May 19, 2014
The State Of Social Media In Russia
It could appear to outsiders that the Russian government, when it comes to human freedoms and liberties, is like a dieting person who wants nice, healthy rights of expression, but can’t help but keep going back to the big bowl of censorship and oppression Pringles.
Of course, it is hard to know what is going on behind the scenes. But there is definitely a struggle between wanting to at least appear as an open society, and wanting to ensure that freedom of expression won’t lead to any serious challenge of the powerful elite. As a result, it is being reported that further restrictions on Internet use are imminent in Russia. I saw one Western commentator on TV saying that Russia claims the Internet would generally be widely accessible, with restrictions only applying to a few certain sites. He laughingly said that that doesn’t really count as openness, then. But the same applies in any country, to an extent.
Russia has a large percentage of Internet users in its population, and Russian is the second most common language on the web. However, the government does manipulate what is available to suit its own agenda, to a degree. The “blacklist” of sites that are restricted is ostensibly to prevent people using sites related to criminal activity, but has attracted concern from international rights groups due to the potential restrictions on democracy and expression that also come with it.
How is social media doing, in this climate? Well, having recently visited Russia, I know that Facebook is available, unlike in China. Twitter is also available, and the Kremlin, the center of power, does its own official tweeting. But far more popular than Facebook is VKontakte, also known as VK. It has tens of millions of users, and I assume that is what many of the people I saw on the WiFi-serviced Moscow metro were using on their handheld gadgets.
But the government’s hand is in that site too. It has taken increasing ownership over recent years, causing the CEO – known as Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg – to quit and flee the country a couple of months ago. Social media sites are directed to keep records of their users, and bloggers are subject to the same laws as traditional media outlets, making them accountable for what they say (although some in the West would say this is not a bad idea, when there are cases of things being said online that are extremely hurtful to individuals, as well as in some cases libelous).
Another massively popular site is Odnoklassnik, which is central for reconnecting with people such as old classmates, but is popular as a general social media platform, too. It has more than 100 million registered users worldwide and, in terms of traffic, is in the top 100 most popular websites in the world.
As I said in regard to China, political commentary and organizing is not a priority for many people on social media, or even a consideration. In Russia, those people are able to enjoy social media the same as people anywhere else in the world do and, judging by the figures, do it very readily. There are increasing restrictions on certain kinds of activity and opinion, which is of course sad, but that does not mean that in many ways social media is not alive and well in Russia.
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