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Given the role that social media played in popular revolts across the Arab world, could a similar movement come about in Russia?

Given the role that social media played in popular revolts across the Arab world, could a similar movement come about in Russia?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Eleanor Friel. Originally submitted for Politics on the Move at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Markku Lonkila in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Eleanor Friel. Originally submitted for Politics on the Move at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Markku Lonkila in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/28/2013

 
Call it the Arab Spring, call it the Twitter Revolution, call it what you will, 2011 has borne witnessto a rolling tide of popular uprisings toppling regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and bringing significantunrest to Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and the list goes on. The pressure for reform in the Middle East isarguably the largest sequence of political change since the fall of the Berlin wall. Remarks by theruling elite in Russia of late have led to speculation on whether Russia might be the next in line.This question is worthy of a thorough investigation, alongside an examination of the power of socialmedia to bring about revolutions, given the undeniable role that new media played in organising protest movements in the the Arab world. As such, this essay intends to give an overview of thecurrent Russian media environment, with particular emphasis on social networking sites. Theargument then presented will stem from two underlying theses; firstly, that social networking sitescannot, in themselves, cause revolutions. This must come from the people. Secondly, related to this,the current political atmosphere in Russia is not conducive to unrest and revolution on a widespreadscale. This will serve to cement a final conclusion that social media will not bring about arevolution in Russia.Social networking sites in Russia have achieved remarkable popularity. A recent ComScore (2009)Press Release found Russia to have the world’s most engaged social networking audience; “withvisitors spending 6.6 hours and viewing 1,307 pages per visitor per month”. Of the 31.9 millioninternet users in Russia, 59 percent regularly access social networking sites: “The most popular of these sites Russian-based Vkontakte.ru...followed by Odnoklassniki.ru(ComScore, 2009).Interestingly, Facebook, the most prominent player in social networking sites worldwide, does notfeature strongly in Russia. It trails significantly behind Vkontakte, a virtual clone, albeit a Russian-language one, of the popular American site. Furthermore, the country houses a wide and vocal blogosphere, most notably LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blog hosting service, omitted fromComScore's data above as it does not consider the hybrid website under the category of socialnetworking. The American site was adopted in the early 2000s by Russia's chattering classes. “What
 
for Americans is an electronic diary accessible to a few chosen acquaintances became for Russiansa platform for forging thousands of interconnected virtual friends with potential as a tool for activism” (Arutunyan, 2007). One example of this was seen where LiveJournal was employed as aninstrument to rally some 3,000 demonstrators to march in Moscow in November 2006 (ibid). Butthis instance of social media operating as a tool for political activism is, it would seem, theexception in a country where both online and offline activism faces a multitude of challenges.While the internet has proven it's popularity as an environment for Russians to express alternativeviewpoints, there is an element of risk involved at the same time, if one uses it to engage in anti-government rhetoric. Attacks against critics in traditional media outlets are not out of the ordinary,and it seems that this is growing commonplace it the instance of emerging social media too. Garner (2011) recalls the attack of former Kremlin supporter, turned outspoken anti-establishment blogger Oleg Kashin by unknown assailants. As has happened with most crimes of this nature, the case wentunsolved. While events of this nature are not everyday occurrences, there are a multitude of morecovert challenges to alternative voices in Russia.These challenges are generally manifested in a more subtle manner than anonymous criminal acts of aggression, dubbed 'half freedom of speech' by Gel'man (Lonkila, 2011a). While independentvoices are permitted to speak, a number of measures have been adopted by the government to hushand isolate criticism emerging from social networking sites and blogs. Russia features on ReportersWithout Borders most recent 'countries under surveillance', which describes instances of content blocking on YouTube, arrests of bloggers and website disabling. Though internet use isconsiderably more open and free than in states such as China, the agency reports Russian rulers“using more subtle control methods aimed not at preventing the transmission of content butmodifying it, often for propaganda purposes, and by pressuring Internet Service Providers”(Reporters Without Borders, 2011). Authorities were granted further legal tools last summer by the
 
Russian Supreme Court who ruled that sites could be forced to remove comments deemedinappropriate by the state. Non-compliance here has resulted in particular sites being forcedtemporarily offline (Garner, 2011). In the case of the hugely prominent blogging site LiveJournal,it's common knowledge that the most popular posts on are monitored closely from the Kremlin.Kovalev (2011) refers to it as “an instrument of measuring public opinion on matters such as ethnictension”. Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that the site was bought by Russian-based companySUP in 2007, controlled by Alexander Mamut, a close ally of Kremlin authorities (Lonkila, 2008:1147). In a country where traditional media is very tightly framed, it should come as no surprise thatthis is common practise on social media sites too. Even here, the motivation behind much content isworth questioning: “Bloggers close to the government admitted that in order to insure that certainnews is spun a certain way, or that certain items get leaked, money does change hands” (Arutunyan,2007). Thus information, and indeed influence, does not have the ability to spread online in Russiaas it might have in other nations.In spite of the heavily engaged nature of those who access the internet in Russia, a striking featureof 
 Runet,
as Russian-language internet is commonly known, is the deep digital divide in the country.Web access is highly demographically unequal. Typically, users are young, urban, educated andmiddle class. This would seem to go against Habermas' (1989) theory of Public Sphere, wherebydemocratic viewpoints are debated openly in spite of the status of speaker. Rather, it could beargued that that this is almost a twenty-first century of “Bourgeois Public Sphere” (ibid: 30) in thatthere is a notable proportion of the population excluded from the debate by virtue of computer illiteracy. Thus if we are to view social networking sites from the perspective that they can be aforum for public debate, (Lonkila, 2011b) one must also consider the likelihood that this forum willoperate as an 'echo chamber' since there is a high probability that given the demographic similaritiesof internet users in Russia, similar views will be shared. In this way, discussions on socialnetworking sites, (not only in Russia, but perhaps the phenomenon can be said to be more

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