Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Independent Crowd Counting Group Seeks to Provide Accurate Numbers for Russian Protests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 28 – Often the most important aspect of any demonstration is control of the narrative about how many people took part, with supporters often overstating the figures to make it appear they have more support than they do and opponents lowballing them to send the opposite message.

            In the Russian case, the government typically offers smaller numbers for opposition figures than the leaders of those actions do; and journalists committed to the principle of balance as evidence of objectivity typically reproduce both, given the Kremlin added reason to understate the figures confident that its numbers will gain an audience.

            In Western countries, there are a variety of independent monitoring groups which seek to give accurate numbers and thus prevent the two sides from being able to offer these competing accounts with success. Now, there is one in Russia too. Its leader Dmitry Nesterov tells MBK media’s Aleksandr Semenova about it (mbk-news.appspot.com/suzhet/proekt-belyj-schetchik-ka/).

            The group, which calls itself “the White Counter,” arose in 2013, grew out of election observers at that time, Nesterov says.  It uses the same technologies its Western counterparts do and believes that the margin of error in its final reports about the size of any demonstration is “on average, three to five percent,” far smaller than the range of other estimates.

            The activist notes that his group faces a variety of problems. One of the most intriguing concerns the differences in the behavior of participants in protests depending on which groups are involved.  The more liberal the group, he suggests, the later its younger members show up and that makes counting harder.

            Nesterov says that to try to reduce the impact of these differences, his group has asked organizers to let them know not only when the demonstrations are supposed to begin but also when people have been asked to assemble. 

            Up to now, he continues, his group “observes only opposition or moderately opposition meetings” rather than pro-government ones. It relies on volunteers, although it carefully checks them, and these people often would otherwise come to the meeting but “want to do something else useful.”

            Typically, Nesterov says, “the police do not interfere with the volunteers and even appear interested in the results” his group has obtained especially when they are at odd with those the government would like people to accept. The police have their own numbers, of course, and some of them may come from the White Counter itself.

            Unfortunately, the Russian media spread the government numbers rather than the real ones, and Russians “who do not read the independent media receive only those numbers which serve the powers that be.”

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