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Authorities turn to social networks

February 13, 2012, 13:05 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

As Russians do not use political parties and trade unions as traditional social networking tools, they are being replaced by online social networks that are gaining popularity and are also used to organize mass protest rallies. Authorities, concerned by the developments, also want to use the tools and decided to begin with analyzing the phenomenon.

Since 2010 the number of Facebook and Twitter users grew by 13% and 7% respectively, according to the Pan-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). The number of Russians without Internet access fell by 15% and the share of daily Internet users grew from 23 to 36% within this period. Two years ago the share of social networks' polled Internet users comprised 52%. Today it grew to 82%.

In December and February the social networks were the main organizing centers   for the opposition rallies in Russia. Over 54 thousand people said that they will join the rally in December and another 100 thousand received invitations on Facebook. In February the figure was 29 thousand, however the organizers estimated the real turnout to be much higher.

“Social networks do not strengthen the protest mood by themselves. They simplify are a coordination tool for the rallies' participants. Virtual social networks substitute for de-facto absence of civil solidarity institutions,” VTsIOM Director General Valery Fedorov told the Kommersant daily.

“The latest protest events show they (social networks) offer good possibilities for people mobilization,” Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Politics magazine, agreed.

Although the Russian segment of social networks is heavily politicized, “it is not the social network tools that influence the political system, but rather politics give sense to them,” said Marina Litvinovich, editor-in-chief of the Besttoday.ru website, which analyzes key topics in the blogosphere.

Russian authorities decided to analyze the influence political news shared on Facebook and Twitter has on young people. The Kremlin business administration posted on its website an order for such a research in its 2012 procurement list.

“There is an understanding that the share of people who receive information exclusively from the new media is on the rise, but nobody has exact data on how big this share is. Some say there are 50 million, others say there are 200 thousand people. The government has to operate with   reliable information,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Russian authorities first voiced their plans to use social networks in April 2011 when the Arab Spring was in full swing. It was also dubbed Twitter-revolution as participants used social networks to coordinate their actions.

“Internet and social networks influence our life in a growing way today. We have to be in the front ranks in social networks as we will not achieve anything without them,” said Vasily Yekemenko, the head of the Russian Youth Committee, at the time. Gazeta.ru said his statement followed a meeting chaired by Vladislav Surkov, who was Kremlin's deputy chief-of-staff at the time. Reportedly it was decided at a meeting to mount propaganda by the means of social networks.

“Authorities are not afraid of a revolution realized through social networks, they are simply looking for a new communication channel. Analysis is necessary to understand how to use the tool in order to influence the population,” Dmitry Orlov, the head of the Agency of Political and Economic Communications, told the Argumenty I Fakty weekly.

He disagreed with the claims that it is impossible to exert any influence through Facebook and Twitter. “It is an illusion. We should not exaggerate the spontaneity of Internet. When a large-scale campaign is underway, it proceeds in a tough manner, but is still controllable,” he said.

MOSCOW, February 13.