Demand for Internet Freedom? An Interview with Dr. Erik Nisbet

Dr. Erik Nisbet, associate professor of communication, political science, and environmental policy at Ohio State University, responds to questions drawn from the recently released report “Benchmarking Public Demand: Russia’s Appetite for Internet Control,” which seeks to assess the public’s demand for internet freedom in Russia. Click here for the full report.

What was the most surprising part of the dataset?

The findings from the survey analysis that surprised me the most were Russian attitudes about the use of the Internet by foreign countries and the censorship of foreign media. There is a robust sentiment among Russians (roughly half of non- and light users of the Internet and about one-third of heavy Internet users) that foreign countries are actively using the Internet against Russia and that foreign news media websites should be censored by the Russian government. These attitudes are reflective of the political messaging by the Russian government, but I was surprised that they had found such wide-spread acceptance among the population. Building support among the public to censor foreign mass media and websites is an important part of a much larger information control strategy by the Russian government, as is also the recent legislation limiting foreign ownership of mass media in Russia, to isolate the Russian public from outside information that may be inconsistent with the government’s dominance of news and information dissemination within Russia.

 

How do Russian attitudes towards internet governance differ from some other places where you’ve done work?

Unfortunately, the demand for democratic governance in Russia is very weak compared to other countries.  For example, on a recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project about two-thirds of Russians preferred a strong autocratic leader to a democratic system. Thus, this autocratic, rather than democratic, political culture among the Russian public is reflected in their attitudes about Internet governance.  For instance, the Russian Security Service was cited by the plurality of survey respondents as the most trusted institution for regulating the Internet, followed by the Russian government. This preference is surprisingly shared by non-, light, and heavy Internet users alike.  Another example is that a majority of Russians believe that personal blogs should be regulated as much, or more, as mass media websites.  Also large percentages of Russians also appear to value political stability, and support the censorship of information or messaging that threatens political stability or calls for regime change, over democratic rights and freedom of expression.

These autocratic attitudes toward Internet governance create a perceptual filter that provides another level of Internet censorship that goes beyond any institutional, technological, or regulatory constraints applied to online content and access by the Russian government – and thus creates a significant challenge for organizations attempting to promote Internet freedom and mobilize the public around this issue.

You are currently conducting a large survey on Turkish attitudes towards the media, trust in institutions, and attitudes about censorship. What’s the importance of this work right now?

Internet censorship and regulation has become a very politically polarizing issue within Turkey over the last several years since the anti-government “Gezi Park” protests in the spring and summer of 2013.  Turkish society has increasingly become split between a secular segments of the population that are concerned with maintaining democratic governance and a more Islamic conservative segment of the electorate that support the increasingly autocratic governance of the AKP government and the newly elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  The AKP government has largely “pacified” the independent and private press in Turkey with targeted arrests, sanctions, and threats – and thus the mass media has self-censored when it comes to criticizing the government and questioning its policies or messaging.  Thus, the Internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become resources for citizen journalism and news critical of the government for large portions of the Turkish population dissatisfied with the government.

In turn, this has led to a government backlash targeting social media platforms as then Prime Minister Erdogan declared “social media is the worst menace to society” in 2013.  The government also temporarily blocked access to Twitter and YouTube in the spring 2014 for several weeks until it was declared unconstitutional by Turkey’s highest court. It also recently threatened to ban Twitter and Facebook in early January 2015 when information critical of Turkey’s involvement in Syria was leaked online.

 

What kinds of trends have you seen emerging when it comes to public debates over Internet governance and freedom in partially-democratic or neo-authoritarian regimes?

A large number of countries around the world fall into a grey area between democratic and completely authoritarian governance – these so-called “hybrid” regimes may have some form of competitive elections, some limited political or civil liberties, and need for popular legitimacy – but are dominated formally or informally by autocratic-leaning leaders or parties that employ a variety of methods to maintain their control of the country. One means of doing so is to ensure dominance of the domestic mass media, including private and independent media outlets, through intimidation, selective sanctions, and targeted arrests that lead to media self-censorship in most cases.

At the same time, in many of these countries, the Internet and social media platforms have traditionally been considerably more open and less censored by these hybrid regimes. Online resources provided a means for citizens to access and share independent and critical information about the government and its policies, as well as potentially mobilize against the government as the 2012 protests in Russia and 2013 protests in Turkey highlight.

However, these hybrid regimes are increasingly enacting regulatory and censorship policies to close the cracks in their control of domestic information and news flows. The Russian government’s focus on censoring opposition bloggers and preventing access to foreign media and the Turkish government’s attempts to prevent social media from being employed as a resource for anti-government mobilization and independent news are exemplars of a much larger global trend in Internet governance and regulation initiatives by hybrid regimes in many other parts of the world.

That is why evaluating the public’s demand for Internet freedom and its opposition to censorship, its use of the Internet and social media as independent sources of information, and its degree of motivation and ability to circumvent Internet blockages is of critical import within many of these countries. The hope is by understanding how the public approaches and perceives these policy and political challenges to Internet freedom within these hybrid regimes, we may in turn be better able to design communication and mobilization strategies that employ the public as a check on these autocratic trends in Internet governance.

Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by ToGa Wanderings

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