Forty per cent of Russians, according to a recent poll, agree that United Russia, the chief pro-Kremlin force in the national legislature, is “a party of swindlers and thieves.” This sobriquet was coined a couple years ago by Aleksey Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and the most prominent figure of last year’s Moscow protests, and has firmly stuck ever since. The phrase doesn’t just apply to members of the lower house: lies, falsities, and theft pervade Russian officialdom. Navalny and his allies have worked to expose instances of graft and embezzlement by Russian officials, as well as their alleged ill-gotten gains and hidden properties abroad. In recent months, however, the investigative spirit led them elsewhere. They were attracted by Russian officials’ amazing academic achievements.
Russia is a highly educated nation, so it may not be a surprise that about half of its lawmakers hold academic degrees. What is amazing, however, is that in many cases their degrees are not indicative of an academic background. Dozens of legislators got their degrees after they had made it to the Duma. How did they find the time for extensive reading and research, as well as writing and defending a dissertation, while deliberating on bills, discussing policy ideas, and meeting with voters?
When Navalny’s allies began looking into this puzzle, they were almost immediately rewarded by unseemly findings.
One of the most recent reports, posted this week, has to do with a United Russia member Igor Igoshin, who entered the Duma in 1999 and has been reëlected several times since. In 2004 Igoshin was awarded the Russian equivalent of a Ph.D. (kandidat nauk) in economics. His dissertation was titled “Increasing the competitiveness of enterprises by realizing their market potential (a case study of food industry).”
Using specially designed software, the dissertation muckrakers spotted a source for Igoshin’s academic work. It was a dissertation defended two years earlier by a certain Natalia Orlova (who is not a lawmaker). Hers is titled “The competitive strength of confectionery enterprises based on market potential.” Igoshin’s hundred-and-eighty-seven-page dissertation overlaps by about eighty per cent with that of Natalia Orlova—with one major difference.
While Orlova’s original dissertation is about chocolate, Igoshin’s is about meat. Throughout the text “chocolate” was replaced by “meat,” “confectionery” became “meat-processing,” “white chocolate” was converted into “Russian beef,” “regular milk chocolate” became “imported beef,” and “dark chocolate” turned into “beef on bone of any origin.” In addition to copy-paste, the work of dissertation writing seemed to involve applying another basic word-processing function: batch replacement. As the investigation revealed, statistics, graphs and diagrams cited by Orlova in her research of sweets and chocolate were left unchanged in Igoshin’s “study” of beef and pork.
In another recently discovered instance of dissertation fraud, batch replacement was used to transform Ingushetia into Northern Ossetia, so that an original work about sociopolitical developments in the former became a study of the latter. A co-chairman of the Russian Congress of Caucasus Nations, Rauf Verdiev defended the converted version as his dissertation. The bitter irony of this “replacement” is that about two decades ago these two neighboring North Caucasus regions were engaged in an armed conflict in which hundreds were killed. Igoshin told a reporter for Kommersant FM radio that he wouldn’t comment until his lawyers had looked at the allegations. (Verdiev hasn’t commented yet, and I wasn’t able to reach him.)
Lawmakers and other holders of fraudulent degrees presumably don’t even bother with the copy-and-pasting or batch replacement; they simply pay others to write their dissertations for them. But those hired to engage in a major falsehood can hardly be expected to be models of integrity. They are not the sort of ghost writers who do quality research that a lawmaker would put his name on; they steal.
Looking for whoever was hired to produce the papers is not what the dissertation muckrakers are most interested in. “We assume, for the sake of simplicity, that lawmakers are the authors that they claim to be,” one of the investigators, Serguei Parkhomenko, told me. “What we investigate is plagiarism and forgery. They wanted to pass as authors of these dissertations, so now they are responsible for stealing other people’s work.” Parkhomenko added that most dissertations “authored” by officials that he and others have so far scrutinized have been found fraudulent.
The investigators are not an organized group; they are motley volunteers with good computer skills and a drive to disclose corruption. Parkhomenko worked as a political reporter, an editor-in-chief, and a book publisher before committing himself almost wholly to civic activism. A few others are academics, such as Andrey Zayakin, a Russian physicist, with a Ph.D. from Munich currently working in Spain. They are following a trail that was blazed by a group of academics who have been exposing cases of dissertation fraud for some time. But those investigators were primarily concerned about the decline of the Russian academia; Navalny’s allies are more interested in exposing the fraud of the political class.
Why are lawmakers so anxious to add academic merits to their résumés? “To them it is just part of the trappings of power,” Parkhomenko explains, “a Brioni suit, a BMW car, a state award, a Breguet watch, a beautiful blonde with by his side, a Ph.D. degree.” Procuring academic titles for reasons of vanity is not unique to Russia: in the past two years, in Germany, a defense minister and an education minister were found to have plagiarized parts of their dissertations. The latter, however, at least defended hers many years before she held her ministerial position, and both resigned soon after plagiarism was exposed. The difference, in Russia, is that pervasive corruption is taken for granted, and one tends to be amused rather than shocked by exposure of dissertation plagiarism and fraud.
Still, a few Russian lawmakers whose hidden properties have been exposed were forced to resign. But none of the high-ranking holders of fraudulent academic titles has so far been stripped of his academic degree, let alone resigned.
