Elizaveta Kopacheva

Why don’t more people become politically engaged in semi-authoritarian regimes like Russia?

A common perception is that people don’t become politically engaged due to a lack of education or political knowledge. In a new thesis, Elizaveta Kopacheva argues that this often isn’t the case. In Russia, for example, political engagement is a privilege of those belonging to the right social networks; those who are already privileged.

Transitioning to and sustaining democracy requires active citizens who protest, distribute political information, and represent fellow citizens in legislative institutions. Such political participation, many researchers believe, can be explained by education, interest, and political knowledge.

The digital revolution in the form of social media has increased the scope and speed of information to which we have access. Our political knowledge has increased, as have the opportunities of promoting consciousness, boycotting, and protesting. Yet, the scale of protest participation remains limited in semi-authoritarian countries such as Russia, which have a high potential for democratisation. Why is this?

Growing inequalities

This question is answered in a new dissertation in political science by Elizaveta Kopacheva. She has found that individual social networks are the most critical factor for political participation online.

“My results indicate that inequalities in political participation are growing exponentially in the digital era. People with high socioeconomic status have established advantageous networks that allow for political participation. The more active they are, the more and better contacts they get. Political participation then becomes a privilege for the already privileged”.

At the same time, disadvantageous groups are excluded from the process altogether. Having poor social networks, they have no access to information and thus don’t participate politically.

Innovative research

In her research, Elizaveta Kopacheva has studied unconventional political participation such as online activism, petitions, and protests, in both democratic and semi-authoritarian regimes, with Russia as an example of the latter. Using computer science methods innovative for political science such as Bayesian network analysis, machine learning, and social network analysis, she has developed an explanatory model for contemporary collective political participation. In the Russian context, the model proved to be 96% accurate in predicting protest participation.

“Traditional explanations suggesting that people don’t participate in politics due to a lack of education or political knowledge, fail to account for the limited protest participation observed in semi-authoritarian regimes like Russia; where the level of education is high and people frequently discuss politics on social media. Instead, my thesis demonstrates that individual social networks – not time, money, or civic skills – are the most critical factor for contemporary digital participation”.

Fewer protests, higher risks

The analyses in the study cover the years 2018–2021, a period when discontent reached its peak in Russia.

“The continuous democratic backsliding preceding the events of February 2022 raised more public discontent with the existing political system. As expected, the size and length of the protests decreased significantly in 2022, due to higher risks to individuals and a more strict control over information shared on social media”, says Elizaveta Kopacheva.

The results in the thesis are relevant also in the present.

“The findings really make sense not only in terms of access to information but even more so in terms of having resources. The privileged can afford high risks of protest participation in Russia.”

More information

The thesis The resource model of political participation 2.0: Protesting in semi-authoritarian regimes – A privilege of the privileged

human figures in networks