor at the Center for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen. The topic of this episode is digital vigilantism – a popular yet often overlooked function of social media.

About Rashid Gabdulhakov

Apart from being an assistant professor at the UG, Rashid likes to refer to himself as an “academic nomad”, having resided in nine cities and five countries. What most astonished me about his travels is the way he moved from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Rotterdam, the Netherlands – by train.

In November 2021 Rashid successfully defended his PhD cum laude on “Digital Vigilantism in Russia: Citizen-led justice in the context of social change and social harm” at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. I’ll never forget this one early Monday morning when Rashid showed up to class with two bags full of Dutch sweets and desserts to celebrate his attainment with us, which brings me to the next point – he is my first university tutor. My academic year started off with his course called Studying Media in Everyday Life, which opened my eyes to the vast quantities of media texts we consume every day (your screentime is just a fraction, trust me).

Digital Vigilantism

Listen to the episode and you’ll find out this term is a mouthful once you try to pronounce it. However, it’s key to understanding the broader uses of social media in today’s age.

“In its basic terms, vigilantism describes activities when people take on police duties to either replace the state or, you know, support the state, becoming the extension of law enforcement basically to make sure that others adhere to some form of legal rules or moral rules”, says Rashid.

In itself, vigilantism is nothing new. Look at cowboys from your favorite Western – they were the vigilantes during the American frontier. The only difference nowadays is that you can’t be walking around your neighborhood with a loaded gun, taking out anyone who’s breaking certain legal or moral rules, at least in your eyes. What you can do, however, is join a digital vigilantism group, such as the Russian-based StopXam, also known as Stop a Douchebag.

The group addresses parking and traffic violations in major cities across Russia. We’re talking people driving on the sidewalk type of violations. Their activities boil down to approaching the violators and engaging in a verbal, and often a physical, back and forth, capturing the interaction, and posting it on YouTube. So instead of getting a fine, you’re getting reputational damage because the next time someone Googles your name the first thing that might pop is an “I park like a douchebag” video on StopXam’s YouTube channel.

One could only wonder – where’s the traffic police?

There’s no denying that Russia has a strong police force – recent events are a case in point. The issue has to do with “administrative resource” or in layman’s terms – connections with the ruling elite. Expensive cars with customized registration plates are usually a dead giveaway that the driver has administrative resource, so the police are afraid to approach them. This is just a basic introduction to digital vigilantism. Stop a Douchebag is arguably a positive example of present-day vigilantism, but multiple other groups conduct questionable activities from a moral, ethical, and legal standpoint. Some of them are overtly criminal, and some are even related to or supported by the Kremlin. Tune in to get the bigger picture of digital vigilantism in Russia.

The Weaponization of Media

Digital vigilantism might sound like a great concept until you become the victim. According to Dr Gabdulhakov, there’s no presumption of innocence but guilt. In contrast with the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty, which is a human right under the United Nations’s to Declaration of Human Rights, for digital vigilantes you’re always wrong.

Picture this – you’re a worker at a major Russian grocery store chain and your superior has ordered you to stock the shelves with expired produce. Then members of Hrushi Protiv (“Piggies Against”) in pig costumes storm the store and confront you for selling products beyond their expiration date. Soon the talking and shouting stop, and a fight outbursts while someone is filming the entire stunt. Your name (it’s on your tag, remember, you work there) and your face will be put on YouTube under a video with a title suggesting that you’re selling potentially hazardous food.

Many questions arise, one of which is: “Is this form of retaliation legal and proportionate?” After all, grocery store workers have no say over what is sold – they just do what they’re told. What’s more, Dr Gabdulhakov’s research shows that often times these employees are immigrants. Thus, apart from the embarrassment on-location and online, such videos could very well lead to the issue of misrepresentation of marginalized communities, legal problems of immigrant workers, and reinforcement of nationalist ideologies. Tune in to see what Rashid has to say on the matter.

(Social) Media in the Russia-Ukraine War

Apart from our long discussion on digital vigilantism in Russia, Rashid and I also focus on the media’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war. All of the opinions stated are strictly our own and based on factual knowledge and theory. One of the topics we discuss is the withdrawal of certain companies, such as Facebook. Meta’s platform does far more than just connect people over the world. Known as an “infrastructural platform”, it provides the basis for the creation and operation of other apps and (sectoral) platforms.

It’s not just about influencers losing their jobs and people losing touch with friends and family. It’s also about locking Russia out of a complex system that makes the Internet work, which cannot be built overnight despite what Russian officials claim. Another issue we address is the framing of Ukrainian refugees by global media companies (Al-Jazeera was quick to pick up on this). Listen to our full conversation to grasp the underestimated and overlooked power of present-day social media.

As a final remark, I’d like to thank Rashid for willing to re-record this episode due to a malfunction in the equipment during our first recording. He’s got that specific spirit of a man who likes to do and is very active on LinkedIn and Twitter (@Gabdulhakov_R).

If you want to learn more about him, his opinions, and his love for art and food (in particular, plov – Central Asia’s most famous dish) you should definitely give him a follow or check out his blog at www.plovism.com.

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