By Paul Goble
The Kremlin fears that in Twitter, “the West has found a new means for advancing its interests after ‘the color revolutions,’” one in which “the weakness of the opposition is not an obstacle to regime change if Twitter technology comes to the rescue,” according to a leading independent Russian specialist on the security agencies.
In an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Andrey Soldatov, who heads the Agentura.ru portal, says that the Kremlin’s “hysterical” overreaction on the ability of this technology to cause political change precisely mirrors the overconfidence of some in the West about the power of this technology (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=10845).
But it is not only the Kremlin that has overrated the role of Twitter and other social media, Soldatov continues. The Russian opposition is once again displaying the “optimism” about its own prospects, the kind of misplaced optimism “which first appeared during the time of the Iranian demonstrations in 2009.
Soldatov cites with approval the conclusions of Yevgeny Morozov, whose book “Net Delusion” argues that Western politicians look to Twitter because they remain prisoners of ideas “formulated at the end of the Cold War” which held that the free flow of information by itself, then via Xeroxes and faxes, would suffice to overthrow authoritarian regimes.
Now, twenty years later, “the same experts” are placing the same hopes in the social media – and because they are doing so, Morozov notes, they are ignoring both broader social attitudes and the specific capabilities of these regimes and the limitations of the oppositions in them.
Given the “eternal suspiciousness” of people in the Kremlin, Soldatov continues, it is not surprising that its denizens have picked up on these ideas and in an often uncritical way. That explains why President Dmitry Medevedev said in Vladikavkaz that the West “had earlier prepared an [Egyptian] scenario for us.”
But the optimism about such technologies in the West and among Russian opposition groups, the Moscow expert says, is equally misplaced. One the one hand, Twitter has played about the same role in Egypt as it did in Iran – and the latter unrest, however much attention it attracted, did not lead to regime change.
And on the other, there are very few Russian websites that actually generate news. Most who carry news do so as aggregators of the production of other media, most of which is subject to far greater government influence or even control than the blogosphere is generally assumed to be.
That should lead to a more sober appreciation of the impact of social media, “but the reaction of Medvedev shows that in the Kremlin, [this] threat is being taken seriously.” And consequently, Soldatov says, it is worth examining which parts of the Russian government bureaucracy are most actively involved in responding.
The Kremlin itself, he continues, does not have its own “group of experts or expert institute where a strategy for the Web has been developed.” That lack was highlighted during the course of the preparation of the law on the Internet, one that was dominated by public relations concerns rather than anything else.
As a result, Moscow’s policies in this area are still dominated less by the Presidential Administration than by the two structures, the FSB and the Interior Ministry which “have sections devoted to work with the Internet and which over the last few years have several times quite precisely demonstrated which approach they consider the only correct one.”
The method of Internet supervision preferred by the FSB and MVD, Soldatov writes, consists of “the total registration of users,” with users being required to submit passport information, net operators more extensive materials, and so on. And in reaction to the events in the Middle East, the two agencies have called for new laws to allow that to happen.
These agencies also are interested in putting out stories on the net under “false names” and employing hackers to take down sites the Russian authorities do not approve of. As far as the Presidential Administration is concerned, Soldatov says, it “is inclined to more adventurist methods,” among them its establishment of a Kremlin bloggers school.
While an institution bearing that name was closed shortly after it was set up two years ago, the Moscow expert continues, it has been replaced by something called the “Youth Call of the Organs of Local Administration,” within the framework of which the authorities provide guidance on working on the Internet.