Instagram is a new tool for activism in Russia – Interview with Ekaterina Kalinina

by Janne Suutarinen & Olga Dovbysh

Ekaterina Kalinina, PhD, is a lecturer at Södertörn University, Department of Media and Communication. Kalinina has recently been studying the protection of cultural heritage sites in Russia and more specifically the use of social media for the promotion of heritage protection activities. She has analysed how the highly popular photo-sharing application Instagram has proven to be handy in raising awareness about the alarming state of historical buildings across the country. In 2018-2019 Ekaterina was Visiting fellow in the Aleksanteri Visiting Fellows Programme.

Kalinina has been analysing Instagram accounts of a community of citizen historians, individual activists and non-profit organisations working towards preserving cultural heritage sites in Russia.

What kind of platform does Instagram provide for activism?

There has been lots of research done on activism on Facebook, Twitter and Vkontakte, but currently not so much on Instagram as a tool for civic engagement. While, it is actually a very interesting tool to be used for activism, because it is so much focused on image culture and allows for sharing visuals within a community as well as across communities of users. Captions, hashtags and links help to spread messages and increase visibility.

In Sweden, for instance  feminist activists have been using Instagram to promote body positivity by uploading unfiltered images of their bodies and hence questioning not only the whole culture of excessive dieting but also the aesthetics of the platform with its image-improving filters. For this kind of activism, Instagram is perfect: it allows to share the images and when strategically and critically used can help to question they way visual media produces inequalities and stereotypes.

What I realised in my studies is that Instagram is a useful tool also for people working in cultural heritage protection.  First of all, Instagram is useful for gaining publicity.

They can publish images of the historical sites in danger, photographs of volunteers repairing, cleaning and campaigning, information about public lectures and demonstrations, to name few possibilities.

Second, when uploading pictures on Instagram, one can use ‘filters’ to create a certain aura or an atmosphere to the photo to highlight a special character of the place depicted.

In this way cultural heritage sites can be made to stand out in the image feed and evoke bitter-sweet longing, nostalgia for the past, which in its turn can potentially lead to involvement into specific actions, for example joining the movement to stop decay and safeguard cultural heritage for future generations.

Third, when uploading images one can use geolocations to mark them on the map, which is especially important for the places that are located off the tourist trails and rarely get visitors. So by putting them on the map, the activists increase the chances of these places to be visited.

Last, but not the least, one can make use of infographics or visualisations of statistics that can be easily digested in couple of images. This is especially important when one wants to inform publics in the age of overload of information, when people hardly have time or guts to engage in long reads.

To sum it up, Instagram is good for raising awareness and bringing together a group of people who care about the commons.

What are the particularities of Russian Instagram activism?

In Russia, Instagram is used as a branding tool by commercial companies to promote products and services. So the use of the platform by non-commercial and non-governmental organisations and activists is a logical step. They all tend to use the platform as one of communication channels, but not the only one.

Political activists also use Instagram, for instance Aleksey Navalny has his own account. He shares short videos, usually with a caption that redirects the user further to other accounts, such as his Youtube channel, hence linking several media platforms together. This allows to create virality and raise awareness to promote actions.

The government as well has found its way on the platform to be able to reach out to the younger audiences. One of such examples is Instagram account of Rosmolodezh, a federal agency working with youth politics.

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