Political expert Viktor Sidorov: ‘There is a real war for young minds on social media’
If new media will help win the election race for a seat in Russian Parliament and what threat targeted technologies on social media pose
According to a recent poll of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, almost 60% of Russians are living with a feeling of instability in the country, this causes anxiety among another 44%. Meanwhile, 2021 will become quite a politicised year because elections of a new composition of the State Duma are ahead in Russia. What role can social media play in the fight for voters’ votes? And should politicians use them? Sociologists, political experts, deputies discussed these and other questions during a discussion at a meeting of Volga expert club. Realnoe Vremya’s correspondent listened to the discussion.
Russians lost trust in the mass media and were disappointed with the party of power
Volga club invited the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center’s head Valery Fyodorov, Vice Director General of Interfax Information Agency Nikolay Kasyanov, State Duma deputy Oleg Morozov as well as famous political experts, pundits of SMM marketing and others who are linked with politics or new media to the discussion of the issue.
First of all, participants in the discussion were provided with data of a big social survey of the Research Center among 80 Russian regions about moods in society before the elections to the State Duma. The voting will take place in September 2021. Considering that economic, epidemiological and social crises have been shattering Russia in the last few years, society’s mood can hardly be named optimistic. 30% of the respondents believe that the things in the country are going in the right direction, their number was 8% more than six years ago, while 53% think that the country needs stability, not a reform.
The trust in the mass media is another indicator: there is a fall among federal, official TV, radio and newspapers, websites. If 45% of the respondents trusted them in 2015, this year, 37% do (36% distrusted them in 2015 and 49% in 2021). The situation of regional mass media is a bit better (65% against 51%). As for the trust in social media, the trust in 2015 was 38%, today it has fallen by 8 points, while the distrust in them rose from 42% to 58%.
As for Russians’ current political preferences, the survey suggests that the previous leadership of the so-called party of power has notably been hit. If almost half of the respondents endorsed it in 2015, this year, only 28% of the respondents voted for United Russia. The rating of the CPRF rose by 3 percentage points, from 9% to 12%, the rating of Fair Russia did by 1%. Moreover, electoral chances of non-parliamentarian parties greatly rose: if 5% wanted to vote for them in 2015, this year, this amount is already 14%. There is another interesting tendency — 46% of the respondents who participated in the Research Center’s survey replied that nowadays the country doesn’t have a party that would express the citizens’ interests.
Summing up the data of the statistics, Valery Fyodorov noted that “the political fight for seats in Russian Parliament won’t be simple this year, there are seats to fight for”.
Social media won’t help to win the election, but one certainly can’t win them without it
As parliamentarian Oleg Morozov thinks, despite a fall in United Russia’s rating this year, the voter will look for answers to key questions in existing parties. “There is a question: how they can capitalise their political weight into a result in September is a matter of skill of working on the scene”.
Putting an example of his personal experience he gained in additional elections to the State Duma in September 2020, at the height of the coronavirus epidemic, Morozov is sure that social media are just an additional instrument of communication between the candidate and votes. Live communication between them is the most important thing:
“You can be very active on social media. But if you don’t directly communicate with people, with voters, you don’t have feedback, you don’t understand what they want from you, you don’t hear people, they don’t hear you.”
Head of Interfax Nikolay Kasyanov thinks that all modern election technologies are connected with specific cases, not dry reports and praise songs of a politician. Today, he believes, candidates for Russian Parliament “need a stock of programme, specific experience, very specific, feedback from the residents of a district or people who are linked with a topic, for instance, the environmental problem. All this creates a burden the candidate carries because of his voters’ general will he has to respond to. In fact, his political fate depends on how actively he responds.”
Then participants in the expert club decided to switch to the key question of the agenda, if politicians and deputies need social media, if they will help candidates to win the fight for a seat on lawmaking Mount Olympus. One of the leaders of an association of online technologists Tikhon Makarov, if a candidate for a deputy seat creates an account in social networks, it is important for him to have not an army of subscribers and low coverage but “his audience, the core of the audience”. There is another important criterion — don’t be a functionary in a suit and tie on social media but “show what person you are, that you are a family man, for instance, that you run in the morning, you have a dog, you can come to an old lady in the street what problems she has, help her solve these problems, show you talk with the population without keeping a distance”.
