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Generation YouTube and Russian Politics

Millennials are becoming an important force in Russian politics, one that both the regime and the opposition are trying to harness. YouTube, VKontakte, and other social media platforms present a promising way to reach Russian youth.

It didn’t take long for the Russian government to realize it has a millennial problem. Less than two weeks after students across Russia turned out to protest in the country’s largest street demonstrations since 2011-12, State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov proposed a bill that, if passed, would prohibit children under the age of 14 from using social networks and introduce significant restrictions on older teenagers’ use.

Milonov’s proposal is part of a broader trend in Russian politics that has emerged since the March 26 anti-corruption protests, which were organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. For the first time in years, the regime and opposition are beginning to pay attention to the country’s youth. And with good reason: a large number of college students and recent graduates participated in the March 26 rallies, with the median age of protesters declining significantly from the 2011-12 anti-Putin demonstrations. 

Why did millennials suddenly join a protest movement that had been dormant for five years? The simple answer is that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation’s film about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s involvement in corruption, released in the weeks leading up to the protests, garnered more than 15 million views on YouTube—ten times more than any other investigative report by the foundation, more than any content produced by non-state-controlled media, and more than the daily audience of Channel One.

YouTube changed the algorithm it uses to select which videos are “trending” shortly before the Anti-Corruption Foundation released its exposé. The new algorithm favors longer videos—including those related to politics—that previously accounted for only a tiny share of the site’s content. This factor, along with the film’s opening sequence, which targets a young audience, made the film more popular than the foundation could have ever expected. Political content, which had accounted for a miniscule segment of the Russian internet, became the topic of the day for millions of people who were theretofore uninterested in protests.

From there, the protests took on a life of their own online. On March 26, duck and sneaker memes mocking Medvedev’s corruption (the prime minister was revealed to be a compulsive online shopper and to have a duck house in the middle of a pond at one of his estates) spread like wildfire across YouTube and VKontakte, turning the rally from a run-of-the-mill opposition event into a symbol of the younger generation’s newfound political spirit.

The government’s clumsy response ensured that these memes would have staying power: mass detentions and complete silence on state television fueled the protesters’ indignation. The methods for marginalizing protests that had worked since 2011 had the reverse effect on younger Russians: millennials felt insulted by the government’s response, and this gave rise to dozens of new outraged YouTube videos and VKontakte posts that were seen by millions of people. Suddenly, politics became fashionable. And for Navalny, it presented an opportunity for his opposition movement to enter into the mainstream.

Surprisingly, Russia’s antiquated education system has helped the opposition’s cause, responding to the politicization of schoolchildren and college students in the only ways it knows how: moralizing, and threatening and pressuring students. Every day new—and increasingly absurd—evidence appears online showcasing how poorly schools and universities are responding to opposition sentiment. “Think about what you are advocating: the degradation of mankind. You liberals will answer to God, not to the people,” a history teacher told his students in Tomsk. 

In trying to fight sedition, the educational system is doing more to undermine confidence in itself and the government than all of the opposition put together. The Kremlin caught on to this quickly, however: the newspaper Vedomosti reported that Russian authorities sent out an informal order instructing schools to immediately cease all “political education” initiatives.

The presidential administration is unlikely to leave things at that. Nikolay Sobolev, the founder of the fastest-growing Russian-language YouTube channel, recorded a video in support of the protesters’ demands that has racked up 2 million views. A few days later Sobolev, who had avoided political topics until the March 26 protests, was invited to participate in one of the most popular shows on Channel One, “Pust Govoryat” (Let Them Talk). It’s hard to call this bribery, but the “we give you airtime and you stay out of politics” trade-off is certainly mutually beneficial.

While the strategy of intimidation and pressure in educational institutions is probably doomed to fail, soft power—for example, through the government’s increased presence on YouTube and VKontakte—appears to be a more promising solution. And indeed, there is evidence that state-owned bodies have already tried to buy out popular VKontakte groups. But the regime must be careful: any misstep could prompt a video to be posted on popular apolitical YouTube channels or memes on apolitical popular VKontakte groups. We will most likely see something of this kind in the coming months. 

“What next?” is more complicated question for the opposition. The video content currently being produced by the Anti-Corruption Foundation contains too many detailed explanations and illustrations and not enough jokes and pop culture references. The foundation will have to come up with a new language for communicating with millennials who had been all but shut out from the political process. Though both the opposition and the regime hadn't made a significant effort to involve youth in the political process until recently, millennials are becoming too important to ignore. 

Serafim Orekhanov