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Can Russia's Social Media Forces Push the Putin Regime?

Posted by: admin on Tue, 2011-09-27 09:49

The latest political news from Russia has President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swapping jobs again next year with the aim of sustaining Putin's personal power structure for perhaps another dozen years. In principle, Russians could reject this arrangement when they go to the polls in March 2012 to elect a new president, but it appears that Putin is still popular enough to get what he wants. As Russia's political opposition blows in the wind, some social change advocates look to the internet as a potent grassroots conduit for movements against monolithic government control.

By: Anastasia Mirzoyants

The latest political news from Russia has President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swapping jobs again next year with the aim of sustaining Putin's personal power structure for perhaps another dozen years. In principle, Russians could reject this arrangement when they go to the polls in March 2012 to elect a new president, but it appears that Putin is still popular enough to get what he wants.

As Russia's political opposition blows in the wind, some social change advocates look to the internet as a potent grassroots conduit for movements against monolithic government control. A recent example of this view is in the report, “Social Change and the Russian Networked Societies” by Josh Machleder and Gregory Asmolov.

The authors contend that growing access to new and social media technologies (the internet in particular) allow bloggers and participants in social networks to create a socio-political space independent from and alternative to the traditional space established and controlled by the Russian government. The new space relies on Twitter and social networking sites as their primary sources of information - not TV, radio or newspapers.

The new alternative space consists of a significant number of issue- or individual-centered “network societies” produced by a politically active and diverse Russian blogosphere. They conclude that the newly-formed network societies are challenging governmental authority and can thus help reshape Russia's socio-political landscape. This has the potential to force more governmental accountability, prompt citizens to participate in their own governance, and support democratic processes in Russia.

In my opinion, this optimistic view must be treated with extreme caution in the context of Russia's general information landscape. Two recent studies -- Russian Foundation of Public Opinion and “Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere: Mapping Runet Politics and Mobilization” by Bruce Etling et al., 2010 -- suggest that the politically active portion of the Russian blogosphere is comprised of less than 5 percent of adult Russians, with approximately half residing in the Moscow area, about a quarter blogging from the Siberian Federal Okrug/Region and the remaining quarter scattered across the country. Thus, while truly passionate, colorful and very diverse, the politically-oriented part of the Russian blogosphere remains a rather thin slice of society.

As in any ethnographic observation, “Social Change and the Russian Networked Societies” is subject to possible selection bias, here possibly the strong focus on Moscow and the Central Federal Okrug/Region. The Moscow-centric distribution of blogs involved in Politics and Public Discourse makes such selectivity a plausible choice for an ethnographic study. However, the blogosphere in the central part of Russia is representative of the Runet or Russian blogosphere to the same minimal extent to which Moscow is representative of the entire Russia, (Moscow is not Russia and Russia is not Moscow runs the old saying). The Russian capital draws wealth – monetary, technological, intellectual, informational as well as a wealth of global connections – and remains an aspiration for the rest of the country yet, those aspirations remain mostly as unachievable as are the living/working standards of Moscow in compared to Krasnoyarsk or Omsk.

The choice of the network societies to be analyzed in “Social Change and the Russian Networked Societies” provides another example of selection bias: the authors tend to highlight cases that are successful/positive and/or support the study’s hypotheses. Yet for each of the successful cases reported by the study, there are other cases of promising networks that turned ineffective– mostly due to co-opted, corrupted or threatened leaders – as discussed in the publication “The Web That Failed” by Floriana Fossato, John Llloyd and Alexander Verkhovsky (2008).

The goal of this post is not to find the flaws in the report by Machleder and Asmolov, who clearly are very knowledgeable about the Russian social media sphere. Rather, the goal is to use this truly interesting study to illustrate two important points: firstly, there are clear indications of positive developments currently taking place in the Russian blogosphere. The signs of such developments include the change in the Russian audience’s online behaviors, changing attitudes toward civil rights and civil responsibilities, and the change in the identities of the Runet community. The appearance and successes of network societies is one of the important examples of the positive development.

Secondly, however, it is very easy to overestimate this progress, especially when considering the findings of qualitative studies that are narrow in scope and aimed to highlight selected elements rather than develop a complete picture. The main conclusions are that the potentially positive impact of the Russian blogosphere must be placed in a broader context, and that qualitative studies -- e.g., ethnography or an expert interview –should be considered with reference to a larger numerical framework. Otherwise, they might lead to speculations, unsubstantiated hopes and, quite possibly, disappointments.


Anastasia Mirzoyants is a Project Manager for Eurasia working in the countries of the Former Soviet Union Block. She is finishing her PhD in Educational Foundations and Leadership at the University of Toledo, Ohio. Her interests include Human Rights Education and Education for Peace and Democracy.


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