Written by Bettina Renz.

State control over most of the national media in Russia has meant that Russian newspapers and TV today are a lot less interesting as a source of political research than they were in the 1990s. The situation regarding the internet is different. This is relatively free and online content in Russia is not directly controlled or filtered as it is in other less free or authoritarian contexts such as, for example, in China. Drives towards the development of a modern ‘information society’ under both Presidents Medvedev and Putin have led to an explosion of internet use and available web content over the past decade. Whilst only about 3 million Russians had daily access to the internet in 2003, this number grew to over 50 million – about 43% of the population – by 2013. A move towards e-government was central to Medvedev’s modernisation drive and he repeatedly called on Russian politicians and officials to create an online presence. The quality and quantity of online content quickly improved in reaction and today there is an abundance of new primary-source electronic texts on the Russian internet that is creating many new opportunities for scholars to extend existing research on political elites.

In an effort to assess the available online material and its potential for future research, Jon Sullivan and I analysed the use of new and social media by Russia’s 759 highest officials. We discovered considerable engagement, varying across institutions, and found that blogs and Twitter were particularly popular among politicians. The group of politicians that stood out from the analysis were the governors of Russia’s 83 regions. Almost 40% maintained an active Twitter account and many had also a blog and a personal homepage. This finding goes against our intuition and the standard literature on the adoption of online tools by politicians. This literature tends to focus on electoral campaigns and the uptake of social media as a means to connect with potential voters and decrease the distance between representatives and their constituents. Yet, Russia’s regional governors are not elected, rather they are nominated by the president and approved by the regional legislature.[1] According to the standard literature, therefore, one could expect the uptake of Twitter by Russian governors to be very limited. This motivated us to take a closer look at this group of politicians in order to address this apparent puzzle. Why are so many governors reaching out to citizens via social media? Were they motivated merely by Medvedev’s explicit request to officials of an increased online presence? Or is online engagement with citizens seen as an effective tool towards the end of maintaining control and ensuring the smooth running of territories?

In my recent article with Jon Sullivan, we took an in-depth look at the uses, content and purpose of the Russian governors’ Twitter use in order to gain an understanding of what, in the absence of the imperative of an electoral cycle, they were using this social media platform for. Our study showed quite substantial variation in the uses to which it is being put. Some governors clearly have their Twitter accounts maintained by their press teams and there is very little actual ‘added value’ in the information provided in their Tweets. These instances indicate that a Twitter account is maintained in order to be seen to be having one in response to Medvedev’s request. But other governors use Twitter more creatively and some use it extensively as a communication tool. A number of governors inform their readership via tweets that go beyond the mere statement of facts in raising problematic issues of concern to the region, for example. Governor Chirkunov of Perm tweets regularly about the problem of corrupt officials . Governor Kanokov of Kabardino-Balkaria frequently tweets information about acts of terrorism occurring in his region. The vast number of attacks there means that they are rarely reported in the national media and Kanakov’s emotional tweets, mourning for the victims and calling for vigilance amongst the population, are often the only published ‘official’ accounts of these tragic events.

In a number of cases Twitter is used as an actual working instrument to run the administration. Governor Men’ of the Ivanovo region, for example, often tweets about local problems raised by the public about issues of immediate concern, which are retweeted and passed on by him to relevant subordinate officials. To cite one example, a woman tweeted for help with problems relating to the removal of rubbish from her housing estate courtyard. Men’ retweeted the message to the head of Ivanovo’s city administration.

A high level of conversation is going on between governors and other officials, journalists and other elites. Direct dialogue with constituents and citizens is less frequent, but not entirely absent. We found that many Russian governors’ engagement with the social media platform Twitter is no more than a diet of news management and online propaganda. However, some uses we found in our research suggest potential for increasing the responsiveness of politics in Russia’s regions. Whilst this is, of course, a far cry from the more optimistic ideas about what online communication could potentially achieve, it is an interesting observation nonetheless and might come as a surprise to some observers of contemporary Russian politics.

Given the extent of the uptake of social media use by Russian politicians there has been surprisingly little research into the subject to date. Our analysis of Russia’s tweeting governors is exploratory and more interpretative work is necessary. What we clearly can conclude from our research, however, is that the online texts created by Russian politicians and officials are an interesting and potentially important window onto Russian politics and political communications. They should be used more extensively as a valuable addition to the ways in which Russian political elites are usually studied.

Bettina Renz, a Russia specialist, is Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. 

[1] The popular election of regional governors was reintroduced in June 2012, but all governors included in our research came to power under the old system.

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