As discussed in a previous post, the technological revolution that has contributed to broader sweeping protests in the Arab world and the former Soviet Union is seen by many western observers as the wave of the future in regions that have yet to break the chains of authoritarianism. Through social networking sites and blogs political activists engage the public, organize mass demonstrations, and challenge the traditional media environments that marked the regime’s attempts for stability through control, intimidation, and surveillance. The fallen regimes of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions used these methods “to keep the masses depoliticized and unorganized…and ensure that citizens stay disconnected and passive.” Goldstone’s assessment is not restricted to Arab authoritarian regimes, however, as similar desires for public passivity pervade Russia and the former Soviet Union.
While the media environment in Russia has improved considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union, the populace remains skeptical about the messages the traditional media forms (press, television, and radio) are sending. As social networking sites, blogs, and independent online sources flourish the possibility for the traditional media and the traditional methods for government control to feel threatened are greater. Just how great the threat is remains a major question in observing the Russian media. The recent international media forum “Future Media”, hosted by RIA Novosti in St. Petersburg in celebration of its 70th anniversary, grappled with this question as to how different the global media environment is with the addition of big media names, such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Flickr, Vkontakte; and the myriad blogs and independent news sources that have flooded the Internet in recent years. The first major challenge traditional authoritarian methods of control face in this new environment, in editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media Alan Rusbridger’s assessment, “is that world media is becoming more open and those who want to stay closed are not going to survive.” As the technological revolution continues to sweep across the globe traditionally authoritarian regimes will face greater disadvantages in keeping its citizens disconnected and passive, especially as the Internet becomes more readily available to greater numbers of users.
The Internet also removes the face of the protest organizer, granting greater anonymity to activists, which challenges now outdated methods of squelching dissent. Early protests in the post-Soviet space were squashed by arresting protest organizers in advance, but actions organized online produce what Belagazeta editor Victor Martiovich calls an “amorphous civilian opposition, one with no hierarchy and no leadership.” The power of non-traditional media has most recently affected the sociopolitical situation in Belarus sparked by President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s continued control of the media and crackdown on dissent. Numerous threats to turn off “that trash, the Internet,” in his words, and the deteriorating economic situation in Belarus produces near-perfect conditions for more protests to occur.
Despite continued protests in the Arab world and the former Soviet Union fueled in part by greater organizational capabilities, the traditional media outlets do not see the burgeoning of new media as a threat to its livelihood. On the contrary, the international media forum concluded that traditional media sources will remain the “fourth power” in political media coverage. Members of the forum acknowledged the power social networking sites, blogs, and independent news sources have in developing greater interest in reporting, but on the basis that they will contribute to the greater media holdings because they are bound to face the same hidden pitfalls (podvodnye kamni) as their traditional forefathers, chief among them—censorship. Returning to our traditional Russian populace it is possible that the advent of non-state-sponsored news sources and the availability of information that is outside the bounds of state meddling will afford society a better understanding of their social, political, and economic situations. Whether the Kremlin is monitoring these sources is unknown, but due to the traditional passivity of the Russian populace, the authorities understand that these sources are not harbingers of political change. For now, the plurality of the media environment and the availability of non-state-sponsored reporting will hopefully improve reporting in Russia, granting greater objectivity and less corruption.
Articles referred to in this post:
«В Москве проходит международный форум «Медиа будущего» (“Moscow hosts international forum ‘Media Future’”)
«Массовые протести в Минске: Социальные сети и антиправительственное движение Беларуси» (“Mass protests in Minsk: Social networking sites and the anti-government movement in Belarus”)
«Мир медиа находится на сломе эпох» (“The world media is on the edge of epochs”)
«Социальные сети не заменят традиционные СМИ» (“Social networking sites will not replace traditional media”)
«Читатель и интернет подстегивают революцию в СМИ» (“The reader and the Internet spur a revolution in media”)
“Belarus Dictator Struggles with Internet-Led Protest”
“Future media: ‘Don’t be afraid to fail’”
Jack A. Goldstone, “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011: Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 90, no. 3 (May/June, 2011), 8-16.