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The Kremlin sets its eyes on YouTube

In Russia YouTube is becoming the main platform for political conflict and a battleground for young voters. While the opposition is able to attract followers with content, the authorities are experimenting with ways to establish control over the video portal.

The year 2017 has definitely become the year of YouTube. Already in 2016, the video sharing social network became the second most visited website in the world after Google.com. In June 2017 YouTube claimed that its monthly audience of registered users passed 1.5 billion people. In Russia, 87 per cent of internet users watch videos on YouTube and the number of monthly active viewers is more than 62 million unique users. Some research indicates the figure could be even more than 80 million. In addition to a growing audience, it is important to emphasise the main advantage that YouTube has: younger generations of Russians now prefer YouTube over traditional media as their main source of news and information. Those within the 25-34 year-old age group are the most active users of YouTube in the country.

Despite its rapidly growing popularity, the Russian authorities at first did not pay much attention to YouTube. This changed in March this year, however, when a single film brought tens of thousands of people to the streets in 82 Russian cities. The majority of the protesters were young.

October 31, 2017 - Svitlana Ovcharova - Hot TopicsIssue 6 2017Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

Dimon or not Dimon?

The film which pushed thousands to protest across Russia was a documentary investigation by the Anti-Corruption Foundation titled He is not Dimon to you. It described the corruption practices of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, focusing on his property. The film appeared online in early March this year and before the rallies started it received more than 14 million views. The authorities, at first, ignored the documentary, refraining from comment. But Russian internet users reacted vigorously online. Many opinion leaders commented on the documentary, which led to more online views. As a result, many supported Alexei Navalny’s call to protest corruption last March.

As the documentary went viral, authorities stepped in and tried to block it from being viewed. One court ordered Navalny’s organisation to remove particular fragments of the film: those related to the activities of billionaire Alisher Usmanov and those related to the “Sotsgosproekt fund”. Navalny answered matter-of-factly: “We probably will not do this.” The video is still online and has been viewed by almost 25 million users.

The Russian authorities clearly underestimated the power one online documentary could have. However, there are now signs that they are coming to the realisation that the interests of the young electorate need be taken into account. In the first half of May, a clip of Alisa Vox, the former singer of the band Leningrad, appeared online. In the video she ridiculed the participants of the March protests, playing the role of a teacher who tells an inexperienced schoolboy he does not understand anything. “Baby, stay out of politics and go give your brain a shower,” Vox sings. The video caused a storm of indignation online. Navalny filmed his commentary: “I really did not understand (the end was not very legible) whether she said ‘go give your brain a shower’ or ‘go learn how to keep silent’. The second is more suitable in meaning. Maybe they will use it for the next song,” Navalny said.

It is unknown whether the video was made-to-order or the singer just wanted to express her point on this heated topic. Nevertheless, the wave of hate that she received online was probably not one of her expectations. The video was eventually deleted. But the authorities continue to adjust to YouTube and the blogosphere with more attempts to influence younger voters. One strategy used by authorities is to try and establish co-operation with popular video bloggers.

Yellow sneakers

Video bloggers, sometimes referred to as YouTubers, are the new idols of the younger generation. Millions of users subscribe to their channels and their video clips easily surpass the popularity of many top Russian artists. For many teenagers these channels have replaced television entirely. Of course, the Russian authorities could not but pay attention to this trend.

In March, Vladimir Medinsky, the Russian minister of culture, met with popular Runet video bloggers (Runet is a term used to describe Russian-language internet – editor’s note). The topic of the meeting was the popularisation of science and how to attract younger people to cultural projects. Authorities declared that no political topics would be discussed, only co-operation that would benefit society. After the ministry meetings, bloggers were invited to the Duma. On May 22nd, a 19-year-old blogger named Sasha Spielberg (Саша Спилберг), whose channel has more than five million users, spoke before the Duma deputies. Topics in her videos are not related to politics, she mainly talks about cosmetics, entertainment and shopping. During the parliamentary hearings “On Youth Policy in the Russian Federation”, Alexandra Balkovskaya (Sasha Spielberg’s real name) gave some tips on how to communicate with young people.

“I’m not good at naming political parties, but I’m well versed in communicating with a large audience. The fact that I am here is a sign that the state recognises the importance of the video blogosphere and the importance of opinion leaders,” she said in her speech. Spielberg, however, did not miss a chance to comment on all the events that were being discussed by the online community. “As for using video bloggers for the fight with street demonstrations, I am not a supporter of extremes,” she said, as reported by Kommersant. “But it’s my attitude that we should have access to both social networks and a passport at age 16, as well as to rally against someone for wearing yellow sneakers,” Spielberg added.

This quote refers to two separate events. The first is about a proposed bill by United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov, which would prohibit children under the age of 14 from using social media and to demand that everyone register with their real name, based on passport data. In other words, the proposal calls for an end to anonymous users. Yellow sneakers are an allusion to He is not Dimon to you, which opens with an e-mail of Medvedev’s order on Amazon for yellow sneakers.

