Russian journalists untangling Red Web

Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan will lead discussions into the issues surrounding their latest book, The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, as part of the Rogers Chair Lecture Series, sponsored by the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.



Soldatov, editor and co-founder of Agentura.Ru, an information hub on intelligence agencies, is a regular contributor on the topics of terrorism and intelligence for Vedomosti, Radio Free Europe and the BBC. Borogan, deputy editor of Agentura.Ru, regularly chronicles the increasing influence of the security services in the Russian government.

The pair will be featured at three events – a lecture, The Red Web: Internet Censorship in Russia, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, in Somerville House 3345; a book launch at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 3, at Museum London; and a seminar, The Kremlin and the Internet, at 2 p.m. Friday, March 4, in North Campus Building 454.



Recently, they sat down with Western News to discuss the theme of their visit.

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In the West, the arrival of the Internet sparked an innovation and commercial revolution unlike anything we have seen since the Industrial Revolution. What has been the Russian experience with the arrival of the Internet?

Well, the Internet came to Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, thus it was firstly intended for organizations only (primarily research facilities), not ordinary people. Everything changed after August 1991, the failed putsch and then collapse of the Soviet Union. The Internet found its way first to Russian businesses, small and mid-sized companies, all over the country. In the country with not very good (to put in mildly) communications, the Internet (then email) helped to connect Russian nascent businesses. It had a real economic impact.

Then, only in the mid-1990s, thanks to better connection and low prices, ordinary people got connected, and we got an Internet subculture, with their guru, experts, art, etc. But it was the second wave.

So, what then is the average Russian citizen’s experience with the Internet? How widespread is its availability/use, what do they seek out on it, what levels of government oversight/control/snooping are they aware of, or unaware of?

In a global survey by the Pew Research Center, 73 per cent of those questioned in Russia said they had online access. The total amount of Internet users in Russia is over 84 million (against 142 million population). But the significant share of the users have the Internet on their smartphones, and they use the net to get access to very practical information – where to buy things and where/when to go to cinema – and not to get the news. The most part of the population still relies on TV for news.

Maybe this ties into the above question, but I am interested in this concept of a ‘digital dictatorship.’ Explain it to me in terms of the average Russian citizen. How do they experience this digital dictatorship in their everyday lives?

Well, the main point is that they still rely largely on TV in getting political news. This makes them a very easy target for Russian propaganda. But the picture is more complicated, as even the most advanced part of the society – urban middle classes – are not very interested to get independent news (say, from the Internet). In early 2000s the middle class quietly accepted a broad trade-off: (Russian President Vladimir) Putin brought prosperity, and the middle class remained passive and didn’t participate in politics, which means they didn’t follow the news. This slightly changed in 2011-12 because of Moscow protests, but it’s still a very big problem – a weak political culture, lack of debate, lack of critical thinking. They are mostly defenseless against propaganda on TV, and an emotional message broadcasted by TV and social networks (spread by trolls).

Despite powerful state control, Russia has seen a rise of digital revolutionaries seeking concrete change in society through a digital venue. How do the experiences of these people compare with the experiences of your more controversial journalism colleagues? What additional, or different, levels of attempted state control, if any, do they face?

They are different, of course. Media are hierarchical structures, unfortunately, the organizations that could be coerced if going after their bosses, and thus they are more susceptible to pressure from the government. Putin has known that from 2000, when he started pressuring the independent television, you just need to go after the bosses, and this is the trick – it will be for them to explain to journalists the new rules of the games. This system is extremely effective, because the rules are not defined clearly and journalists should guess what’s allowed. It leads to self-censorship, and corrosion of the journalist community. And this is exactly what happened.

What one or two items are vital for Canadian citizens (or audiences in The West, in general) to understand about the current situation facing the Russian people? What universal warnings that cross all international borders must Canadians heed – could these controls happen here?

In the 1990s, Russia went through a period of great freedom. That was inspiring for some people, yet terrifying for most of Russian population because everybody had to change their routine life and upgrade themselves to fit in the new capitalism. The state became almost invisible in many areas, where it had always put the rules for average people and many felt this as a big loss.

When Putin came to power, he promised to bring some powers of the state back, protect the people from different kinds of threats. That was supported by many Russians.

In 2012, when he started an offensive on the Internet, he used the same trick and the new oppressive legislation on the Internet was sold to the public as measures to protect children from pedophiles, drugs and suicide. And this did not provoke a lot of protests.

Going further and further, the Russian authorities have used the same trick – the general public’s fear of the new bloody revolution. Of course, after a while, it works less and less, but it is still effective.

Primarily, Russia seeks how to filter and control the Internet inside the country, trying to erect the borders in the virtual space. This approach could be picked up by others, if successful.

The biggest threat posed by this approach is that all of us may end up pretty soon in the newly divided world, with different versions of the Internet for China, Russia, Canada, France, etc.