Russians are using the power of memes to fund independent journalism

14 August 2019

The team of creatives whose satire-fuelled take on Moscow’s opposition protests stormed the Russian internet have begun harnessing the power of memes to raise money for one of the country’s top independent news outlets, Mediazona.

The group gave thousands of Russians the power to add crowds of riot police to photos of their choice via a dedicated Telegram bot.

It spawned more than 600,000 memes from Russians keen to mock the police’s response to the demonstrations taking place in central Moscow for more than a month. Online videos have repeatedly shown police beating protestors, who are calling on city officials to allow disqualified opposition candidates to run in local elections amid claims they were barred from running illegally.

Tolya Kapustin, microblogger and Twitter producer for a Moscow ad agency, promoted the bot online. He told Russia’s TJournal that police response to the protests had left the city looking as if it was under “martial law”.

“Of course, there was a political message,” he told TJournal. “I don’t approve of what our government is doing, [and] I don’t approve of candidates being barred. With the help of this bot, I’m trying to reflect my fear of our city being overrun by martial law. If you can’t overcome something or lead it, you can laugh at it — and that makes it a little easier.”

The team are now harnessing the bot’s viral fame to drive funds to independent Russian news site Mediazona. The site, which specialises in in-depth reporting on Russia’s justice system, was founded in 2014 with the help of two former members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. “Have fun with riot police on the internet,” the team wrote in a special message to their 80,000 users, “but if you meet the riot police in real life, and — God forbid — something happens to you, these are the guys who will write about your story.”

The fundraising drive has already raised hundreds of dollars, far outstripping the $30 that the group spent on servers.

“Of course, we still need offline activism,” Kapustin told TJournal. “But sometimes it’s worth trying to think outside the box and beyond the usual donation drives and street rallies. It’s about thinking about the skills you have and using them in the best possible way to get us all a little closer to the beautiful Russia of the future.”

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