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  • Rashid

A weapon in our hands or to our heads? The case of Kyryz 'patriots' assaulting women in Russia

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

In Russia, ultra-right vigilante groups have been coordinating their activities online to retaliate on migrants and other targets such as alleged paedophiles (often confused with sexual minorities), alleged drug dealers, liberals, etc. Citizens organise themselves to deliver their own version of justice, which implies subjective offence-taking and immediate punitive measures with no innocence presumption.

Hand-in-hand with the threats coming from host state nationalists, vigilantism occurs within the targeted group of labour migrants when self-proclaimed Kyrgyz ‘patriots’ find offence in Kyrgyz women for interactions with non-Kyrgyz men. In response to these ‘offences’, women are assaulted. Retaliation is filmed on cellphones and spread online.

The anti-social ‘justice’

Having been subjected to such acts of mediated retaliation, most of the targets find themselves rather limited in options for seeking legal help. They fear a recurrence of retaliation, they want to erase their online presence, they lack capacities to produce counter-narratives and to deliver their own version of the story, and they cannot rely on the police.

Targets of vigilantes suffer embodied harms in the form of physical assaults and degrading acts of humiliation filmed on camera and disseminated online. Exposure, in this case, amplifies the harms and makes them long-lasting. In Foucauldian terms, both the body and the soul of the target are punished at once.

Exposure is not limited to digital media, episodes of denunciation re-enter the offline discourse through public statements and traditional media reporting, acquiring a new tier of meaning and further informing audience perceptions.

While governing the digital sphere is a Sisyphean toil to begin with, in Russia, strategic internet legislation has been instrumentalised to mute the critical voices. At the same time, until Moscow’s recent change of strategy and crackdown on the ultra-right groups, vigilante formations enjoyed immunity and their leaders were given the floor on national television.

The power of reporting

During data gathering, I conducted field interviews with various actors in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. So as not to endanger the targets, it was decided not to approach them; instead, I spoke with rights defenders, lawyers, law enforcement officers, researchers, vigilantes, and journalists.

The study addresses the importance of targets’ privacy protection as media reports can further expose victims by revealing their real names and by displaying their photos.

Reporters found themselves on the crossroad between ethics and the desire to spotlight the case and draw public attention to it.

At times, the journalists were the only people the targets could rely on for legal advice and support. The public, in its turn, largely expressed solidarity with vigilantes.

Connectivity versus alienation

My initial interest in the topic of media and migration was sparked during the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ when good journalism was starved for, as media platforms once again demonstrated their enormous capacities in influencing opinions. Pursuing my master’s degree at the time, I decided to investigate the portrayal of refugees in traditional media.

Fake stories flooded the discourse, and terminology surrounding migration was confusing at best.

Beyond this, social media demonstrated its dynamism in presenting ‘alternative facts’ and mobilising the masses over disinformation, demonisation of asylum seekers, and spreading stories on ‘rapefugees’…

While not working on the topic of migration directly, in my current research I look at cases where digital media is used by citizens to exercise social justice. Having lived in five different countries, I find studies on technology and migration not only fascinating but crucial in the age of unprecedented global move.

Digital technology has the capacity to both connect and alienate us from each other. Some communities and individuals take the important steps towards using new media for connectivity, while others instrumentalise these tools for the opposite purposes.

Armed with ‘digital weapons’

Offline biases manifest in digitally mediated retaliation. Given that essentially anyone can find offence in virtually anything, we all are subjected to being both potential victims and potential perpetrators of digital vigilantism.

However, does possession of ‘digital weapons’ in our pockets make us all latent murderers? Perhaps we are facing a debate similar to that surrounding gun control. Although, in the case with guns, their sole use is rather straightforward. With digital media, the use is in the eye of the beholder, and opportunities for creating both benefits and harms are infinite.

Featured article

Gabdulhakov, R. (2019). In the Bullseye of Vigilantes: Mediated Vulnerabilities of Kyrgyz Labour Migrants in Russia. Media and Communication, 7(2), 230-241. doi:10.17645/mac.v7i2.1927

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