politics

VKontakte with the Kremlin

07.02.2014 | Ihor Turkevych

Russia´s biggest social network may contribute to reinforcement of the mental Iron Curtain

Pavel Durovs sale of his part of VKontakte shares was not unexpected, to put it mildly, because the topic has been discussed for over a year now. Some sources even gave tentative dates of this event, for example, immediately after the Sochi Olympics. So, that which was anticipated has become reality. 12% of Durovs shares was conveyed to Ivan Tavrin of Megaphone (i.e. Alisher Usmanov), which together with previously accumulated shares made up a 52% controlling stake

Durov himself argues that even without the shares he will still remain in management positions in the company and the new shareholders will continue to carefully heed his advice as he has a good grasp of the underground processes.

However, judging by the widespread and rapid flow of clearly paid-for publications even in the highly respected Russian media describing Durov as a deranged petty coder, such hopes of the creator of VKontakte" are unlikely to come true what is done, is done.

The fact that VKontaktes Vice President Ilya Perekopskiy also left the company after Durov indirectly confirmed major management changes. He was replaced by Usmanovs guard represented by the former head of the Kommersant publishing house Dmitry Sergeyev. Various reasons were given to explain such a reshuffling. Some sources mentioned problems with the divvying up of profits, while others pointed to subordination of the companys data centers to false offshore companies. But, in the end, this all looked more like a motive.

Apparently, nobody is interested in any fundamental changes in the social network. Naturally, nobody wants to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. After all, VKontakt is one of the most successful Russian IT companies and boasts 60 mn hits a day. Obviously, the main point of in this case boils down to consolidation of all of the countrys media assets in a business entity that is close to the government.

At the same time, Durov himself had no plans of becoming an ardent oppositionist the golden boy who is riddled by scandals for which he could easily be incriminated with the stroke of a pen does not want and, by and large, cannot afford any oppositional escapades. But a good boss has all the keys in his pocket.

It was precisely for this reason that VKontakte was doomed to be handed over into safe hands, especially considering the fact that many in the Kremlin take the role of social networks very seriously in the protest movements and have no intentions of entrusting the management of such instruments to some neophytes.

For quite some time, the Russian authorities have been developing a set of measures to counter technologies of non-violent change of power that have proven their effectiveness in the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the colored and Arab revolutions. Social networks have been a very effective channel of communication with the outside world in mobilizing and coordinating protests and also a powerful alternative to official media.

Officials in Moscow are well aware of the fact that the loss of the control and monopoly of Soviet leaders over information was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the USSR. Todays authorities in Russia are trying to learn from this experience. Dissident media have been driven into a kind of an intellectual ghetto, RIA Novosti was reorganized into a kind of a ministry of propaganda.

While herds of trolls raid and harass Internet resources, their efforts are not enough. Taking into account that Russia became a full-fledged capitalist country in conditions of globalised economy and relative freedom of movement, the only more or less feasible Iron Curtain is in the minds of the people and is formed on the very sophisticated manipulations of content.

Of course, VKontakte has never been, and, apparently, is unlikely to become a site for serious exchange of ideas, unlike the long defunct Russian sector of LJ. Also, revolutionary sentiments in Russia are mostly popular among intellectuals that are a rarity in VKontakte. And still, no matter how you slice it, VKontakte is a poorly controlled channel of communication for a large number of Russians. Today this social network is a swarm of bored young idlers, tomorrow it may become a stomping ground for ardent nationalists or radical supporters of left-wing movements. Ideology is a dangerous thing because it can very quickly take over innocent minds.

The few present-day radicals, like sympathizers of the neo-Nazi nicknamed Tesak, who was extradited this week from Cuba, can be easily tracked down through clumsily hidden IP-addresses. But if their number grows 3-5 times, there are not enough IT geniuses to track them all. This is another reason for surveillance in social networks. In any case, purely administrative changes, sooner or later, will inevitably have an impact on VKontakte, which is highly popular among Russian youth.

First of all, control will be given to people that are distant from social networks. Despite the experience of the most successful publishing projects, the dynamics and principles of the horizontal information environment of the social network may be alien to them and, hence, will undergo reform.

Secondly, the product owned by Alisher Usmanov will no longer be able to show the same incredible freedom of manners, which was safely used by the product of Vyacheslav Mirilashvili (the original owner of 60% of the shares of VKontakte) and Pavel Durov. The long trail of scandals associated with the illegal distribution of music, pornography, extremist views, etc., which has been on the coattails of VKontakte from square one, does not become its new owners and it will inevitably be revamped.

While this may work more or less effectively with the port, the loss of free musical accompaniment that according to some estimates is used by more than half of the users of the social network can be a major shock.

In this way, in a few years the new owners may discourage teenagers their main target audience from using the social network and will be left with a brand name that attracts a small audience of fans. VKontakte has already done its dirty deed by addicting millions of school kids and university and students to the network life. In this case, this favorite project is becoming less attractive due to the overly serious approach of the new owners, meaning that the aforementioned audience will lose interest in watching TV and immediately start looking for a new social network, which the authorities will again have to spud and persuade to join the orderly forces of the good. They may even turn to inaccessible networks in the western world that will inure to the benefit of Facebook, which has gradually been losing its audience.

So, the tactical victory of gaining control over the largest social network in Russia may turn out to be a strategic loss due to the emergence of competing and less controlled projects. This confirms the old saying if it ain´t broke, don´t fix it. Surely, if the project remains formally uncontrolled by owners of big businesses that have close ties with the government, it will be accused of excessive liberalism on the part of owners, who will be forced to stay modestly silent just as the traffic police officer that was run over by Durov and fulfill any requests of their senior comrades.

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