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Russia: When Politicians Go Online

Censorship and prosecution against oppositional bloggers are not the only possible threats to the blogosphere and social media in Russia. The active usage of blogosphere as an instrument of political promotion and governmental PR may significantly weaken the trust of public in social media and damage credibility of blogs as sources of independent information.

The wide discussion that questioned the place of blogs in Russia has begun when a governor of Kirovsk region Nikita Belyh wrote [RUS] in his blog that he declined an offer from a Russian PR agency to develop and promote his online diary:

В мою пресс-службу одна довольно известная PR-контора прислала коммерческое предложение по созданию и ведению блога губернатора. То есть моего блога. Не удержусь и процитирую избранные места: «На декабрьском Госсовете, посвященном “Электронному правительству”, президент фактически дал понять представителям госструктур, что в ближайшем будущем политические деятели, не присутствующие на постоянной основе в интернет-пространстве, не будут восприниматься как серьезные претенденты на высокие позиции», «Сегодня у Вас есть уникальная возможность выйти на новый уровень освещения деятельности Администрации Губернатора, с помощью работы с платформой livejournal.com, тем самым способствовать росту авторитета и доверия к Губернатору Кировской области Никите Юрьевичу Белых».“

My press office got a commercial offer from a well-know PR firm that offered to develop and manage a governor’s blog. It means my blog. I can’t deter from quoting some selected parts of this offer: “In December 2009, at the governmental council meeting that was dedicated to electronic government, the president actually sent a message to the governmental officials saying that those politicians who won’t have permanent presence on the Internet won’t be treated as candidates for high-rank positions. <…> Today,  you have a unique opportunity to raise the coverage of the activities of the governor’s administration to a new level and consequently contribute to the growth of trust in Kirovsk region governor Nikita Yureivich Belyh. It can be done with the Livejournal.com platform.”

The full text of the offer, which was also published in Belyh’s blog [RUS], included the prices for development and management of a blog. It costs 163,000  rubles (approx. $5,500) to set up a blog. And it costs 84,000 rubles (approx. $3,000) to manage the blog. The promotion will cost 199,900 rubles ($7.000). The promotional activities include paying other bloggers who have more than one thousand “friends” to publishing information about the blog and distribute the links to the blog across various platforms.

Evgeny Puchkov at FPG-Media PR agency confirmed [RUS] to a Russian newspaper “Vedomosti” that the blog promotion deals were offered to many politicians including high-rank officials in local and municipal offices. He also said that about 15 of those who got the offer expressed their interest in FPG-Media services.

The above-mentioned offer to the governor is not just an anecdote. It is an inication of a significant shift in the state of the Russian Internet.

“The government officials will conquer the Internet in 2010,” claimed [RUS] Shamil Yusupov from the Russian PR sector news portal Sostav.ru.

As we know, the Internet proved its political efficiency through few stories (e.g. abandoned hospital [ENG] or nursing home [ENG]) when social movements were very effective in achieving their goals.

“Many governors and mayors started to adopt blogs as a channel for communication with public a long before Russian president decided to open his own Livejournal blog,” Russian Forbes magazine wrote. “But after that, a movement of governmental official to the Internet became a very wide phenomenon.”

Forbes recently published the rating [RUS] of the most popular Livejournal blogs created and managed by Russian officials. According to the rating, the most popular bloggers-government officials are the President Dmitriy Medvedev (1) followed by the Deputy Head of the Kirovsk region government Maria Gaidar(2), the governor of the Permsk region Oleg Chirkunov (3), the governor of Kirovsk region Nikita Belyh (4) and the Chairman of the Council of Federation Sergey Mironov (5).

Many of those popular bloggers holding government positions come from the same regions where blogs are actively used by local governors (e.g. Perms and Kirovsk). Moreover, the governors use their blogs to present bloggers who work for their administration.

Ekaterina Egorova, a president of Nikkolo M group that provides political consulting, explained [RUS] to Russian Forbes the nature of the blogosphere popularity among Russian politicians:

Спрос большой, и он нарастаетРяд политиков и чиновников стали копировать Медведева. Есть политические фигуры, которые посредством блога создают психологическое поле, на котором пытаются вырастить новый интерес к своей фигуре, как, например, Татьяна Юмашева. И это в определенном смысле удается.

The demand is big and it’s increasing. There are politicians and governmental officials who started to copy President Medvedev. There are some political persons that through their blogs create a psychological field where they raise an interest toward themselves, e.g. Tatyana Yumasheva [a daughter of the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin – G.A.]. And to some extent they are successful in achieving these goals.

However, the meaning and consequences of “blogepidemy” among Russian politician is very debatable. Livejournal blogger turbinsky wrote [RUS] in response to the blog post by the Governor Belyh about the blog promotion offer:

Ничего удивительного. В России очень много губернаторов, но очень немногие из них могут грамотно два слова связать, не говоря уж о мыслях:))) И уж тем более далеко не каждый из них обладает литературным даром, подобным вашему. Простор для развития бизнеса:))) таких вот ПиаР контор. Почему нет? Особенно за бюджетные деньги )))

There is nothing surprising [in this offer – G.A.]. There are a lot of governors, but only few of them are able to connect two words together, not talking about expressing thoughts. Moreover, not everyone among them has a writing talent as you do. It is a field for business development for that kind of PR firms. Why not? Especially when it's paid from the governmental budget.

“Is it legitimate to manage private blog with public money?”asked [RUS] mt6561.

“It’s very easy. It will be enough to say that it’s not private but work blog. Moreover, our officials know how to use money from governmental budgets,” answers [RUS] neo50nick.

“The statement by Medvedev created an entire market,” concludes [RUS] propovednick.

