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.