Vienna, September 13 – Arguing that “either the Internet will destroy the [Russian] regime or the regime will destroy the Internet, Moscow commentator Yulia Latynina says that this reflects the reality that for Vladimir Putin, control over the electronic media is the pre-condition for his control over everything else.
In an article in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Latynina notes that “already earlier than asserting its monopoly on gas, the economy, the parliament and the powers that be, the regime of Vladimir Putin asserted its control of television.” And to this day, “the seizure of television is considered by the regime as the first and chief stage of the seizure of everything else.”
But of course, she continues, control over television “did not mean the complete destruction of freedom of information.” “But it marked a monopoly on the generation of news.” Six years ago, “news was only what was shown on television.” If something wasn’t on television, “it wasn’t news” (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=10384).
Now, however, “the Internet is becoming a generator of news,” and “the situation has changed.” What appears on the web, Latynina says, is now viewed as news and not just commentary, and consequently, the regime’s failure to take control of that medium, something it could perhaps afford to ignore earlier, is now a problem for it.
And because the current regime is based in the first instance on the control of the news people receive, the increasing ability of the Internet to raise questions, cover even Putin, and thus become a source of news is something the regime recognizes it must figure out how to counter or fall victim to it.
The recent coverage of Putin’s car trip is a classic example, she argues. Now, thanks to videos and other reporting on line, many Russians are getting a picture of what is going on that is very much at variance with the message that Putin wants them to receive – and are drawing their own divergent conclusions.
But even more important, she says, “the internet community [in Russia] is moving from the creation of news to the dissemination of investigations,” based on information that participants on the web gather and that other people using the web assemble, generalize and distribute more generally.
“Of course,” Latynina acknowledges, “a great deal [in the Russian media environment] has not changed. But the most important thing has the internet has become a source and organizer of news,” one that enjoys particular credibility among its audience because it is assembled “not by a professional journalist but by a witness, victim or investigator.”
And that has an even more important consequence because since “the political opposition in Russia has been suppressed, the Net has become the Opposition.” And that puts the Russian powers that be in a difficult position: they cannot destroy the net-based opposition without destroying the Internet, something they cannot do except at enormous cost to themselves.
That is because while they could filter for particular words as the Chinese do, they can hardly prevent the new Russian opposition from conducting investigations without taking steps like shutting off YouTube, the blogosphere or Twitter, steps that would attract unwelcome attention to their authors.
At one time, Latynina continues, the video player and the Xerox machine “destroyed the USSR because the information they conveyed made it “impossible to assert that ‘what is soviet is better.’” Now, the Putin regime “has tried to establish a state monopoly on information taking into account more recent changes.”
It has not sought to assert complete control over “books, films, attractions, newspapers and radio; instead it has concentrated on the control of television which gave it a monopoly on the generation of news.” But the Internet has challenged that monopoly in ways that the regime did not anticipate.
And consequently, Latynina concludes, “either the internet will destroy the Putin regime, or the regime will destroy the internet,” an existential conflict that the regime can win only by acting in ways that the even more agile web communities will not only register but almost certainly figure out ways to work around.