The “Information War” in Russia
The Russian government – as many other autocracies – massively controls the state media. Do governments achieve their goals in this way, or is this a potential risk for them?
Nils B. Weidmann: State control of the media is indeed an important feature of autocratic states, and it often seems to work. My colleague Espen Rød and I took a closer look at this question and wrote a book about the influence of digital communication on political protest (see below).
One might expect that the internet empowers people and permits the free expression of opinions. However, the opposite is the case: According to our results, better network coverage goes hand in hand with less protest in autocracies. This may be because information critical of the regime is censored and state propaganda is disseminated through online channels. This is how far the control of the internet by governmental actors goes.
On Russian state television, a peace activist with a protest placard briefly entered the picture on Monday evening (14 March 2022, information: see below). She was arrested afterwards. What possibilities remain for voices critical of the regime in Russia to make themselves heard at all?
Such opportunities have all but disappeared in recent weeks – the activist, who is journalist, was able to use an unconventional way to reach a wide audience. New media legislation has brought reporting completely in line with the government's position. Many of the independent local stations and editorial offices were closed. However, it is still possible to communicate internationally via digital channels. This is how we learn, for example, about the protests that are taking place in many cities against Putin and which are being harshly repressed. But inside Russia, voices critical of the regime are almost no longer heard.
What possibility does the Western world have to influence the "information war" as it is being called by the press?
This "information war", which has been going on at a lower intensity for years, has been neglected for too long. To stop disinformation effectively, problematic sources such as the channel Russia Today should have been completely blocked sooner. Effective methods of moderation must also be used on decentralized platforms such as Facebook or Telegram to prevent misinformation from spreading.
About Nils Weidmann: Professor Nils B. Weidmann is professor of political science at the University of Konstanz and co-speaker of the Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality". He leads the research group "Communication, Networks and Contention" and focuses on protest movements and civil wars as well as digital communication and political mobilization.
Recommended reading: Nils B. Weidmann, Espen Geelmuyden Rød (2019): The Internet and Political Protest in Autocracies. Oxford University Press.