Recent remarks by Russian leaders have caused those watching the revolutions in places like Tunisia and Egypt to wonder whether Russia might not be next. The speculation began when Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin, suggested to the Wall Street Journal that the events in Egypt were the result of Google senior managers manipulating the Egyptian people. Shortly thereafter, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said that outsiders had instigated events in the Arab world and had similar designs on Russia. He did not specify who these outsiders were.
These comments sparked a giddy whirlwind of attention that played into two familiar narratives: Twitter and Facebook can cause revolutions; and everyone in the Kremlin is afraid of the Internet because they think it is going to start a popular revolt.
It is difficult to say for sure if either of these narratives is accurate, but it seems almost undeniable that new media played at least some role in helping to organize protesters across the Arab world. In light of this role, it is worth examining three related questions: what is the state of new media in Russia; what steps is the Russian state taking to limit opposition voices on the Internet; and what impact have new media had on Russian politics to date?
The popularity of new media and social networking in Russia is undeniable. Traditional media have a well-established online presence, with as many as one in eight Russians getting his or her daily news from an online source. The country is home to a lively and vocal blogosphere and Russians are heavy users of social networking websites, too. According to an August 2010 report by comScore, an Internet market research firm, almost one in four Russians visit social networking sites at least once a month. Over the period studied, Russians spent more than twice as much time engaged in social networking as did Internet users in other countries.
One reason for this popularity could be that the Internet has proven a relatively free environment in which Russians can express their views. But engaging in criticism of the government via new media can draw unwanted attention and bring significant personal risk. In November 2010, unknown assailants attacked and nearly killed Oleg Kashin, one of Russia’s most outspoken bloggers. Kashin, a former Kremlin supporter, spent much of the previous two years needling regional leaders appointed by Moscow and the Kremlin itself. Such attacks have been commonplace against traditional media critical of the Kremlin.
Traditional media outlets’ online operations are also vulnerable to harassment from unknown sources. Last year unidentified hackers knocked offline the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is harshly critical of the Kremlin. The site was down for over a week. Over the past several years such attacks have grown more common. The crimes normally go unsolved.
Anonymous criminal acts are not the only challenges new media face in Russia. The Russian government has taken a variety of steps to isolate and quiet opposition and independent media and criticism coming from blogs and social network sites. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Russian government has begun arresting bloggers and blocking “extremist” content on sites such as YouTube, using regional IP blocking to temporarily disable websites in certain parts of the country. Also, the government has proposed requiring all Internet users to register their identities as a way to regulate and track expression on the Internet.
The Russian Supreme Court gave authorities another legal tool for Internet censorship last summer when they ruled that websites are not responsible for comments posted by visitors, but that the government Internet regulator could force sites to remove comments deemed inappropriate by the state. Sites that have failed to respond to such demands in a timely fashion have been temporarily forced offline.
The Russian government has not simply suppressed messages and users it considers threatening. In addition to marginalizing critics online, the Russian state has sought to engage with the Russian public by disseminating its own messages using various new media platforms. Medvedev, for instance, like many Russian leaders, maintains an active online presence. The 2010 award for Best Russian Language Website, awarded by Russia’s Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications, went to the President’s LiveJournal and Twitter accounts.
Finally, there is little evidence to date that the Internet is being used as an effective weapon against the Russian ruling elite. The widespread use of the Internet and new media in Russia has neither led to the development nor facilitated the expansion of a power center that could challenge the Medvedev-Putin United Russia government. The March 13 regional elections, for example, gave over seventy percent of the seats that were up for election to members of the ruling party.
New media in Russia is not new. Russian citizens have been online for years. But those who would use the Internet to mobilize ordinary citizens against the state face stiff headwinds and personal risk, both informal and formal. The government and criminal forces have taken steps in the past to silence dissenters and show no sign of abating. In Russia, it appears, the revolution will not be tweeted.
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