For years we were told that Vladimir Putin’s government relied on ‘control’ of TV networks to maintain its popularity. In reality, its support stems from its ability to reflect public opinion, rather than manipulate it.
Contradicting pundits who predicted that the Covid crisis would put a permanent dent in Putin’s popularity, the Russian president’s approval rating has bounced back to upwards of 69 percent, according to the latest survey by pollsters Levada.
Coming on top of recent victories in Russia’s regional elections by the pro-Putin United Russia party, the survey demonstrates that the president and his movement continue to enjoy considerable popular backing.
This phenomenon has long exercised the minds of Western analysts, who struggle to understand why the Russian people would give their support to a government which, in the analysts’ minds, is thoroughly unworthy of it. Seeking an explanation, many have insisted that the primary reason is that Russians’ brains have been addled by relentless pro-government propaganda spewed out by state-controlled TV channels.
This isn’t an entirely spurious explanation. Given television’s popularity, its political influence is necessarily large, and the same applies to other countries, such as the US, for example, where the support of Fox News clearly helps Donald Trump. Indeed, it was no coincidence that Putin acted early in his rule to strip oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky of their control of Russian TV stations. Ever since, the main channels have been reliably supportive of the main thrust of state policy.
For some time, however, commentators have been arguing that this tool of state control is losing its power. Russian viewing habits are shifting, with fewer and fewer people watching TV, and more and more of them turning to the internet. As this process continues, it is argued, state propaganda will lose its control over the Russian people, who will then begin to challenge the legitimacy of the current government.
Another new poll from Levada (which is independent of the Kremlin and has received Western funding in the past) confirms this shift in viewing habits, but at the same time casts some doubts on its political implications. According to the survey, 69 percent of Russians say that television is their primary source of news. This is a significantly lower number than the 94 percent who relied on TV in 2009.
Meanwhile, 38 percent say that they get their news from online social networks, and 37 percent also get news from internet publications – up from six and nine percent respectively in 2009, marking a profound shift.
Television is not only losing viewers, it is also losing their trust. Just 48 percent of those polled said that they trust TV the most, down from 79 percent 11 years ago. With fewer people tuning in, and fewer of them trusting what they see, television’s ability to influence public opinion seems to be in serious decline.
This poses something of a problem for the thesis that the stability of the political system rests on its ability to manipulate public opinion by means of televisual propaganda. If that was the case, Putin’s popularity, and also that of his government and of United Russia, ought to be falling. But this isn’t happening. Why might this be?
One answer is that while Russian television does indeed take many of its cues from the government, it also exists in a commercial space in which ratings matter. In his 2016 book, ‘The Invention of Russia,’ Arkady Ostrovsky analyzed the development of Russian TV under presidents Yeltsin and Putin, but rather undermined his thesis that TV was under the thumb of the state by making it clear that the shift in its political stance from the late 1990s onwards was a response to genuine public demand.
As fellow journalist Oleg Dobrodeev told Ostrovsky, in 1999 ‘public opinion was against NATO’s airstrikes [in Yugoslavia]and we had to reflect that change or be left behind.’ A similar dynamic operates to this day: television not only shapes public opinion, but is also shaped by it.
Another factor is that many of those who no longer get their news from TV haven’t in fact shifted to the internet. They’ve simply tuned out of politics entirely. This is particularly true of young Russians, and if anything it makes them more conservative. As the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov admits, ‘The massive rejection by youth of television in favor of the internet doesn’t signify an alternative point of view, but a low level of knowledge about what is happening.’ In other words, the shift to the internet isn’t turning Russians against the state; it’s just making them less engaged.
Furthermore, those who do use the internet to gather news don’t necessarily find themselves exposed to liberal, anti-government perspectives. While there are multiple internet media outlets and social media networks of a liberal persuasion, there are significantly more of what one might call a patriotic/nationalist inclination. The shift from broadcast television is more likely to push Russians in the latter direction than in the former.
To some degree, this is happening. Yet another Levada poll determined that Russian youths were marginally more liberal than the population as a whole (11 percent of young Russians described themselves as liberal, compared with seven percent of the general population). But the move in a nationalist direction was even sharper (16 and 10 percent respectively).
The internet can be a decidedly polarizing medium. The figures above suggest that a process of internet-induced polarization could be possible in Russia’s future. But as yet most of Russia’s population remains in the center ground. For now, therefore, there is little reason for Russia’s government to be overly concerned by the change in the media dynamic. Its support rests more on its record, and more on its ability to reflect public opinion, than on its ability to manipulate it. Its future will rest on those factors too.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.