Taking Apart “RuNet”: Does the Internet Shape Russian Politics? (Part 1)
A cursory overview of the coverage of the Arab Spring last year might have led a naïve reader to believe that Twitter and Facebook were responsible for revolution. Granted the storyline was compelling—decades of repression suddenly overthrown by new media and fast-texting tech activists, whose celerity and innovation caught dictators completely off-guard. As time passed, however, the more sober analysts backed off a bit from the “social networks” hypothesis, ranking technology as a powerful mobilization tool, but deeming it incapable of doing too much more than translating pre-existing political and economic gripes into some level of street protest.
As pundits start misguidedly tossing about the terms “Decembrists Uprising” and “Russia Spring,” technology has again regained a central space in the media’s narrative of “imminent” revolution. Before we take another sip of that Apple-flavored Kool-Aid, it may be wise to step back and analyze Internet culture in Russia (or RuNet), especially in terms of its political influence.
First, it can’t be denied that Internet penetration in Russia has taken off over the last decade. The country boasts the largest number of total users in Europe, with some estimates indicating that just over a third of its 141 million inhabitants use the Internet daily. Geographically, the picture is much like you’d expect: if you live in a large city and have a McDonald’s next to your subway stop, then, yes, you’ve probably surfed the net. If you’re living out in sticks, though, then you probably haven’t seen the latest YouTube video skewering Putin. Cost is an important factor: subscriptions range from $3-4 (crazy low, right?) in Moscow to upwards of $30 in Siberia (which is considered exorbitant).
It also can’t be denied that Internet users, in general, do tend to be more political than the average Russian Joe . . . ahem, Ivan. My colleague John Reuter and I have found that Internet users are quite different from the rest of the Russian population—the amount of money they make is greater, they have generally finished university, and they are considerably younger. All of these characteristics are ones generally associated with (and this is true in the U.S. as well) more politically opinionated citizens. But the political picture is more muddled than one would expect. We looked at recent December 2011 survey data from the Levada Center that asked people about why they used the net as well as what they thought about politics. Roughly half of those surveyed used the Internet recently, whether it be for watching pirated movies, getting the latest gossip, or simply chatting with friends, and in what appears to be a rare occurrence, reading the news. Only 12 percent of these Internet users had ever read about politics on a blog or online discussion.
This seemingly low percentage of politically interested users, does appear to skew the numbers as a whole—public opinion polls conducted in person versus those on the Internet, paint very different pictures: support for Putin is on an order of magnitude lower online (ru). And we found something similar in our survey—the IT crowd in Russia overall, tends to be much more antagonistic to the current regime as well as skeptical about the fairness of elections; they also appear quite ready to join the movement in the streets if they haven’t done so already.
But, when attempting to predict how an Internet user feels about the regime, it really matters what online circle they run in. For example, those using Western sites (Facebook, Twitter, or LiveJournal) can’t get enough of the protest action. Those using Russian ones (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, or other Russian Facebook clones) are at a minimum indifferent about politics or are, in some cases, actively pro-Putin. The Internet takes in many a personality under its large umbrella. Just because more than half of Russia may come in contact with the web at some point doesn’t mean they all are going to jump on the protest bandwagon—they are getting distracted by great shopping deals or Adele and lose interest quickly.
What is beginning to take shape in our research (again, we’re just beginning) is that even among the Internet public, views can differ widely and do not guarantee the dissemination of objective information or automatic opposition to the regime. Smaller communities of active and vocal users dominate the headlines and can play an important role in driving the opposition to Putin’s regime. These individuals congregate on websites built in the West like Facebook or Twitter, and as a result of their chats and ties, are able to promote their views much easier to foreign media and wider audiences. However, they themselves are not representative of the Russian population as a whole, nor possibly the RuNet community.
For the geeks among us: I can pass on the working paper version (academic jargon for hopefully future publication) of our findings later this month. Stay tuned for the next post about the potential effects of this Internet community on Russian political developments.