“Social media are more and more controlled by the state”
Sociologist Liliya Zemnukhova on freedom of speech, isolation of the Russian internet and law on Disrespect for Authorities
The Internet in Russia has been considered from the very beginning as a free and uncontrolled space where one can express one’s opinion. However, the situation changed in 2019. The law on Disrespect for Authorities came into force, so a person can be held accountable, even arrested for using specific words in social networks. The law on sovereign Internet is created, it’s when Russia's communications regulator Roskomnadzor will decide for itself which resources pose a threat to the Russian internet and to which sources users’ access must be blocked. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, sociologist Liliya Zemnukhova said how the Russian online community’s life is changing due to these and other changes.
“The norms and rules we are used to in offline communication are not just redefined but destroyed”
Liliya, let’s start with a general question, what changed in people’s lives with the appearance of mobile technologies, the Internet?
In the last 20-30 years, the ideas of what matters to a person in everyday life have dramatically changed. Social researchers write about a reduction in space and time, the alteration in the environment, for instance, thanks to technologies, users begin to have access to information and a chance not to be present but to be present with someone else. One of the ideas is that society became cyber: everything is interconnected, and we can send gifts to friends to other countries, order food, participate in processes as citizens sitting at home. The idea that services, things, people turn out linked among each other is becoming taken for granted. What really matters in everyday life and what knowledge and skills we need to feel comfortable in this new environment are changing. Even if basic values don’t change, an attitude to new goals, the ways to achieve them, what matters in making everyday decisions are transforming.
How do social media change the relationship between people?
The structure of communication, formats of communication change. Every time we talk in social networks or messengers, we recreate traditional ideas about how communication should look like. It usually seems that one must greet, find out if the person is busy or not, ask how he or she is doing, end the talk saying farewells. My colleague Konstantin Glazkov’s students studied the way the farewell rite looks now or, more precisely, what is left of it. Some elements and rites stop being conventional. The norms and rules we are used to in offline communication are not just redefined but destroyed, stop being important because the achievement of a goal or the search for information or learning some circumstances might become the task of such communication.
Researchers say that boundaries between these spheres blur very fast: there is a shift in perception what is online and what is offline. Some rites of connecting, getting access to the Internet were very important at the dawn of social media. I remember access to computers began to be restricted in our university because they understood students didn’t write reports in the computer class but used social media. At that moment there was a strict division between what can and cannot be done. Social media were considered as entertainment only, and communication didn’t seem that value a social network can attribute. It was rather considered as leisure time, while the search for one’s classmates was the ultimate goal.
“Facebook is better adapted for public discussions, while Vk.com is used more to create communities and spread information. Telegram became a kind of gramophone, a messenger about what’s going on in different spheres of life a user is interested in”
Then social media became a platform not only for friendly communication. It is clear that different social networks have different infrastructural and interfacial capabilities, but the organisation of events, advertising, coordination work, public debates or even political statements are today’s number of features of social media users. For instance, Facebook is better adapted for public discussions, while Vk.com is used more to create communities and spread information. Telegram became a kind of gramophone, a messenger about what’s going on in different spheres of life a user is interested in. Depending on how networks work, the user also changes their usage strategies. Every social media begin to have its own niches and peculiarities that are reflected in users’ practices. Moreover, the research Why We Post, which is promoted by fans of the Internet and communities in Russia, demonstrates very well that social media in different countries are used in different ways.
“It was a bit strange just 5-7 years ago if a firm, a start-up or something else had a page in social media”
What role are social media playing today for the economic sphere?
Social media are also an important platform for the commercial sector. It was a bit strange just 5-7 years ago if a firm, a start-up or something else had a page in social media and they posted them on their main pages of the website. The website was the first thing clients or users used to look at. But then social media became the main platform the industry, the commercial sector looked at first because it turned out that it was much easier to follow their target audience, assemble people, spread information for interested users. Expansion of websites via social networks gives additional chances for feedback and information collection that a company can analyse to achieve its goals. Marketing strategies start to create new models of interactions with the audience and consumers: SMM managers are appearing for some reason, they must have a good understanding of the economy of social media works, what is liked, what is shared, what is posted, to what people react and what they ignore.
How does the state use social media?
The state and social media have an uneasy relationship. First of all, the state considers social media as a source of data — both personal and impersonal — due to the prevention of national threats or the necessity to understand, for instance, how much one can be afraid of political rallies. On the one hand, the state allegedly doesn’t control the development of social media, and it doesn’t have the task of imposing a way of interaction, communication. On the other hand, partnership with social media means access to a powerful tool to analyse data about its citizens’ behaviour and possibilities of its control.
A law known to the public as Disrespect for Authorities has recently come into force. Now a person can be held accountable on a legal basis for criticising authorities, using specific works in social media. The problem is that the ideology of free communication and exchange of views is mixed. Social media as a private sphere, as space for self-expression begin to mix with the public status of statements and civil agenda whose participant and regulator is the state. It’s a deep contradiction that makes users go to other, safer spaces in the Net.