He gave the audience an example of the absolute victory of an ordinary cleaner in the election for the post of the head of Povalikhino settlement in 2018. As Makarov’s team found out, the woman, not the current head though he really solved problems of the settlement, won a landslide victory, and the voters’ simple answered: “The head, if he wants to be a head, should simply learn how to respect people”. This is why the online technologist is sure that there should not be a long distance between the politician and voters today:
“Social networks won’t help you win elections, but without them, you will certainly lose them because this distance between you and the audience reduces only with the help of new sincerity.”
For instance, during previous campaigns, Governor Osipov from Zabaykalye started to cry in a live transmission after telling the audience his problems or when the head of Kemerovo Oblast fell to the knees of a person whose whole family died in the fire. As a result, all these functionaries scored over 70% of the votes in elections.
The republic’s famous Instagram blogger Alina Gimaltdinova agrees with him:
“The participation of deputies on social media or their presence there isn’t designed to win, first of all, it is designed to increase the recognisability. A lot of voters don’t know what a person he is, what he does. And face-to-face meetings are not frequent. This is why it is great when a deputy talks about his activity, he shows his family, talks about his hobbies, so the trust and recognisability increase, a person understands if he, the candidate, is worthy of being voted for.”
Tatarstan State Council deputy Almir Mikheyev is also in favour of social networks. He told the audience that his colleagues in the Fair Russia party decided to close Tyoply Stan paper because it was absolutely ineffective, Mikheyev admitted. Now social media will become a platform for their political activity, they help to be close to their votes at a click, as much more problems of voters can be solved, the young politician is convinced.
Young minds are victims of targeted technologies
Talking about the current political situation in the country, political expert, Kazan Federal University Docent Viktor Sidorov noted that parties’ trends nowadays are obviously in crisis, while new parties won’t solve problems because “parties without a personal brand now are nothing”. He assumes that those parties that will be able to bring bright individuals, the so-called vanguards to the forefront who should be in the limelight, show off will win. Sidorov sees a merge of three new trends as a true art of leading a fight before the elections — personal warm involvement, new sincerity and social media as an additional instrument.
The fight before the elections in 2016 exceeded demand in Russia’s political sphere for services of SMM agencies, noted founder of one of the leading agencies of Tatarstan Regina Faskheyeva. At the same time, she is sure that no interference in a politician’s blog, that’s to say, running the account by an SMM manager, will make his blog better “simply because few people can show his thoughts as much as he would do this on his own. Might there be mistakes, faults but it should sincere. And people will feel it”. This is why her agency doesn’t agree to work with personal accounts, Faskheyeva stressed.
Then they started to talk about new ways of fighting for voters’ votes. The political expert said that there is a real war on social media for “young minds, it is a life-and-death war, this was last time a long time ago”. They are a victim of targeted technologies that “are amazing, let’s admit it, great technologists who deal with it work there. And somebody let them go once but they made it at one point,” the political expert explained. And if there is a fight that’s characteristic of any politics, it means it needs a reply to it. Sidorov thinks that the political market today is a bit empty, the parties are sleeping now. And street mobilisation overlaps with electoral mobilisation, it is a new trend. He made his forecast for the upcoming elections: “The fight will be tough, one should get ready for this, it isn’t 2016.”
In answer to this, Nikolay Kasyanov asked a question — what should we do with the youth? Viktor Sidorov noted that as a teacher he constantly talks with students who become objects of manipulation of the opposition. And the answer to the question turned out to be quite simple and banal — to talk, explain that the youth aren’t simply manipulated during electoral mobilisation, that’s to say, there is an attempt to obtain their votes as voters.
A representative of New People’s regional office Diana Shiverskikh was asked the same question too. She thinks that a trend for politics should be created among young Russians. But political expert Viktor Sidorov warned that “extreme politicisation carries serious risks and dangers”.