Vienna, March 30 – More than any previous terrorist action in Russia, the attacks on the Moscow metro this week are playing out on the Internet, with official government sites competing with independent portals and blogs not only to provide timely information about what happened but to define its meaning for the future.
And while these Internet battles may not yet have the impact of television on what Russians know and believe about what happened, they highlight the emergence of a new media space in which the powers that be cannot be as confident as they were in the past that they can control the situation.
That in turn means that those analyzing the possible impact of this act of violence on Russian attitudes toward terrorism as well as about the top officials of the country must at a minimum take this virtual competition into account and quite possibly may have to revise their conclusions in fundamental ways.
In a detailed discussion of the way in which the Soviet and then Russian media have covered nine major terrorist incidents since 1977, Yuliya Idlis, Yevgeny Gusyatinsky, and Konstantin Milchin say that the first one in which the Internet played any significant role was the 2002 seizure of the Nort-Ost theater (www.rusrep.ru/news/2010/03/29/media_terror/).
But they suggest that, in that case, the powers that be did little to put out their reporting and message online and that the blogs provided more immediate and complete information but did not yet play the role they have played since in shaping the way in which Russians understand what happened and what it means for their future.
The authorities intervened to block blogs in a major way at the time of the suicide bombings at the Tushino rock festival in July 2003, but by February 2004, when bombs went off in the Moscow metro, blogs provided more information than did the official media and began to provide more commentary about it.
By the time of the Nevsky Express bombing last November, the three analysts say, “the basic source of information” about what was happening was no longer the official media electronic or print but rather Internet news services and blogs, a trend that may be responsible for President Dmitry Medvedev’s insistence that the government do more online itself.
The Russian government has done more in the last 24 hours, but analyses of its operations show that it is still far behind the bloggers and Internet portals in coverage and commentaries. (See Ivan Begtin’s analysis at www.polit.ru/analytics/2010/03/30/metro29.html and Yekaterina Aksyonova’s report at gov-gov.ru/?p=1353).
The two conclude that if something happens, one should search for current reporting at the sites of the president and prime minister, the extraordinary situations ministry and the ministry of health and social developments. Almost all the other government sites fail to provide anything of use “to their own citizens.”
And such shortcomings have provided an open field for bloggers and independent Internet news services, other analysts say. In a report on the Novy region site, Vitaly Akimov reports that a survey of the blogosphere shows that “no one believes that the terrorist acts were the work of terrorists” (www.nr2.ru/moskow/276712.html).
On a day when “80 percent of the posts on [Russian] blogs are devoted to the tragedy in the capital’s metro system,” the news service reports, many people turning to them find updated information and expressions of sympathy, “but at the same time,” Akimov says, “internet users attempt to analyze the situation and share information.”
The blogs and Internet news services vary widely in quality, quantity and political views, and in an essay on Polit.ru yesterday, Mikhail Zakhorov complained that reading online postings was enough to “drive one out of one’s mind” because of their mix of “paranoia” and “conspiracy theories” (www.polit.ru/event/2010/03/29/terapia.html).
Having provided some examples, Zakhorov concludes that “the fruitlessness and amorality of a significant number of the expressions of political bloggers testifies that a sensible discussion concerning the development of the country is [still] impossible in Russia,” a conclusion that may be both correct and incorrect at the same time.
On the one hand, the variety of expressions and the absurdity of some of them do seem to make that difficult. But on the other, the increasing inclination of Russians to turn to the Internet given the shortfalls of information in the official media may mean that this is going to be where that discussion will take place, however disturbing its elements may be.