In June, the dating app Tinder “swiped right” on the Putin regime. The Russian communications regulatory agency Roskomnadzor required Tinder to join a register of websites and services whose user data the Russian government can examine — and Tinder agreed. While Tinder has not yet handed users’ information to Russian regulators, inclusion on the register denotes agreement to comply with Russian authorities’ demands for that data. In insisting that Tinder be included on the registry alongside popular social media and blogging sites — where users criticize the Russian government, both casually and concertedly — Russia’s rulers made clear that they understand the venerable feminist axiom, “the personal is political.”
But while feminists seek to make the “personal” political — making public the abuses that happen to individual women in private in order to reveal sexist patterns of control — the Russian government wants to expose private behavior so it can exercise more political control over the population.
The power of information sharing
Most governments have rules about what may be communicated via publicly available media. Comedian George Carlin’s famous list of the seven words you can’t say on television comes to mind (though, in fact, Carlin’s monologue on the supposed “list” was followed — not preceded — by the formal establishment of FCC regulations on the broadcasting of indecent speech). But regimes concerned about the threat that collective action poses to their power are particularly interested in monitoring citizens’ private communications.
During the last few decades of Communist Party rule, the Soviet government tried to prevent citizens from getting new technologies that made it easier to spread information that could potentially endanger the regime. For instance, after trying to restrict access to VHS players (accessible only via the black market), the Soviet government allowed production of domestic VHS players — but simultaneously banned many foreign videos in order to reduce Soviet citizens’ exposure to Western films that had potentially corrupting capitalistic or “anti-social” values. The Soviet government also sharply restricted access to photocopy machines, which could be used to reproduce dissident literature.
The Kremlin may well have been right about those threats. Political scientists studying the Soviet Union found that such “horizontal technologies” let citizens connect with one another and share material that expressed a variety of opinions, undermining the Communist Party’s attempt to limit discussion of new ideas. That spread of information may have helped end Soviet rule.
Why govern the bedroom?
The Kremlin isn’t the only government to take an interest in its population’s dating and sexual habits. It took until 2003 for the Supreme Court to finally strike down state laws against private sexual acts other than heterosexual intercourse between consenting adults. In the same year, Great Britain finally eliminated Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988, which banned local governments from “promoting” homosexuality.
The current Russian government could mine Tinder’s user data to find anyone who’s interested in the same sex or who identifies as transgender, which could endanger people in a relatively antigay society. Or it could find and blackmail political activists for any unusual sexual or intimate interests, or for flirting or sexting outside their publicly known relationships. Putin’s regime has tried to use sexual entrapment against political opponents before. Having Tinder’s database at hand would make such tactics extremely easy to use. Including Tinder on the Russian data-sharing registry signals the state’s interest in monitoring citizens’ private lives — with the goal of narrowing the public sphere as much as possible.
But politicizing Tinder could backfire. Instead of atomizing and separating citizens so that they are afraid even to connect through a dating app, putting Tinder on the state’s regulatory registry could prompt Russians’ outrage over the violation of their privacy.
Shrinking the public and private spheres
In the age of the smartphone, the technologies themselves are beyond state control. Authoritarian regimes aiming to tightly manage the political sphere therefore want to monitor private activity — including what people do together while “horizontal” — as much as they want to watch and limit public protest. Russia’s laws levy large fines on unsanctioned protest and on insulting public officials. The goal is to restrict public discussion and prevent criticism of Putin’s government from spreading.
The regime has also sought to promote traditional (read: anti-liberal, anti-Western) values by enacting laws that punish any discussion of homosexuality in the presence of minors, often called the “homosexual propaganda” ban. Linking heterosexuality to patriotic national values reinforces the heteronormative masculinity on which Putin’s macho leadership and political legitimacy rest. And it further restricts publicly acceptable speech and action, just as the laws restricting protest do.
What’s the reaction so far?
So far, the popular response to Tinder’s inclusion on the registry has been limited to online griping and pointed sarcasm, already a staple of social media commentary. For instance, one commenter on a news item about Tinder’s decision wrote, “This is very important information necessary to ensure state security: Who’s been randomly [having sex with] whom?” Another joked, “There’s now a database at hand of cheating wives and husbands; expect an announcement to be posted in the near future on all the country’s boards about Tinder having been hacked.”
A few readers expressed concern directly about the ramifications of Tinder’s choice. One wrote, “So, dating sites are going to turn into recruiting centers and centers for collecting compromising information (kompromat)?” Another predicted that anyone named a “suspect” in a crime under investigation might find their Tinder chats used against them.
With the Russian government’s growing interest in scrutinizing social media, a shrinking private life is becoming a close companion of the dwindling public sphere.
Valerie Sperling is a professor of political science at Clark University.