‘The Russification of WikiLeaks’: Crowdsourcing the fight against Russia’s casual corruption

Russia has a peculiar attitude to the whole Wikileaks affair. While the rest of the world debates whether Julian Assange is a hero or a reckless criminal, or whether confidential information should stay that way or not, Russians mostly meet every new cable from the US embassy in Moscow with an apathetic sigh.

Virtual mafia state, you’re saying? Oh please! Is that really a secret? To millions of Russians it definitely isn’t. Corrupt high-ranking officials publicly accused of their crimes not only keep their posts but often get promoted. So you can leak whatever you like, it won’t make any difference. If you’re lucky, you’ll stay alive and out of prison. But the subject of your scoops, investigations and revelations won’t even flinch, let alone resign or even publicly apologise.

Another problem with the leaked documents is that the majority of these cables are, let’s face it, unbearably tedious and written in dry bureaucratic lingo. It’s highly unlikely that anyone except for professional journalists assigned to the task will read them, especially in the case of the Russian audience which has to do so in a foreign language. The majority of Russian’s have to rely on Wikileaks’ official representative in Russian media, a weekly magazine called Russian Reporter, which has been criticised over the veracity of its coverage of the embassy cables release.

But despite the WikiLeaks cables being properly available to only a small portion of the Russian audience, and interest in the Russification of WikiLeaks being generally low, a Russian version site that sprung up recently turned out to be so popular that it crashed several times under the burden of requests in the first few days after the launch. Ruleaks.net, which was set up by the Pirate Party of Russia, has already been quoted in dozens of Russian-language media all over the world. It’s hard to say exactly why, but I can explain the motivation that drives dozens of volounteer translators to help Ruleaks.net, myself included.

First of all, it helps you feel like you are a part of something important, even though your name never appears anywhere – the website operates on a strictly anonymous policy. Secondly, I get to read all the leaks that I otherwise wouldn’t – after all, I’m now doing it for a common cause, not for own amusement. And the potential for journalistic self-improvement is enormous: in the course of two days and a couple of translated leaks I learned the full nomenclature of tags and notes in classified documents and now can crack these cryptic combinations of letters and numbers like nuts.

But the best thing about Ruleaks is its technological basis, an innovative crowdsourcing platform Powercrowd.ru, which allows multiple translators to work on a single leak which may be too big for one to handle. Vadim Likholetov, Powercrowd.ru’s developer, says the project wasn’t originally intended to be used exclusively in conjunction with Ruleaks, but it’s a great opportunity to ‘break in’ a tool that is versatile enough to tackle any similar task.

Crowdsourcing, it seems, is finally catching on in Russia. Online anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who is proudly hailed as ‘our very own WikiLeaks’ (although his methods are different from Assange’s, as Navalny only publishes legally obtained documents), has been extensively blogging about all kinds of corruption and injustice in Russia for several years. He has 27,000+ subscribers to his blog and one of his latest posts – on alleged widespread embezzlement at a state-owned oil company – gathered the maximum amount of comments allowed by Livejournal.com: 10,000.

Quickly realising that he alone would be overwhelmed with the amount of work which largely consists of meticulous skimming through thousands of pages of official documents, Navalny asked his readers if they could help him out. Several months later, rospil.info was launched. The URL is a clever pun: the name of every state corporation in Russia begins with Ros-, and the widely used euphemism for embezzlement is ‘raspil’, literally ‘sawing’ – hence the two saws in the eagle’s paws on the logo.

This is a crowdsourced effort to expose the ‘sawing’ of state funds through fake auctions; people skim through the website on which all bids for government purchases are announced, post suspicious ones on rospil.info and then have volounteer experts to look through them. So far, in a couple of weeks since the launch, the results are noteworthy: fake auctions worth £210 million have been exposed and hastily canceled. And all of this with near-zero budget.

Similar projects are springing up everywhere now: Fiodor Gorozhanko from St.Petersburg launched zalivaet.spb.ru (‘We’re drowning!’), a website where anyone can mark on a map the location of a leaking roof, the problem which the city’s inefficient and corrupt authorities can’t or don’t want to handle, while another maps potholes, etc. And since none of these initiatives have yet reported any pressure from the authorities whose incompetence they are pointing out, perhaps those up above are finally realising that exposing flaws in the state’s fabric might be actually good for it.

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