Social media, Russian style

Even taking a quick look at the Russian-language version of Twitter could be time well spent, say Heidi Smith and Anna Caddick

Russia and the CIS are brimming with information sources that English lawyers are currently ignoring. Odnoklassniki, Vkontakte and Moi Mir attract very high percentages of Russian online users while the Russian-language interfaces of Twitter and LinkedIn are gathering momentum. Russian-language social media channels can help lawyers identify a wealth of credible information to support litigation or due diligence exercises; ignoring such widely available real-time information is to ignore a potential goldmine.

Lawyers have a natural reluctance to turn to social media, both in the context of their own professional profiles and as an information source. In the UK and much of the western world, social media platforms are considered to be largely unregulated. Further, their users (the increasing crackdown on the Twitterarti aside) are thought to be somewhat immune to the laws of libel and contempt, thus reducing the reliability of this information.

In the UK, despite recent isolated cases of sub-standard investigative journalism well outed by Leveson, the credibility of a news item can usually be assessed by reference to its publisher. Editorial independence from government can also usually be assumed. However, moving beyond the boundaries of the EU towards the Russian-speaking regions, reliance on information sourced from traditional media channels cannot be assured and they must therefore be viewed in an entirely different light.

The reason for this is that state ownership of traditional media persists in many Russian-language republics, for example Pravda or Rossiskaya Gazeta. This often skews the editorial line in favour of individuals with allegiances to the government. At best only cautious reliance may be placed on traditional media outlets for information about government officials involved in transactions related to state assets or matters with a political slant, of which there are more than one might think. In addition, numerous restrictions on independent reporting exist in law and regulation. Threats of criminal prosecution, or worse, prevent even the most ardent chief editor from investigating issues such as corporate governance or the ultimate beneficial ownership of state-linked assets.

Social media channels can help to counter this information deficit by providing uncensored information in real time. Such channels in the Russian-speaking world are developing quickly and run in parallel to the more familiar English-language channels. Odnoklassniki, Vkontakte and Moi Mir are social networking sites that are as popular in the Russian-speaking republics as their English-language equivalents.

Professional journalists and opposition political figures, who are marginalised from writing in the state-subsidised media, have resorted to blogs and other online media forums to express their opinions and findings, since these channels remain beyond the reach of the state. The public and self-regulating nature means that misinformation is quickly corrected. The result is that the reliability of social media channels in some countries, including the Russian Federation, may be enhanced relative to their English-language equivalents.

Added to this, there is an inherent tendency to give fuller information, whether intentionally or not, on social networking sites than in more formal media outlets. For instance, purportedly independent experts might provide useful disclosures of connections to their ultimate client hitherto hidden.

In a recent project to find possible links between two Russian individuals involved in high-value litigation, Russian Paralegals found the link in their Russian-language Linkedin profiles, after having conducted an extensive search of public and official records. The individuals had reported to the same person in an obscure company decades previously. Examples such as these suggest that new media sources have a useful role.

It is becoming clear that lawyers ignore at their peril the lack of independence of traditional media outlets in Russian-speaking republics, and the availability of independent uncensored information in social media. The proliferation of Russian-language clients in the London legal system suggests that even a cursory look at the Russian-language version of Twitter may be time well spent.

Heidi Smith is director of Russian Paralegals and Anna Caddick is a senior associate in the commercial litigation department at Olswang