Abstract: Amid the intensification of state control over the digital domain in Russia, what types of online activism are tolerated or even endorsed by the government and why? While entities such as the Anti-Corruption Foundation exposing the state are silenced through various tactics such as content blocking and removal, labelling the foundation a “foreign agent,” and deeming it “extremist,” other formations of citizens using digital media to expose “offences” performed by fellow citizens are operating freely. This article focuses on a vigilante group targeting “unscrupulous” merchants (often ethnic minorities and labour migrants) for the alleged sale of expired produce—the Hrushi Protiv. Supported by the government, Hrushi Protiv participants survey grocery chain stores and open-air markets for expired produce, a practice that often escalates into violence, while the process is filmed and edited to be uploaded to YouTube. These videos constitute unique media products that entertain the audience, ensuring the longevity of punitive measures via public exposure and shaming. Relying on Litvinenko and Toepfl’s (2019) application of Toepfl’s (2020) “leadership-critical,” “policy-critical,” and “uncritical” publics theory in the context of Russia, this article proposes a new category to describe state-approved digital vigilantes—citizen-critical publics. A collaboration with such publics allows the state to demonstrate a façade of civil society activism amid its silencing; while state-approved participants gain financial rewards and fame. Through Foucauldian discourse analysis, the article reveals that vulnerable groups such as labour migrants and ethnic minorities could fall victim to the side effects of this collaboration.
Keywords: authoritarian publics; digital vigilantism; Foucauldian discourse analysis; Hrushi Protiv; internet control; Russia; social justice