How Navalny Torpedoes Russian Officials

Photo: “Bribe” over Oleg Deripaska embracing Sergei Prikhodko, Titanic-style

By Alexander Naumov

“Hi, it’s Navalny.” This is how Russia’s most popular oppositionist starts his YouTube video blogs before grilling his country’s elite with meticulous accusations of corruption. The 42-year old activist exploits open-source methodology to expose secret wealth, cronyism, bribery, and other indiscretions by Russian officials. By employing character assassination against them, Navalny affects the informal governance of his country despite being barred from elections. This blog post looks at his most successful CA attempt: against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.“Don’t call him Dimon”

A year our from the presidential election that Putin – and Medvedev’s government – was expected to win, Alexey Navalny’s biggest bombshell hit YouTube. The 49-minute documentary (with English subtitles) deeply embarrassed Medvedev by exposing his undeclared income, palaces, and favors given to buddies from school. The video gathered 27 million views, a big deal for a country with just over 100 million voters. Its title is sarcastic, an objection to Medvedev’s diminutive nickname: Navalny means that ‘Dimon’ is not worthy of it because his corruption is too insidious.

Navalny’s strategy: memory, humor, and substance

Compared to Russian state TV’s smears of Navalny, his own approach to CA is innovative and diverse. His charges against Medvedev were lawyerly and documented. They also included humor and pop culture references without distracting from the gravity of the corruption. First, Navalny repeated his simple and lexical label for politicians of the ruling party: ‘crooks and thieves.’ The editors also interspersed clips from a 2011 viral video of Medvedev dancing, ironically, to the song ‘American Boy.’ Such tactics provide comic relief, motivating people to watch to the end. More importantly, this triggered ideas about ‘Dimon’ that the Russian audience already had on their mind.

Next, Navalny combined quantity and quality of arguments. His OSINT methodology includes legal documents, drone footage of palaces, and WikiLeaks-provided personal phone data to make a strong case for highly involved viewers. These include Russian liberals and those that at least had heard of Navalny before – 55% of Russians according to a March 2017 Levada poll. But the sheer number of arguments – ten ‘chapters’ of corruption – left unacquainted viewers with, at best, a questionable impression of Russia’s number-two leader.

Was Medvedev’s character assassinated? His polling suggests so. Within a month of the upload, the prime minister’s approval slipped from 52% to 42%… and kept going. Navalny’s own reputation was never great: nearly two thirds of Russians rejected him as a presidential candidate before “Dimon” came out. A month later, this rejection rate dropped to 45% – clearly conveying leadership credentials in viewers’ eyes, and at the expense of his victim.

“Yachts, oligarchs, and girls” undermine the elite

Navalny’s use of legitimate evidence to make many strong arguments affirms conventional wisdom that arguments grounded in (what appears to be) objectivity are likely to be more persuasive. The video’s success also challenged skeptics of the Russian opposition who believe only the TV is a politically relevant medium in Russia. It also kept the work going: Navalny repeated the open-source + pop culture formula in the 2018 investigation that featured kompromat, the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, ‘sex trainer’ Nastya Rybka, and Medvedev’s powerful chief of staff Sergei Prikhodko. As bizarre as the association was, Navalny exploited previously overlooked information to blast Prikhodko, which Deripaska failed to refute by dodging the press. Navalny uses a parody of Grand Theft Auto V’s ‘wasted’ game effect to stamp the word ‘bribe’ onto the men’s faces.

Oh, and the Russian government essentially helped him. It compounded both CA attempts with the Streisand effect, first with a court order to remove “Dimon” from YouTube (this was followed by Russia’s largest demonstrations since 2012). Last week, Russia jailed Anastasia Vashukevich – a.k.a. Nastya Rybka, the ‘huntress’ that Navalny featured to unveil Prikhodko and Deripaska’s indiscretions.

To defend their character from the likes of Navalny, perhaps public officials should steer away from implausible deniability in the age of open-source.

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