Initial results of the study were presented by Emil Pain and HSE doctoral students S. Mokhov, E. Poliakov, S. Prostakov, and S. Fedjuninat the HSE seminar series on Economic Policy in Transition.
The authors mapped the Russian blogosphere based on its ethno-political discourse and identified four main ideology-driven groups: pro-government, leftist, liberal, and nationalist. The findings help us understand the 'Us and Them' attitudes held by members of each of these groups, what they think about the current government and the political opposition, and their outlook on Russia's future. The researchers focused mainly on Vkontakte, explaining their choice by its popularity in Russia, and also by the fact that since the late 2000s, the fashion has shifted from blogs to social networks.
But they looked at Facebook and Twitter as well to gain a better understanding, in particular, of the attitudes among the 'web elite'.
Russia today is a leader in the growth of its internet audience. In the spring of 2012, the number of internet users in Russia reached 59.5 million, which is more than half of the country's adult population. Russians come third after Israel and Argentina in the amount of time spent on social networks (It's a social world 2011).
The study findings confirm that people who endorse slogans like 'Russia for the Russians!' and 'Russian, Help Another Russian!' can serve as a support base for the current government. In this group described by the authors as the Russian Nationalists, negative attitudes towards the government are limited and only associated with phobias against natives of the Caucasus, immigrants, and Muslims.
Members of this group support the government in its confrontation with the West and crackdown on sexual minority rights. The Nationalists' attitudes towards the political opposition are moderately negative, and they tend to view the liberal opposition as agents of the West. Overall, the authors note, members of this group hold a wide range of phobias, including “Westernophobia”. The Nationalists find the idea that Russia should be part of the European world repugnant, seeing today's Europe as 'Sodom and Gomorrah' and 'the triumph of Islam'.
This group has a positive attitude towards Orthodox Christianity, although religious issues are usually left out of the discussion. In general, the Nationalists tend to avoid divisive issues. One of their characteristic features is promotion of healthy lifestyles (HLS). The authors explain that grassroots nationalists have engaged in 'propaganda of healthy lifestyles' to avoid charges under Article 282 of the Penal Code ("inciting hatred or enmity and denigration of human dignity"). As a result, HLS promotion has become one of the trends in the development of Russian nationalism.
The Leftists are another group identified by the authors. Members of this group do not have a language of their own; instead, they re-transmit messages received from the mass media. The Leftists describe themselves as Soviet people, Bolsheviks, Communists, Socialists, Soviet patriots, and Stalinists.
They oppose 'the Bourgeoisie', Putinists, Capitalists, and 'Liberasts'(this word combines the contempt felt by the Leftists for liberals and homosexuals). The Leftists share a nostalgia for the Soviet past and call for a revival of the Soviet Union. They view the government as 'bourgeoisie' and thieves, and the Russian Orthodox Church as the government's ally.They share an ambivalent attitude towards the political opposition, ranging from moderately positive to moderately negative. For example, the white ribbon protesters are disliked as liberals, but at the same time they may be viewed as potential temporary allies. The Leftists have a negative attitude towards the Caucasus. Their hatred of the Caucasus is often based on perceived unfairness in the allocation of federal resources.
Liberals are the most atomized group, with a negative attitude towards the government, a high level of tolerance towards other 'dissenters' and support for the Stop Feeding the Caucasus!Slogan. The Liberals favour democracy and the rule of law, but lack a clear idea of how they may be achieved. The authors note that for all their dislike of the government, members of this group are weak opponents to it; they are also very positive towards the 'creative class' and see it as an inexhaustible source of criticism of the regime.
According to the authors, the online community that supports the current government is broad in nature; equally broad is their definition of 'Us versus Them'. They describe themselves as 'the majority', 'the masses', supporters of 'the Party of real causes', and 'ordinary people who do not want the country to collapse', and describe their opponents as 'the West', 'liberasts', 'nationalists', 'communists', 'fatcat oligarchs', and 'corrupt bureaucrats'. Common sentiments in this group include phobias of the West and America, fear of a new revolution, fear of the wrong people taking power, fear of the country's collapse and of 'the new 1990-ies'. Despite all these sentiments, this group offers very limited and incompetent online support of the government.
The authors conclude that the Russian society today is ideologically fragmented. A review of Facebook and Twitter discussions reveals that 'web elites', which are present in all ideological currents increase this political fragmentation.
The authors point out that the internet is not a separate political movement, but merely a reflection of popular sentiments, and should not be associated with the image of a free-thinking individual. According to the authors, the role of the internet in contemporary politics is exaggerated.
Is political fragmentation dangerous in a society? In fact, the experts see its big advantage in making mass-scale manipulation impossible due to heterogeneity of the masses.
However, Emil Pain notes, xenophobia is shared by almost all major ideological currents in Russia, and it is a dangerous trend. In this context, a big question is what might happen if today's 'power vertical' collapses? It is possible that the country may follow the path of democracy, but the opposite is also a realistic scenario, Emil Pain .