Altogether, volunteer investigators have exposed about a dozen plagiarized dissertations by high-ranking officials, including one by vice-speaker of the Duma, Igor Lebedev, the son of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a buffoonish ultranationalist and veteran legislator. Lebedev vehemently denied the accusations calling them “raving nonsense,” but his outrage seems to be his only argument. Probes of some forty more dissertations, according to Parkhomenko, are currently underway.
The dissertation muckrakers know just how small their effort is vis-à-vis the “swindlers and thieves,” especially since it enjoys little public support. The government that tolerates their effort now can turn against them at any time—the Russian state is not only deeply corrupt but also increasingly repressive. But they are undeterred. “The lie in which all of us dabble…appears bottomless and eternal,” Parkhomenko wrote in his LiveJournal. “It is thick and sticky above and below, right and left, far and close. But we still have to come up somehow.”
Photograph by Sasha Mordovets/Getty.
Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
This dissertation explores the role of social media in political activism in authoritarian societies, using as case studies the use of YouTube as an alternative channel of communication and resistance during the political crises in Pakistan, Tunisia, and Egypt. I studied Pakistan because it is one of the few majority Muslim countries in which social media were part of the media mix during the mass uprisings that led to the overthrow of the regime of military leader, General Pervez Musharraf in 2007. Tunisia and Egypt were chosen because these two countries are seen as the iconic nations of the Arab Spring 2011. The study argues that the term "Arab Spring" itself limits the scope of ongoing online and offline political uprisings in the Muslim World, which is spreading beyond the geographical boundaries of the Middle East.
The investigation uses "social movements" as defined and theorized by Hirschman (1970), Lohmann (1994), Olson (1965), and Tarrow (1994; 1998) as its theoretical foundation, in order to describe and explain how YouTube was part of the information activism of the social movements that sprang up during the revolutions in Pakistan, Tunisia and Egypt. A comparative methodological approach enables me to analyze the "most viewed" YouTube videos of political protests in the three countries.
By examining a purposive sample of 60 most viewed protest-related YouTube videos, the study explores how these videos served as a "voice," (alternative channels of communication) when the authoritarian governments controlled all the media in the three countries. Using quantitative content analysis and thematic analysis approaches, the study investigates YouTube's role and content during Pakistan's political crisis of 2007, and compares it with that platform's role as an alternative avenue of communication, as well as its content in the 2011 political uprising in Tunisia and Egypt, which are the core of the Arab Spring in North Africa.
Eight research questions were asked for this investigation. These questions were derived from Hirschman (1970), Lohmann (1994), Tarrow (1998), and Perlmutter's (1998) works. Issues that were investigated in these questions include: identifying the cultural and ideological frames used in the most viewed videos of each revolution, YouTube videos as "informational cascades," Al-Jazeera's role as "informational cascade," YouTube videos as a "Voice," and the most iconic images of each revolution.
The findings of these research questions suggest that in the absence of traditional media sources, YouTube can serve as an alternative platform of communication and dissent. The study finds that the social movements in the three countries (The Lawyers' Movement of 2007 in Pakistan, the so-called Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia (2010), and the Arab Spring of Egypt 2011) utilized YouTube as an alternate channel of communication to disseminate information on political protests against the dictatorial regimes for purposes of promoting resistance.
The visual content analysis of these videos revealed that the YouTube videos of political protests utilized common religious and national ideologies as a part of cultural and ideological frames to spread the narratives of political protests online.
The findings of this study support that the most viewed videos contributed to serve as informational cascades for the observers (YouTube viewers) of these protest-related videos. The findings also highlight that the pan-Arabic TV channel Al-Jazeera utilized YouTube as an alternative platform to disseminate its protest-related videos, particularly when the channel was banned in the three countries.
The visual content analysis of the most viewed videos of protests suggest that social movements in Pakistan, Tunisia and Egypt used YouTube to amplify their voice against corruption, unemployment, and authoritarianism in the three countries.
The findings of this dissertation identify that three images (one from each country) were treated as the icons of outrage in the 60 most viewed protest-related videos. These icons of outrage include the images of Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation (Tunisia), torture-disfigured face of Khaled Said (Egypt), and the arrest of Pakistani Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudry.
Based on its findings, the dissertation argues that the ongoing political struggle in Muslim-majority countries is a much bigger phenomenon than the "Arab Spring." This study also makes a strong case that Pakistan experienced online informational activism long before the Arab Spring of 2011. Since political communication in Pakistan is a relatively under-researched field, academic archives do not provide sufficient information on the role and emergence of social media in the country, including how the new modes of digital communication serve as alternative channels of political activism against dictatorship. This dissertation intends to fill this void.
The study also contributes to the existing literature on communication, social movements and political activism, which is predominantly specific to Western settings. Since this study applies Western approaches of social movements to non-Western settings, it helps to explicate the applicability of such approaches to non-Western societies and contexts. Furthermore, it is important to understand the role of social media as alternative channels of communication in closed, authoritarian societies where the traditional media serve only the interests of the ruling elites. In addition, the study helps to explain how the increasingly popular social media, e.g. YouTube, are contributing to civil liberties by challenging the authoritarian regimes of the Muslim World.
Arab Spring, Pakistan, Social Media, Social Movements, Tunisia, YouTube
Includes bibliographical references (pages 211-224).
Copyright 2014 Rauf Arif