Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Blog Reports are the White TASS for Today’s Russian Elite

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 8 – In Soviet times, senior officials each morning read a special selection of news known as “White TASS” to help guide them in their work.  Now, Russian officials are beginning their days by reading summaries of what the Russian blogosphere is talking about.

            “This is not a fragment from a utopian novel, “Olga Pavlikova writes in “Profil” yesterday. Rather, it is “a reality of the present day,” one that began several years ago in some Russian government institutions but has now spread to many others (profile.ru/article/cherez-prizmu-sotssetei-chto-vlast-ishchet-v-blogosfere-77440).

            Various Russian agencies have contracted with private firms to prepare such blog summaries.  “One of the most famous,” called “Prizm,” was developed by the Medialogiya Company.  “By a strange coincidence,” Pavlikova notes, “this corresponds to the name of the American program” which Edward Snowden talked about.

            “The Russian ‘Prizm,’ like its American counterpart, uses information posted on global social networks as the basis of its analysis.”  The products of this process, the commentator continues, are used “in many federal an regional state structures and also in political parties, beginning with United Russia and the KPRF and ending with the staff of opposition figure Aleksey Navalny.”

            This program, one of an increasingly large number used in Russia, evaluates some 40 million posts and emails in the Russian Internet space every day, and its organizers charge up to three million rubles (100,000 US dollars) a year for subscriptions depending on the nature and detail of the daily reports.

             Six months ago, the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, headed by Konstantin Kostin, who earlier oversaw domestic policy for the Presidential Administration, launched “a new automatic scanner of social networks.” Its value added is that it analyzes not only blogs and twitter accounts but Facebook, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki ones as well.

            No one should be surprised that this is happening. Both technology and elite concerns about the possibility of a spread of an Arab Spring --which many defined as an Internet and especially Twitter-driven series of events -- into the Russian Federation have driven this development, Pavlikova says.

Russian leaders from the Kremlin on down have bought into this possibility because they are convinced that Russians are more likely to say what they think on social networks than they are to pollsters. And consequently, monitoring their comments can serve to detect any dangerous developments.

            But there are problems with this set of assumptions. On the one hand, Pavlikova says, it fails to recognize that much that is online is put there by the government or others close to it to promote a particular point of view.  That means that in using this source, the government may find itself in an echo chamber, thinking it hears someone else but ultimately only hearing itself.

            Thus, for example, in evaluating Aleksey Navalny’s campaign, there was no way for these programs to filter out the hundreds if not thousands of posts denied to undermine him.  According to Navalny’s staff, his opponents spend some 600 million rubles (20 million US dollars) on such efforts.

            And on the other, this focus on the Internet as a driver of revolution is almost certainly a mistake.  As one expert on the subject, Yevgeny Morozov, puts it, “it isn’t the Internet or mobile phones or satellite television but rather everyday circumsstancs that are the cause of popular anger and lead to street protests.”

            There is yet another problem with such surveys of the blogosphere.  People in Moscow are relatively sophisticated about the nature of Internet posts of various kinds, recognizing that many of them should be dismissed out of hand. But in Russia’s provinces, Pavlikova says, people tend to accept as true whatever they read.

            That can help explain why officials in Russia’s federal subjects may be driven by what is on the Internet in ways that do not affect Moscow, but it can also mean that some in Moscow may be inclined to use the Internet to push the regions in the ways that Moscow but not necessarily the populations of these areas want.

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