The Internet has amplified our ability to form social networks, but trust, reciprocity, and cooperation remain as critical in the online world as they are in the real world to the formation of social capital. Social networks online have also enhanced the power of social networks in the real world. In Russia, autocrats, trolls, bots, oligarchs, celebrities, and dissidents all compete for public attention in the blogosphere. Nearly all Russians receive the news from state television channels, and the Russian blogosphere has a relatively narrow audience that is largely politically apathetic and disproportionately populated by youth. However, as Emily Parker writes in Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground (2015), blogging has recently allowed key Russian opposition figures who were previously isolated to discover that they are not alone.
The Internet in Russia is both a tool of government propaganda and a device by which revolutionaries can organize themselves against the state. Evgeny Morozov argues in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2012) that authoritarian regimes can use the Internet to entrench dictators, threaten dissidents, and ultimately make it harder to promote democracy. The Kremlin tries to surround itself with the brightest Internet visionaries and regularly trains pro-government bloggers. Moreover, as of 2014, bloggers with over 3,000 daily readers must register with the mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor, and conform to the regulations that govern Russia’s larger media outlets.
Nonetheless, the Internet in Russia is often regarded as its cradle of civil society. The Russian blogosphere offers a suitable platform for expressing dissent, notwithstanding its limited audience, because state censors have tremendous difficulty screening it. Although the Russian authorities sometimes shut down opposition blogs, many of them remain online and continue to articulate anti-government sentiment.
While there have been multiple studies previously conducted regarding political discussions on the Russian Internet, only a few of them use social network analysis. A working paper “Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere: Mapping RuNet Politics and Mobilization” (2010) by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University revealed many notable tendencies. In furthering this study, we aim to explore the political discourse segment of the Russian blogosphere in greater depth and probe the validity of its conclusions by assessing more recent social network data.
We will conduct a social network analysis of prominent Russian bloggers on LiveJournal, one of the most popular social networking websites in Russia for political discourse. We want to discover how much interaction there is among various political groups and who the greatest influencers are in the Russian blogosphere. How centralized is the network of bloggers? How connected are pro-government bloggers to opposition bloggers? Are online dissidents united, and do they resemble members of the real-world opposition? Does the size of a blog’s daily readership solely determine its influence, or are there other relevant factors?
Theory and Hypotheses
We expect that pro-government and “systemic opposition” writers in the Russian digital sphere are tightly connected and form a highly centralized sub-group. We also predict that “non-systemic opposition” bloggers form a highly sparse sub-group composed of numerous clusters, which serve as echo chambers along geographic or other attributes. What is more, we hypothesize that writers on the Russian Internet use distinct political slang as indicators of belonging to certain opinion consensus clusters. Furthermore, we predict that not only a blog’s daily popularity but also its number of subscribers determines its influence. Additionally, we anticipate that while the most important pro-government bloggers reside in Moscow, the leading online critics of the regime are located outside the Russian capital or even abroad.
We will collect data on nodes and edges in the Russian blogosphere by using a web crawler modified from the 2010 LiveJournal Dataset of Arizona State University’s Social Computing Data Repository. Because LiveJournal contains posts in many languages, we will automatically filter out any non-Russian language posts. We will also set a reasonable threshold to filter in only bloggers with a relatively large number of subscribers. Using Ucinet, a software package for social network analysis, we will map bloggers and connections among them. The social network data we gather will be directed and one-mode. Nodes will correspond to bloggers. We will compare and contrast two types of connections among them, namely friendships (binary) and hyperlinks between posts (valued). We intend to analyze online content for 2011 and 2012, because this time period was the heyday of LiveJournal and notably featured political protests in Russia. Finally, we will manually collect data about the most important attributes of prominent bloggers, including their political affiliations and lexicon, locations, demographics, daily readerships, and subscriptions.