Social media and the new Cold War

By Philip N. Howard
August 1, 2012

There is a new Cold War starting. It does not involve opposing military forces, but it does involve competing ideas about how political life should be organized. The battles are between broadcast media outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership and censorship. And some of the biggest battles are in Russia, where the ruling elites that dominate broadcast media are pitted against the civil society groups that flourish through social media.

Whereas broadcast media is most useful for authoritarian governments, social media is now used by citizens to monitor their government. For example, in early 2012, rumors circulated that a young ultranationalist, Alexander Bosykh, was going to be appointed to run a Multinational Youth Policy Commission. A famous picture of Bosykh disciplining a free-speech advocate was dug up and widely circulated among Russian language blogs and news sites, killing his prospects for the job (though not ending his career).

These are not simply information wars between political elites and persecuted democracy activists. There is a deep structural rift between the organization and values of broadcast media and those of social media. Putin is media savvy, but his skills are in broadcast media. The Kremlin knows how to manage broadcast media. Broadcasters know where their funding comes from, and they know what happens if they become too critical. Indeed, Putin’s recent changes to the country’s media laws are specifically designed to protect broadcast media and burden social media.

In Russia, critics have been driven into social media, where they have cultivated new forms of anti-government, civic-minded opposition. Russian political life is now replete with examples of online civic projects doing things the state can’t or won’t do. Liza Alert helps coordinate the search for missing children. Other sites track complaints about poor public services and coordinate volunteers. (Disclosure: I recently accepted financial support from Moscow State Humanities University for research and travel expenses.)

The most recent battle in the Media Cold War involves the government’s webcam system for monitoring elections. To prepare for the last election, the government spent half a billion dollars on webcams for every polling station in the country. With widespread skepticism about the transparency of Putin’s regime, this move was designed to improve the credibility of the electoral process.

The election was held on March 4, 2012, and a highlight reel of election antics went up on YouTube. For Putin’s political opponents, the webcams demonstrated citizen disinterest in the election. For Russia’s ultranationalists, the webcams revealed no systematic fraud. Alas, the elections commission decided that video evidence of fraud would not be admissible. The video feeds were not systematically reviewed, and the electoral outcomes were never in doubt.

What’s happening in Russia is happening elsewhere. Digital activism is on the rise globally, and the impact of these activist projects grows more impressive year by year. The Arab Spring involved countries where citizens used social media to create news stories that the dictator’s broadcasters would not cover. Both Bouazizi’s self-immolation and Said’s murder became the inciting incidents of uprisings because of social media. Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak were definitely caught off guard by social-media organizing. In Iran, the opposition Green Movement uses Facebook to advance its cause, while the mullahs’ propaganda response comes in the form of a movie.

In Saudi Arabia, the public streams home-brewed comedy shows on YouTube, while the state-run television broadcaster covers the monarch’s ceremonies. In China, the party owns all media, but seems less and less able to control political conversation among Chinese citizens over its own social-media operator.

Russia, China and Saudi Arabia have very different political cultures. But their governments have a common approach to media management and learn from each other. And they always back broadcast media. In most authoritarian countries, broadcast media are either state-run or under a private oligopoly. In either form, ruling elites work hard to protect broadcast media.

Social media is not simply irreverent. Once social-media projects roll out, their code and hardware often get recycled and repurposed. Until recently, Russian civic leaders were debating what should happen to all the digital cameras that were distributed during the last election. When Russia was recently hit by flash floods, the answer came: They would be redeployed to monitor the reconstruction of the buildings that were destroyed by flooding. The crowdsourcing Ushahidi platform that civic groups deployed during the crisis drew more than 50,000 unique visitors in the first two days of use.

It is hard to know how the Media Cold War will be won, but I’d put the money on civil society actors and social media.

PHOTO: Russian police restrain a supporter of former mayoral candidate Oleg Shein during a protest rally in the south Russian city of Astrakhan, April 14, 2012. REUTERS/Vladimir Tyukaev

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