An Interview on Russian Internet Control with Olga Kamenchuk

In this interview, Director on International and Public Affairs, VCIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) and former Annenberg Public Policy Center visiting scholar Olga Kamenchuk discusses the results of a survey on Russia attitudes toward the internet.

What’s the most exciting thing about working in the field of public opinion?

As a historian and a political scientist I admire the field of public opinion for its ability to understand the logic of the country’s development that it gives a researcher. “A nation is worth its leaders” – goes an old saying. What is there in the country’s population at a certain point in its history that it has the leader it has? Why did Germans elect Adolf Hitler in 1930s? What helped Americans overcome the Great Depression? What can make people protest against their governments? Why would they support their leader regardless of what the rest of the world thinks about him?

Opinion research helps to draw the portrait of the nation and to build a forecast for its future development.

 

What can survey results tell us about the interplay between media consumption and freedom of expression?

Mass media (as well as the Orthodox Church and the army) is the most trusted social institution in Russia. The problem is what media sources are driving the peoples’ minds in this country. Over 2/3 of Russians emphasize TV as their number 1 source of information. The more a person watches Russian TV and the less he/she uses the Internet or consumes foreign media – the more likely he or she is to support the actions aimed at limitations of freedom of expression (such as censorship of opposition bloggers). The good news, however, is the Internet penetration rate in Russia. Though still not at European or American rates, it is growing rapidly – having more than doubled from 2009 (29%) till 2013 (64%). The rate has currently slowed, but I think it will keep growing until it reaches numbers comparable to the US, in probably less than 5 years. This is probably another reason why the Russian government gives so much attention to this source of information: the Internet’s growing popularity in Russia makes it a serious force.

 

What was a key finding from the survey on the internet in Russia?

One of the key issues that our survey demonstrated was its ability to “catch” the start of an aggressive attack on new media in Russia and the indifference of the country’s population to it. The latter is not a surprise to attentive observers and researchers of Russian politics, though.

 

Was anything surprising revealed about Russian attitudes toward or usage of the Internet?

I was pleasantly surprised about the positive evaluations that Russians gave to the Internet overall. Seventy-six percent of heavy Internet users and 61% of the lighter ones are convinced that Internet plays a positive role. This may seem intuitive to some in the US, but Russians, who are rather conservative and even traditionalistic lately in terms of a number of values they exhibit (gender relations, ethnic prejudice, family values, attitude towards sexual minorities, etc…) could have demonstrated much more harsh oversight with regards to the technology that President Putin recently characterized as having been “developed by the CIA.”

 

In light of Russia’s efforts to increase the country’s control on the internet, what is the significance of this internet survey?

The survey demonstrated spheres where Russian civil society still has positive prospects, as well as drew a socio-demographic portrait of core supporters for current policy in the country and its opponents. It’s also an important reference point for future measurements of Russia’s and the post-Soviet region’s Internet policy, as well as the local way of managing democratic freedoms (the control which will continue to tighten).

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