Experts say that all technology-related laws like the Yarovaya Package or the Roskomnadzor Blacklist aren’t effective. Why did they have to spend so many resources to make them badly and senseless? Why make free space controllable?
“All technology-related laws like the Yarovaya Package or the Roskomnadzor Blacklist aren’t effective”
What do you think about the creation of sovereign internet?
The bill, which was adopted in April, is due to come into force from November already. It presupposes that in case of threats to the Russian internet, there must be an opportunity to isolate the Russian segment — the Net, its internal structure so that external threats won’t be able to break the Russian internet.
All that is clear now is that the bill itself isn’t very understandable. It doesn’t have a consecutive algorithm of actions regarding how this all will work. It is not very clear what the threat means, how exactly physical networks, which are cross-boundary, will be isolated, controlled. It is not clear at all how all domain operators, providers will report on what they identify or don’t identify as undesirable content. There is plenty of questions that require strict definitions so that the law will be able to work. Moreover, not the whole Internet in Russia is centralised, there are big chains of regional providers and operators. What is more, the responsibility for implementing this idea partly falls on operators, partly on the government. The government together with Roskomnadzor must clarify all these inaccuracies.
Experts say that all technology-related laws like the Yarovaya Package or the Roskomnadzor Blacklist aren’t effective. Why did they have to spend so many resources to make them badly and senseless? Why make free space controllable? At the moment it turns out that Roskomnadzor is the main body that will say what’s wrong and what’s not, and it is very bad.
Is the same thing happening in social media?
Yes, users begin to feel a direct threat. For instance, due to the law on Disrespect for Authorities, the first case was on 22 April already. A citizen of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast made a statement on his page and was fined. People are used to free communication on the Internet, and the more authorities will try to control, the more discontent there will be. The logic of the free world of communication is facing the logic of actions controlled by the government. Companies and developers become participants of political processes when they have to provide access to data by the state’s request. And citizens didn’t sign up for this when they became social media users.
The scandal with Durov who tried to defend the independent status of Vk.com, not make it a political tool, is very illustrative. We know how this story continued. In the end, users must understand not only the economy of social media but their politicians must behave like “good citizens” in many cases. We become participants of a very big number of registers, we must understand the consequences our behaviour might have.
Is the situation the same in other countries or is Russia unique in this regard?
We can lay out the whole world across the spectrum of the most totalitarian to the most democratic countries. Each country has its own history and situations, its degree of freedom and non-freedom. I can’t reply about all the countries, I haven’t looked at how this all works. Statements about authorities are a normal and regular practice in many European and North American countries. It’s a common thing when one can write about Trump or Macron on Twitter, and it’s not prosecuted as an administrative or criminal violation because the boundaries are further. A democratic regime presupposes that one must and can express one’s opinion about authorities, otherwise, how can authorities react to the public outcry? It is hard to imagine that any attempt to say something about the leader besides praise ends up tragic consequences for someone.
Russia isn’t the first country where state authorities decided to control citizens’ behaviour in the networks. But this runs a risk of becoming a traumatic experience because the Internet was considered as a free space until 2019, and we have been living in this relations with social media, the Internet for long, we even allow ourselves a lot of in developing civil society. And such measures as social media censorship or isolation of the Internet breaks our habitual normal practice. It doesn’t mean we will stop using the Internet and will express our opinion, we will just take to a safer place. Roughly speaking, it’s much more dangerous on Vk.com than on Facebook because services don’t have direct access to internal information resources there.
The situation in Telegram is different. Last year’s attempt to block it looked funny. Authorities didn’t understand how the protocol worked and why they couldn’t get access to these data. It’s not a story about centralised data collection, how this works in social media but hidden communication in devices themselves: no device — no data. It is a very democratic technology. But from a perspective of the state, it is dangerous because it isn’t controlled, this is why it is called an alternative to social media. Yes, developers might have protocols that save correspondence, but state services don’t have access to it. We should understand it because every new platform creating infrastructure for communication has its own capabilities and limits. WhatsApp used to have encryption, which could be partly centralised and revealed. But there have recently been failures due to which a part of data has become available. Have you updated your app?
Last year’s attempt to block it looked funny. Authorities didn’t understand how the protocol worked and why they couldn’t get access to these data
What is the future of social media, from your point of view?
I am not a futurologist, this is why I can just say what’s seen and clear now. It seems to me that the user’s consciousness about his or her behaviour in social media will rise. People will probably migrate from those social networks that look like a threat to those looking more protected. Social media will be long dominating for users, they are accounting for a lion’s share of people’s online activity now. And the situation is unlikely to change in the next 10-20 years. Social media themselves will decide how to act: to develop new services and platforms like Yandex or be like a hermetic and secure system like Telegram that needs to be confined and commercialised inside. We will wait and see.