“I’ve never seen a more impudent substitution of concepts in my life! So, according to people who wrote this speech, on March 26th, thousands of people went out to the streets in different cities because they did not like yellow sneakers,” said another popular Russian video blogger, Nikolai Sobolev, after commenting on Spielberg’s speech. “The speech by Sasha Spielberg in the State Duma is a new example of unsuccessful attempts of the state to enlist the support of the YouTube generation”, the German edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung concluded. Yet, as Henry Ford said: “Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” So, attempts to co-operate with online opinion leaders continue.

Blogger festival

The next step did not take long. The authorities moved beyond engagement with just one blogger, and invited a whole council of them to the State Duma. In a press release for the event, it was reported that the main purpose of the first meeting was to determine the format of interaction between bloggers and parliamentarians. Vasily Vlasov, the youngest member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led the initiative. He said the idea was prompted by Sasha Spielberg’s speech. Spielberg, however, did not come to the meeting, nor did many other top Russian bloggers. As RBC reported, only one-third of the invited guests actually participated in the meeting. Vlasov said that an invitation was also sent to Navalny, but there was no response from him.

Nevertheless, the council meeting took place, though not as planned. Some of the most popular bloggers ignored the meeting, fearing that participation in a government-sponsored event would cause resentment among their followers. Instead there were lesser known bloggers, such as Elizaveta Peskova – the daughter of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. Apparently, something went wrong with communications again.

In addition to the fact that YouTube has a huge audience, it is also one of the few platforms in Russia where any dissent is allowed. It is worth noting that interest in political topics on YouTube is quite a new phenomenon. For a long time video hosting has only been considered a platform for entertainment. Gradually, both media and political representatives began infiltrating this part of the internet. Over the past couple of years, however, channels that talk about politics, and those who want to engage in politics, have started to actively develop. Channels of bloggers speaking about events in Russia and expressing their opinion can boast huge audiences and, moreover, their videos compete with many TV news channels. Clearly, Russian users are trying to find an alternative to the traditional TV template, and they find it on YouTube. At the same time, opposition politicians do not have much of a choice. It is impossible to break through on federal channels; therefore, social networks have become the only platform for them.

At the moment, Navalny is the Russian politician who uses YouTube the most effectively. Over 1.5 million users have subscribed to his main channel. In addition, his channel of online broadcasts is actively growing. He is charismatic, a good speaker and respects his audience – he is not trying to talk to the youth in its language. No other politician can compete online with Navalny.

Non-political channels and bloggers who deal with social and political topics are starting to catch up, however. Some of them are in fact ahead in terms of subscribers. But online, there should be enough space for everyone. Navalny also shares this opinion. In the summer he launched a contest with a prize of one million roubles (around 15,000 euros) for the development of video blogs about politics. Fifteen video bloggers out of more than 100 applicants were on the shortlist, proving that this type of video blogging is actively developing. The question now is: how long will the government tolerate it?

Where the truth is being told

One reason why it is important to discuss the relationship between the state and the online community appeared in June this year with a video message from a blogger named Kamikadzedead (his channel has more than one million subscribers). In his message, directed at the heads of YouTube, Dmitry Ivanov (the real name of the blogger) said the Russian YouTube office was co-operating with Putin’s government and wanted to “make YouTube similar to Russian television”, deliberately shutting down channels that criticised Russian policy. He also stated that the Russian YouTube office uses new rules of service concerning the moderation of offensive content, in order to remove opposition videos and “remove channels that criticise authorities”. Ivanov also said that if a video which contradicts party policy was not deleted, YouTube deliberately reduces its number of views. It has been very difficult to verify Ivanov’s claims, but his concerns are shared by many others in Runet.

In September the Swiss edition of Le Temps published an article titled “How YouTube censors the internet in the interests of the Kremlin”. The author, Emmanuel Grinshpan, writes that a video blogger named Roman Tsimbalyuk appealed to their paper and complained that a video, which appeared on his channel on September 5th and had 14,000 views, was blocked by YouTube without explanation. Tsimbalyuk, the only Ukrainian correspondent in Russia, complained that many of his videos were removed based on complaints from YouTube users close to the government. Videos are usually restored later, but there are still more questions than answers.

It would seem that clouds over Russian YouTube videos are gathering, and the latest information about a possible ban on the Google Global Cache (servers designed to reduce the communication load on networks installed by Google and used by internet providers) does not help the situation. Despite all the difficulties, there is no other platform where bloggers  can potentially reach such a large audience. YouTube remains one of the few platforms where, citing the slogan of Navalny’s channel, “the truth is being told”. Alternative voices frighten the government and give hope to the Russian opposition, especially in light of the upcoming Russian presidential election next year.

This year has shown that the authorities are testing the soil and working out a strategy before the presidential election. At the moment, it is difficult to assess how effective they have been and whether the plans of both the authorities and the opposition are achievable. What can be said for certain, however, is that these actions have proven once again that control over the audience on social networks is now strategically much more important than controlling TV. Who will win this battle? Let us hope it is the Russian audience.

Translated by Natalia Kucheriava

Svitlana Ovcharova is the editor in chief of the Russian-language version of Eastbook.eu.

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