Political scandal and new media: A technology of liberation?

Managing public outrage: Power, scandal, and new media in contemporary Russia

From New Media & Society

This article challenges the long held assumption that political scandals can only occur in liberal democracies, also as most studies on scandals were authored before the rise of the internet and social media. It scrutinizes scandals that emanate from the new sphere of social media. To address both aspects this study asks the question how are such ‘internet scandals’ impacting politics in contemporary Russia?  Furthermore it aims to enrich the broader, currently on-going academic debate on the question of whether the internet is to be seen rather as a ‘technology of liberation’ or as one of ‘control’. Do scandals that emanate from the new sphere of social media actually ‘empower’ Russian citizens?

Two case studies are presented to vividly illustrate how public outrage over key political issues can also be sparked by blatant violations of moral feelings deeply rooted in the populace. Russian citizens were not outraged because the culprits of the scandals had broken the law. Nor did they later care if the perpetrators were punished according to it. Rather, Russian citizens were appalled because they shared the deep moral feeling that the occurrences were so despicable that they simply should not happen in their country. These scandals presented could not have occurred without the existence of certain ‘spheres’ of media that functioned independently of central power. The relative weight of these media spheres, their respective political ideologies, and their internal structures seem to be crucial variables that determine the course and outcome of political scandals in a context that might be called a ‘hybrid’ media system. The approach proposed in this article seems to open up promising avenues for further comparative research across cultural and political contexts. While the scope of this article was limited to two case studies from Russia, it would be valuable to see how the findings are paralleled by or deviate from those, for instance, related to internet scan­dals in China, Arabic countries, or other regions of the world.


Over the past three decades, scholars studying the phenomenon of political scandal have mostly based their works on the premise that scandals can only occur in liberal democracies. Contradictory to this assumption, however, some of the most heavily discussed phenomena in contemporary semi-authoritarian Russia are scandals emanating from the new, vibrant sphere of social media thriving on a largely unfiltered internet. How are these ‘internet scandals’ impacting politics in the semi-authoritarian political environment? To address this and related questions, I juxtapose two case studies of police corruption scandals that erupted in the social media sphere in 2009/2010. Drawing on the findings, I argue that Russia’s ruling elites are presently very much capable of managing these outbursts of public outrage. Mainly with the help of the powerful state-controlled television, public anger is very swiftly redirected towards lower-level authorities and foreign, supposedly hostile powers.

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Article details
Toepfl, F. (2011). Managing public outrage: Power, scandal, and new media in contemporary Russia New Media & Society DOI: 10.1177/1461444811405021



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