Last Sunday mass demonstrations took place in almost 100 Russian cities. They were the biggest since the 2011-2012 protest wave, called the “snow revolution”. But if the last time election fraud was what provoked the people’s anger, this time it was an investigation into Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption practices. The investigation was conducted by the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Alexey Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has announced his intention to run in the 2018 presidential elections.
Just a few months ago, no one would have believed that a corruption investigation could provoke mass protests across the country. Not expecting such a massive turnout, the authorities tried to stop the protesters from gathering. State media and law enforcement warned against going out into the streets, but this encouraged people even more to do so. As protesters started gathering, the police launched a massive crackdown campaign (more than 1,000 people were arrested in Moscow alone), which attracted even more attention.
In the demonstrations there was an unusually high number of youth – not only university but also high school students. Photos from the protests showed the brawny bodies of policemen towering over 14 to 15-year-olds. These children were born during the Putin era and despite their “patriotic upbringing” actively enforced in schools and in the media, they came out wanting change.
The internet generation
Just before the protests, the release of a recording of a high-school discussion between a teacher and students about the annexation of Crimea and anti-corruption protests caused a lot of controversy in Russia. The students in the recording were talking very confidently about these issues, while the teacher was responding with discomfort.
The mobilisation of the youth could be explained partially by the fact that Navalny – in contrast to previous protest leaders – is the hero of the internet generation. He could publish his numerous investigations into government corruption not on traditional media outlets, but on social media and his blog. He has almost two million followers on Twitter. He would win any internet vote on any topic.
If you are a high-school or a university student, you just don’t have a choice: You wouldn’t vote for any of the people who headed their parties even before you were born and are still repeating the same slogans (this is applicable to all main “opposition” parties, too). In this sense, Navalny is Russia’s Bernie Sanders, who started as an activist with the reputation of an uncompromising fighter, who does not want to integrate into the political establishment.
But Navalny is not the whole story. This generation is different from previous ones because it doesn’t watch TV. Not necessarily for political reasons, but because it simply doesn’t find it interesting.
In fact, there is a bit of a vicious circle in that: The youth watches TV less and less, while heads of TV channels continue to turn more and more towards the 60+ audience, pushing away the few young viewers they have. There is no spectacle more depressing than TV programming on a holiday: Botoxed variety stars of the Soviet era, bland jokes with orchestrated laughter, a gaudy carnival-style studio – all of this seems to be purposefully set up to repulse.
The political shows are no better: inviting the same guests who shout over each other, castigating Ukraine and the US State Department. From year to year the ratings of Russian TV channels are falling; they still might compete over housewife viewership, but they’ve lost for ever the youth audience.
For the Kremlin this is a big problem and they know that. Recently the Projector Paris Hilton, in which popular comedians discuss the latest news, came back on air. The show is indeed popular among the youth. Despite all the censorship and thoroughly vetted news stories that they are discussing, the show does go against the political establishment. Soon after the release of Navalny’s investigation the show did a sketch on Medvedev on a different occasion from the documentary, but still Navalny and his followers immediately shared it on social media.
Lack of propaganda options
State TV channels are the main support lever of Vladimir Putin’s power; they are even more important than the court and the parliament he controls. Literally a few weeks after Putin’s first inauguration, Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of the biggest independent TV channel, was arrested (he was released after allegedly conceding to give up control over his channel). At that time regular internet users did not exceed 2 percent of the Russian population. Today 70 percent of Russians use the internet; among the youth, this percentage is closer to 100.
Russian propaganda such as Russian cars and Russian football is only good when there is nothing else to compare it to.
The Kremlin managed to take under its control the most popular news websites, but it never managed to turn the internet into a propaganda machine because the way the internet works is different from traditional media. TV presupposes passive reception of information: A housewife is cooking dinner as the news on Channel One runs in the background; the husband puts on football and at half-time he gets fed news about the “fascist junta” in Ukraine.
But online this doesn’t work. There, users choose what to look at. Loyalist websites did not mention anything about Navalny’s documentary, but it nevertherless went viral on social media and messenger apps. Some 150,000 were watching the live broadcast of the protests simultaneously, while news reports on what was going on brought independent news sites record traffic.
The very psychology of a person growing up in the internet era is different: S/he is used to being a subject, not an object and choosing what sources of information to consume from. There are, of course, negative aspects to that as well: Populists used the internet, too, to spread fake news and encourage Brexit and Trump’s electoral popularity. But in Russia under authoritarian rule, this new culture of information consumption is the main challenge to the regime.
The many attempts of the Kremlin to create popular information alternatives for the youth have failed. Despite the vast amounts of finances which Yury Kovalchuk (who is rumoured to be close to Putin) is investing in online media, the Kremlin still doesn’t have popular opinion leaders of its own. No need to explain why the attempts of some members of the presidential administration to create internet memes and try to make them popular have failed.
Russian propaganda like Russian cars and Russian football is only good when there is nothing else to compare it to. In Soviet times propaganda was even more unidirectional and bland, but there was nothing to compare it to – now there is.
Of course, this is by far not an existential threat to the Kremlin. It still retains control over various methods of repression, including internet censorship, firing the parents of youth who attended the protests, dismissing students from university, etc. Which of these will be applied and which of these will work is not yet clear. But what is clear is that the times, when political control necessitated only control over TV channels, are long gone and will never come back.
Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.