Monday, November 27, 2017

The Kremlin has Good Reason to Fear Social Networks, Higher School of Economics Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 27 – The more protests there are on social networks, the more there will be on the streets, Olesya Koltsova of the Internet research sector of St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics. Indeed, in today’s environment, there are unlikely to be any protests in the streets if there haven’t been protests on the Internet earlier.

            Of course, she tells Vadim Shuvalov of the Gorod-812 portal, there will always be fewer people on the streets than there are in the virtual world because the former requires a more active position than the latter, although as the latter grows, so too will the latter – and that is of concern to the authorities (

                About 60 percent of Russians now use social networks, and about 60 percent of them turn to them for political news, Koltsova says; “but the politically active users, who discuss or do something on the net are fewer than 10 percent.” Nonetheless, “without the Internet, street protest activity would be much less and possibly it wouldn’t occur at all.

            Not only do social networks provide people with information about where and when street protests will take place, but they suggest to potential participants that they are not alone, that their online friends are planning to take part – and as a result, the social networks help people decide to go to meetings.

            Government efforts to control social networks by intimidation or blocking have an effect, but “even if the Internet is subjected to censorship as in the case of China, after a certain time, its existence will lead to protests” because it suggests that those who are upset about the regime are not alone.

            Koltsova notes that the level of aggression in Russian social networks is extremely high, far higher than in other country’s net communities.  This reflects, she suggests, “the aggressive rhetoric” that is found in the mainstream Russian media rather than being something autonomous as some have suggested.

            There are important generational differences in social network use, she continues. “Young people don’t watch television while people over 60 almost never use the Internet. But those between 30 and 60 – the most active part of the population – prefer to use both, and they put into the social networks what they see on television.”

            It is important to remember that social networks do not focus primarily on politics but on private life, although this too has political consequences.  But the gap between personal problems and a recognition of their political and social roots is large, and it requires more of an effort to jump than most Russians are prepared to make. “Typically, they don’t do this.”

            Politicians who can’t break into the mainstream media often make use of the Internet, and some political figures who are dominant use the Internet in another way – to identify groups of potential supporters or to sway those they believe might support them. As a result, Koltsova says, they study how people use social networks.

            Such research, she suggests, is powerful. The study of likes, for example, tells a great deal about anyone. “100 likes,” she says, allows someone to know you “better than your boss. 200 – better than your closest friend, and 300 closer than your wife.”  Such knowledge gives power and it is used both in Russia and by Russia.

            But this trend has another consequence, Koltsova says, one that may limit the importance of social networks at least for a time. If you are active on them, your private space disappears.  And that puts you at risk of not being able to maintain a distinctive position and advancing distinctive views.

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