The anti-corruption protests in Moscow and elsewhere a few weeks ago were interpreted in many quarters as evidence that Russian youth were increasingly opposed to the ‘Putin regime’. As I pointed out at the time, the available sociological evidence doesn’t support this claim. Nevertheless, various analysts continue to believe that changing patterns of media usage will eventually work in that direction.
Part of the narrative which emerged from the protests concerned the fact that young Russians watch less TV than their parents and grandparents. According to some commentators, this means that the Russian state is losing its ability to spread its propaganda, and is therefore in danger of losing control of the population. For example, an article published today by the reliably ‘anti-regime’ Intersection Project discusses how the Russian state is waging an information war designed to create a sense that Russia is under attack from external and internal enemies, but:
Not only do young Russians predominantly access news via the Internet but they also choose to ignore the prospect of a conflict with the West. … the inevitable generational change may bring about a situation where the very idea of information warfare as a means of rallying Russian citizens against external and internal enemies will lose its former efficacy.
It is a superficially plausible thesis, but it doesn’t stand up to very close scrutiny. As the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov argues in a recent edition of Gazeta.ru, on the basis of surveys carried out by the Centre, the fact that young Russians don’t watch as much TV as older generations doesn’t mean that they are compensating by accessing political news on the internet, let along accessing ‘liberal’ or ‘pro-Western’ news sources. They aren’t. Instead, they just aren’t accessing political news at all!
If you turn on the TV news, you get politics whether you want it or not; on the internet, you have to actively seek politics out. Many don’t bother. They use the internet to find out the sports news, to track what’s happening to their favourite celebrities, and the like, but they pay little or no attention to Russian or international politics. Consequently, Volkov says, ‘The massive rejection by youth of television in favour of the internet doesn’t signify an alternative point of view, but a low level of knowledge about what is happening.’ In other words, the shift to the internet isn’t making young Russians more anti-regime, just more ignorant.
Volkov points out that the combination of the internet and Russian youth’s relative political ignorance does offer opportunities to those who can exploit the internet to grab young peoples’ attention. This would seem to give some hope to politicians like Alexei Navalny, but in fact Navalny is less known among youth (45%) than he is among the Russian population as a whole (55%). Young Russians ‘know little about the opposition’, says Volkov. The turn to the internet does not seem to helping the opposition much.
Indeed, Volkov suggests, the increased ignorance may actually make young people more conservative, more supportive of those in authority. Since they don’t bother informing themselves much about politics, they pick up their political attitudes from those around them, such as family and older people. The result is that, ‘as even independent sociologists note, support for the authorities is 15% higher than average among young people.’
The internet is indeed changing how people get information about politics, and thus is shaping the way they view the world – but not, it seems, in the way so many think.