New Media in Russian Regions Often as Tightly Controlled as are Traditional Kind, Moscow Scholar Says

June 8, 2015
Internet cafe in Rostov.

Staunton, June 2 – Internet publications, blogs and social media in general, the new media many have expected to transform Russia’s media and public space, are in fact “developing in [Russia’s] regions according to exactly the same scenarios as the market of traditional media,” according to Olga Dovbysh of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

And the dependence of the new media on the same sources of financing as the old means, she argues in a new report on this subject, that widespread assumptions “about the [supposed] economic and political independence of Internet journalism” does not stand up under close analysis.

That in turn, Dovbysh says, means that the usefulness of new media as a political resource for the opposition is very doubtful: “Political debates in the social media, blogosphere and Internet media…are isolated from the mass audience ‘and are leading to a still greater marginalization of political forces which are represented in this sphere.’”

In Russian regions, she says, traditional media are largely controlled by the local authorities and big business who use “economic levers” to “sponsor” publications which promote their views, an example of “’the purchase of loyalty,’” Olga Dovbysh says. That has happened, she suggests, because of the underdevelopment of the advertising sector.

There are simply too few groups prepared to buy advertising, and consequently, the owners of traditional media outlets in order to survive must make deals with the big political and economic players in their marketplace. And those deals mean that in most cases, the government and businesses get the coverage they want and are paying for.

Despite expectations, the Moscow scholar continues, the same kind of relationship between the powers that be and the traditional media “are being reproduced in the system of the new media which to a large extent lives on the basis of money from contracts concerning the provision of information services” – and for the same reasons.

Dovbysh gives as an example the situation in Rostov Region where the top five funders of both kinds of media are the same and including the city administration, electoral commission, internal affairs and information policy ministry, and businesses. Government officials are especially interested in having businesses take the lead because this saves them money, represents a kind of political contribution, and allows them to claim they aren’t interfering.

The Moscow scholar says that Internet media in the regions typically is “an electronic version of the paper press or a portal financed by an owner.” Social media in the regions are “not so active,” but even there, the authorities have developed a system to ensure their control of what is reported.

And the blogosphere, while it typically touches only an insignificant portion of the population, is increasingly the object of government attention because those involved in this sector are “the more educated and active residents.” Sometimes officials become bloggers but at other times, they try to win over bloggers by giving them special access to officials.

Thus, Dovbysh concludes, “the new media” at least in Russia’s regions are turning out to be just as dependent as the old media has become rather than constituting a challenge to that media and to the powers behind it.