Staunton, November 23 – In Western countries, those who frequently use the Internet have higher levels of public trust, according to many studies; but in Russia, the situation is just the reverse, Olesya Volchenko says. There, Internet use has the effect of pushing down still further already low levels of public trust.
Volchenko, a researcher at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the St. Petersburg branch of the Higher School of Economics, says that it is common ground that “there is an interconnection between the level of trust and the amount of knowledge and information an individual has about the world around him” (opec.ru/1894037.html).
But what is intriguing, she argues, is that this relationship works in very different ways in the Russian Federation than in West European countries. In most European countries, “the more often an individual uses the Internet,” the higher his or her level of trust in institutions and other people.
“In Russia,” however, she found that “the more often an individual uses the Internet, the lower his or her level of social trust.” And what is most remarkable of all, Volchenko says, is that Russia was the only country of the 26 whose residents were studied where that negative relationship exists.
Trust, of course, is an important “means for overcoming ignorance or indeterminacy in relationships,” she says. If it is low, people find it hard to do that; but if it is high, then they typically can find ways and means of doing so. And thus the relationship between sources of information and public trust is critical.
There are two kinds of information flows, Volchenko suggests: the contemporary which includes the Internet, television, radio and newspapers; and the traditional which involves interaction in social life. Many have assumed that trust will fall if people use contemporary means which do not require the same intensity of interaction with others.
But the situation is not so simple, she suggests. “It turns out that the Internet increases trust” in most countries, and that in turn means that the notion that Internet use leads to social isolation is “a myth.” In fact, in most countries, Internet users are just as active in social life as are others. The same is true for those who listen to radio or read newspapers.
Television watching, on the other hand, has the opposite effect in most countries, including Russia: it reduces the level of social interaction and thus the levels of public trust. Given the enormous importance of television in Russian life, it is likely that this along with other factors of course is also pushing down public trust there.
Volchenko does not point to what may be the most obvious reason for this divergence between Russia and the West as far as the Internet is concerned. Given the propagandistic nature of most Russian media, those who use the Internet often learn just how false the information that government-controlled outlets are providing.
They thus are likely less inclined to trust these outlets and less likely to trust others as well. But to the extent that is true, the Internet may have a very different impact on Russians than many in the West currently assume: it may not be the universal organizer, to use Lenin’s term for newspapers. Instead, it may at least some of the time divide people one from another.