Russian Internet Conference
Last week’s Russian media seminar at the University of Birmingham raised an interesting question: Why has the Russian Government left the blogosphere (more or less) free? It’s generally agreed that Russian TV is under total control of the Government, and newspapers are almost under the thumb – but the lively Russian blogosphere continues to be a big free-for-all of free expression.
The only cloud on the horizon seems to be the acquisition last year of the Russian licence for Live Journal from 6 Apart. It was bought by a Company known as Soup (Sup-Fabrik), owned by the Oligarch Alexander Mamut, a friend of Roman Abramovich, and some say, a friend of the Kremlin. It doesn’t really matter whose friend he is. In Russia, a rich person has a lot to lose, as the Kremlin has aptly demonstrated in the past. Therefore it is wise for a rich person to take a hint from on high.
But the Kremlin so far does not seem to have put any pressure of Live Journal or its users. Ivan Zassorsky of Moscow University – who worked as PR Man for Soup at the time of the sale of Live Journal, reflected on why this might be.
“When you build a central system of command and control, you have to have a feedback system to know what is going on,” he said. So the Russian blogosphere might be how the Government keeps its feel on the pulse of opinion.
Vlad Strukov of Leeds and London Universities pointed out that the Russian internet, though lively, is far from being a mass influencer of public opinion – so perhaps the Government can afford to ignore it. 10% of Russians have internet access, where the UK hit that figure in 1998. Still, you can see five people sitting around one terminal in an internet cafe, so it’s hard to measure the full reach of the internet: besides what do people do at work all day in offices the world over? Obviously they cruise the internet and write their blogs.
Oleg Kozlovskii Co-ordinator of the Oborona Youth Movement pointed out that the authorities are not unaware of the internet. He said that before the recent demonstrations in St. Petersburg, a number of sites belonging to NGOs mysteriously went down. He’s also noticed the pro-Kremlin youth movement, Nashi flooding the Russian blogosphere with similar postings on political tops.
For now, the Russian blogosphere appears to be a slightly wild place, but one that is pretty much free from political interference. It’s somewhat elitist, belonging to those few who have access to a good internet connection, but those who are in it have upwards of 1000 “friends” or online contacts. Stories can spread. One striking example the tale of a village priest and his family, murdered in an arsen attack on his house. It wasn’t until a blogger in the next village – the wife of another priest – blogged about it, that the story got around the blogosphere via “friends” and then into the traditional media.
Maybe the Kremlin doesn’t take the networking power of blogs seriously enough. If so, it wouldn’t be the first large organisation to have made that mistake.