Staunton, December 22 – Russia currently has only “two real mass parties, the party of the television and the party of the Internet,” the editors of Gazeta.ru say, and declines in the influence of the former relative to the latter should be a matter of greater concern to Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin than the results of any poll about trust in the tandem.
That is because, the editors say, “it is not a secret for anyone” that the TV party overwhelmingly “votes for Putin and Medvedev and any United Russia” candidate, while “the second” has various and often “diametrically opposed positions” but relates to the powers that be in “a sharply critical way” (www.gazeta.ru/comments/2010/12/21_e_3473009.shtml#).
The occasion for these reflections, “Gazeta” continues, is the sharp decline in the number of television viewers who tuned in to Prime Minister Putin’s recent public press conference, declines that suggest that “the influence of the main instrument of administration of present-day Russia – television – is slowly but truly weakening.”
As the television party has declined, “the party of the Internet is rapidly growing.” According to the Public Opinion Foundation, almost 40 percent of the adult population of Russia now goes online, “and the number of active users of the Internet,” those who go online at least once a day, “is increasing still faster” and now amounts to “about 32 million” Russian residents.
To be sure, “every sixth active user of the Internet now lives in the capitals, and there the number of active users naturally is growing much more slowly than in the provinces,” but that pattern too points to a transformation: the Internet is not just a phenomenon of the major cities of Russia any more.
And the spread of the Internet means that the “television majority” to the development of which Putin devoted so much attention and which is the basis of his system is no longer the unchallenged and unbridgeable defense of the powers that be that it was until recently. It is still predominant but it is no longer beyond question.
That in turn means, the “Gazeta” editors say, that “in this sense, the question about the use of the Internet as an instrument of political influence … will become one of the key factors in the next presidential cycle,” with Medvedev showing himself interested in exploiting this technology but Putin still thinking that he can be the president of “the ‘off-line’ majority.”
Soviet leaders, the editors continued, thought that they could save themselves by using controlled television to put out an image at variance with reality. But as history has shown, they did not manage that. In that period, “the role of the Internet was played by samizdat and ‘enemy’ radio voices [from abroad]” which picked up on the reality the leaders hoped to hide.
“In the epoch of the Internet, the possibilities of prettying reality through televised state propaganda are becoming ever less, and the reduction of the tv audience, who listen to the first persons of the state testifies” to that and to the “weariness among even that public which up to now has been completely loyal.”
During the first decade of this century, “the people did not interfere in the internal affairs of the powers that be,” but if conditions do not improve for the majority of citizens in the near term, then the powers that be will face real challenges in keeping control from a newly energized population getting its information from sources the powers that be don’t control.
Indeed, the editors of “Gazeta” say, “when the people in general refuse to listen to the powers that be, [the powers that be] will find themselves in a lonely position: Part of [their] subjects, undoubtedly, a minority, will be ready to actively or passively protest against them; the rest will simply stop listening to them,” thereby setting the stage for potentially radical change.