The Russian government plans to launch a Facebook-esque social network on which users can use their personal accounts to upload content and create groups. While this decision would make Russia one of a number of countries launching state-sponsored social media platforms, it remains unclear whether such a site could rival widely available popular alternatives in Russia like VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
The site, which was introduced as part of the Kremlin’s “Open Government” project, has not yet been launched, though authorities promised initially that it would be ready by the end of June. Russia’s Minister for Open Government Affairs Mikhail Abyzov told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that the platform would provide users the ability to create groups like those on VK (formerly Vkontakte), a Facebook-like social network that is popular among Russians.
Users would be able to discuss various social problems using their individual accounts as well as upload content such as texts, photographs, audio or video. According to The Guardian, the site would build on an existing site called “Russia Without Idiots” that allows users to submit complaints about civil servants. The idea is that groups of citizens would use this new Kremlin-sponsored social network to appeal to their local representatives with the most pressing issues to be addressed by the federal government.
A 2010 comScore study found that Russia is one of the world’s most active social networking countries with three-fourths of its online population visiting at least one social networking site. The average time per month Russians spend on social networks is 10 hours, twice the worldwide average. According to AdAge, the most popular sites are VK with 40 million unique users in Russia and Odnoklassniki (Classmates) with 31.5 million unique users, though Facebook is gaining some ground among younger users. Social media notably played a prominent role in the organization of large-scale protests across Russia after parliamentary elections in December 2011.
Russia is not the only country to propose a state-sponsored social networking site. Last fall Uzbekistan, whose regime blocks many independent and foreign news sources but permits most social networks, launched a bilingual Russian-Uzbek version of Facebook called Muloqot as an alternative for social networking junkies. Muloqot is operated by Simple Networking Solutions with the support of the national telecommunications operator, Uzbektelecom, and has about 22, 000 users. In May 2012, an Uzbek Facebook-lookalike called Youface was launched, but its creator insists the site is not a state-sponsored venture. According to GlobalVoices, this site boasts slightly more than 1,500 users registered after two months. Vietnam, which often blocks Facebook, launched a government-sponsored alternative in 2010 that requires users to log in with their names and government-issued identity numbers. Again, it’s unclear how many users this site has attracted, given that Vietnam’s Facebook ban is often circumvented and users may balk at the prospect of sharing crucial identification information directly with the government.
Why are states trying to compete with the likes of Facebook or popular local social networks like VK? Some suggest that state-sponsored portals provide the government an avenue to control information or surveil its users. The Wall Street Journal writes that “Vietnam’s bid to create a government-friendly Web portal points to its discomfort with the speed at which the Internet is outflanking heavily censored media like television and newspapers here.” A documentary that aired Tuesday on Uzbekistan’s state-owned television station urged young people to use homegrown social networks, warning that Facebook and Odnoklassniki are being used to brainwash the youth. Critics of Uzbekistan’s Muloqot portal suggest the website will allow the ruling regime to control information over the portal. Activists fear that social networks on local .uz domains are more susceptible to government interference than those on international domains. Even privately-owned social networks can be coerced into monitoring and censorship on the government’s behalf as in China, though frequent censorship does not deter Chinese citizens from participating in the country’s local social networks, as almost half of China’s 500 million Internet users engage with social media.
Until the Kremlin’s social network goes live, it is difficult to predict who will use the network and why, though evidence from other countries suggest users are largely skeptical of using state-sponsored alternatives.