#22 - JRL 2009-195 - JRL Home

Moscow Times
October 23, 2009
Using Twitter to Take Spin to the Next Level
By Natalya Krainova

The Soviet government was infamous for spinning the news through newspapers and television. But now the ministry that inherited the state propaganda machine wants to take a stab at something that Lenin and Stalin never dreamed of: tweeting the praises of the Russian state.

The Communications and Press Ministry is looking for a company to provide the technology needed to allow bureaucrats to promote state interests on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The technology, possibly a computer program, should also allow bureaucrats to sift through discussion topics on professional and ordinary social networks by categories such as profession, subject and date, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

“On the one hand, we will absorb the information, but on the other hand we will initiate a discussion on issues important for the ministry,” the statement said.

The initiative to promote state interests on social networking sites comes as the government continues to tighten its grip on mass media outlets, a process that started with the takeover of NTV television by state-owned Gazprom shortly after Vladimir Putin began his first presidential term in 2000.

Public interest in traditional media such as newspapers and television has dwindled as people increasingly flock to social networking sites and blogs to keep abreast of current events. The potential political clout of social networks emerged last summer when Iran blocked Facebook during a disputed vote and Twitter was credited with igniting election protests in Moldova.

The Communications and Press Ministry acknowledged the growing importance of social networking sites in documents published for a tender to find the company that will provide the technology to navigate the sites.

This research work is “timely” because of “the growing role of social networking sites in the system of mass communications,” said the documents published on the federal government’s web site for state tenders, Zakupki.gov.ru.

The ministry said it was offering up to 5 million rubles (almost $166,000) to the company that could provide “effective mechanisms of promoting the interests of the federal bodies of the executive branch of power on specialized social networking sites.”

The winning bidder will also need to research the Russian-language Internet for specialized social networking sites, “draft a concept” to promote state interests through the web sites, and propose “methods of monitoring” the sites in order to “boost the effectiveness” of the activities of state bodies on the sites, the documents for the tender said.

The ministry said in the e-mailed statement that it was also considering tracking discussions at social networking sites operating in languages other than Russian.

The ministry plans to sign a contract with the winning bidder on Dec. 10.

The move toward Twitter comes at a time when the state has direct or indirect control over all national television channels. In 2005, it created an English-language channel, RT, to promote its views internationally. In the latest possible setback to independent news coverage, it emerged last week that RT might take over news programming at Petersburg Channel 5 and Ren-TV next year.

A foray into championing state interests on social networking sites would conform to President Dmitry Medvedev’s passion for the Internet, where he keeps a blog and has a YouTube page.

The government’s social networking project is “suitable” for the Internet, said Anton Nosik, a pioneer of the Russian Internet. “It is accepted practice for companies to look for creative ideas on the Internet,” he added.

Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, said the ministry’s idea “is in line with the general errand of Medvedev to develop high technology.”

But officials risk failing in any attempts to initiate public discussion on social networking sites because their thinking is bureaucratic rather than creative, said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. “Bloggers like independent people with outstanding opinions,” he said.

As for the stated goal of using social networking sites to study public opinion, perhaps the officials just want to please Medvedev by reporting to him that they are introducing high technology into their work, Makarkin said.

In late August, Medvedev threatened to reduce state funding for organizations that failed to introduce electronic documentation systems.

“Our authorities aren’t interested in public opinion but want to create the appearance of being interested in it,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

Analysts dismissed the notion that the government would be able to control social networking sites the way that the Soviet authorities kept newspapers and television on a tight leash.

“Pointed strikes” on unwanted web sites are possible through hacker attacks, but it is impossible to control all the social networking sites due to a large amount of information that is posted on them, Mukhin said.

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