Staunton, December 16 – Many in the West assume that Russians who turn to the Internet instead of government-controlled media will become more liberal as a result, but in fact, a new study finds, Internet use by Russians has an impact much like that in other countries: by their choice of sites, surfers seek and gain reinforcement for positions they already have.
Consequently, while Russian liberals who use the Internet may become more liberal, their views being reinforced and validated by the sites they visit, Russian conservatives, nationalists, and communists who go online and visit very different sites have analogous experiences with their views being reinforced and validated rather than challenged.
To the extent this is the case, the Internet may exacerbate divisions within society, but it is unlikely to serve as the magic wand many have imagined it to be, especially given that Moscow appears to understand this and is simultaneously promoting nationalist and conservative sites even as it is seeking to block or otherwise restrict liberal ones.
In a report on this issue, Dmitry Novikov, a researcher at the Moscow Center for Scientific Political Thought and Ideology, argues that “the political map of the Russian segment of the Internet [is currently] a reflection of the quality of government administration” (rusrand.ru/analytics/politicheskaja-karta-rossijskogo-segmenta-interneta-kak-otrazhenie-kachestva-gosudarstvennogo-upravlenija).
Since the end of the USSR, the government has not been able to fill the ideological vacuum that opened up. Instead, a variety of groups have sought to provide one. Not surprisingly, the Internet reflects this, and because only 40 percent of Russians now go on line, the impact of the net in this regard will only grow as more people use it.
It is already the case that the Internet is becoming more important than other means of the dissemination of information, he says, and it is likely that the 2012 election was the last presidential vote in Russia in which “television agitation will play a greater role than agitation campaigns in the Internet.”
But “in the information marketplace, supply does not always correspond to demand,” Novikov continues. “The political preferences of Russians are varied and inconstant, and those things too find their reflection in the Internet,” with a wide variety of sides offering a wide variety of positions.
Research shows, he says, that “the most visited political Internet resources which undoubtedly exert a significant influence on the formation of public opinion as a rule are not distinguished by neutrality.” Instead, they are partisans of one or another position, and Russians go to those whose views most closely align to their own.
The most visited sites are those associated with conventional media outlets, he says, and “usually these are either sites of a conservative direction which support the authorities in office or liberal web resources which are filled with anti-government rhetoric.” At present, the former predominate, and many of the latter are closing or shifting away from their former positions.
Data about how many visitors this or that site has are notoriously unreliable, but both special surveys and reviews of expert opinion suggest that those sites which support the government or back nationalist positions attract more visitors than do those liberal sites which oppose the regime.
Novikov and his colleagues divide the Internet population among communists, nationalists, liberals, national patriots or imperialists, and supporters of the authorities. “All these ideological groups without exception” focus on domestic problems and challenges, but increasingly international issues are becoming dominant on liberal and pro-government sites.
And that trend, he suggests, points to the emergence of “a new social group” in Russia: people who earlier placed their hopes on the government but who are now disappointed with it and who are increasingly interested in the creation of a just and anti-oligarchic society based on traditional values.
That is something that the Russian government must either respond to or struggle against, Novikov suggests, noting that the authorities are currently devoting enormous efforts so as “not to lose the information war including on the world wide web.” But until Moscow develops a “single ideological project,” the Internet will highlight divisions within Russian society.