The head of the PR firm pu4kov denied [RUS] the accusations that he used the President Medvedev appeal to go to the Internet for accumulation of public money.

“We don’t talk about governors’ PR and don’t try to manipulate the Russian president’s statement but we talk about effective information cooperation on the Internet, which can be good for a concrete governor and region, by providing a new channel for communication with population,” he explained.

This explanation hasn’t convinced many bloggers and journalists.

“The president’s intent to raise an Internet literacy of governmental officials turned to be a subject for speculation,” summarizes [RUS] Russian newspaper Gazeta.

“I am very glad that I manage my blog by myself. I save so much money for our budget,” noted the Governor Belyh.

But he represents a small minority of politicians who write their blogs themselves.

“I'm afraid to even think how much money we spend for managing Dmitry Anatolievich's [President Medvedev – G.A.] blog,” wrote [RUS] LJ user pogorsky

Some bloggers claimed [RUS] that PR firms managing blogs is against blogs’ nature:

Блог – дело личностное. В том числе и для политика. Хочется в блоге видеть не столько губернатора- но человека. Для Губернатора есть оф. сайт, эл. почта., приемная, обращение граждан и прочее, прочее, прочее. Не хотелось бы чтобы блоги превращались в официальные закостенелости.

Blog is a personal thing. It's also personal for a politician. We would like to see not a governor but a person on the blog. A governor can use his official Web site, e-mail, his office for public affairs, etc. But it will be very unfortunate if a blog turns into an official restricted platform.

But probably the most significant concern is that the broad movement of Russian officials into Livejoural and other social media platforms will  significantly change the face of the Russian blogosphere. Unlike TV, which is controlled by the government, the blogosphere is considered to be the most independent media platform. Expanding the artificial and unnatural presence of the government officials – including bloggers motivated by governmental goals and don’t even write the blogs by themselves but hire PR firms to do it  – may “poison” the Russian independent public sphere.

A Lenta.ru columnist Anna Vrazhina wrote [RUS] an open letter to the President Medvedev where she called to defend Livejournal.com from a wave of Russian politicians and protect the Russian blogosphere from becoming a strictly political tool.

Я вам не как гражданка президенту пишу, а как блогер блогеру. Мы с вами оба старые интернетчики, вот я и хочу у вас спросить: зачем, ну зачем, Дмитрий Анатольевич, вы сказали на этом злосчастном Госсовете в декабре, что не будете назначать на ответственные должности людей, которые… как там было… “не присутствуют на постоянной основе в интернет-пространстве”?

Дмитрий Анатольевич, вам же самому еще в этом интернет-пространстве жить! <…>

Дмитрий Анатольевич, я вас по-блогерски прошу: не надо их интернетизировать. Ну пожалуйста. Оставьте нам хотя бы “Яндекс” ЖЖ. Чтоб хоть туда ЭТИ не лезли.<…>

Короче, Дмитрий Анатольевич, я вас очень прошу, дезавуируйте как-нибудь это свое заявление, а? А то и так уже в блогосфере от имен-отчеств да от “уважаемых друзей” ни вздохнуть, ни пё… ой, извините.

I write to you not as a citizen to president but as a blogger to blogger. We are both experienced Internet users and I want to ask you why, what for, Dmitry Anatolievich, you said at the government council meeting in December that those… how you said it “who are not present on the Internet permanently” would not be promoted.Dmitry Anatolievich, you are also supposed to live in this Internet space!<…>Dmitry Anatolievich, I ask you in a blog-way, don’t push them to the Internet. I beg you. You should leave for us at least Yandex Livejournal. Make it so that THOSE people wouldn’t go there.<…>

To conclude, Dmitry Anatolievich, I really ask you to do something to neutralize your statement. We can’t breath due to increase of those “respectful friends” on the blogosphere…

This case may present a new model of the Internet regulation when independent platforms are not restricted, censored or limited by government per se. However, an active governmental penetration gradually leads to diminishing trust to the blogosphere as an independent and valuable source.  The active usage of PR tactics may cast a shadow over entire blogosphere when every popular blog may be suspected as propaganda and considered to be not a private diary but a promotion platform for political or commercial purposes.

A blogger d_fedot wrote [RUS]:

Ещё в прошлом году эксперты отмечали снижение доверия читателей к официальным новостям, всё больше юзеров пытается черпать информацию из неофициальных источников, которые кажутся более правдивыми и откровенными. К таким в первую очередь относится и ЖЖ.

Интересно, что многие пользователи ЖЖ настроены категорически против коммерциализации в любом её виде, считая блогосферу каким то закрытым личным пространством. Я же считаю это закономерным развитием блогов в России. Жаль лишь, что после обнародованного предложения, доверия к журналам публичных людей, а тем более политиков, которые будут появляться в будующем, не будет.

Last year experts pointed out the decrease of readers’ trust toward official news. More and more users try to get information from unofficial sources that seem to be more credible and open. One of the most significant examples for this kind of sources is Livejournal.com.It’s interesting, that many Livejournal bloggers tend to strongly oppose any commercialization and they consider the blogosphere a close private space. I believe that the development of blogs in Russia is logical. However, it’s a pity that after publication of information about the offer [to Belyh – G.A.], the trust toward future blogs by public persons, certainly politicians, will disappear.

Indeed, there is nothing wrong with the fact that politicians want to have blogs. But a combination of active penetration of officials due to the president's statement with active use of PR tools can lead to the situation when the Russian blogosphere loses its status as a source of authentic, independent and relatively credible information. To some extent, the first who lose in this situation are politicians themselves. The attempt to use the blogosphere as another PR platform destroys the space that provided a real opportunity for development of new dimensions of political identity and new kind of interaction with people.

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