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Digital media reshaping the media system

The Russian Internet has been developing since 1993 and the number of users has been increasing rapidly, initially in large industrial cities but, in the past decade, more evenly across the country, reaching an Internet penetration rate of 72 per cent in 2018 (Mediascope, 2020b).As in many other countries,mobile telephony has played a major role in this expansion of digital media. In the early 2010s, mobiles proved a cheap and effective mechanism for accessing the Internet, becoming a major driver for Internet penetration in large cities and among young Russians: between 2011 and 2015 the number of Russian Internet users doubled annually (Internet v Rossii v 2018,2019).

The rising penetration of the Internet, together with growth of digital literacy and increasing amount of content and services has made it the most serious challenger to legacy media: television, radio and the press. As a result, the majority of media outlets have moved some distribution to the Internet: by 2017 the audience of the Internet sites of popular print media outnumbered the circulation of print editions of (10.5 million), (5.9 million) and (5.7 million).

Many popular online media such as or have ceased their print operations. Even major broadcasters such as the national ‘Big Three’ - Rossija 1, Pervyi Kauai and NTV — have their online presence, and provide viewers with newscasts, documentaries, children’s programmes and, especially, drama serials on their websites (Vartanova, 2019: 29-30).

A significant role in transforming the Internet into a digital media space was played by the shift of advertising revenues to Internet companies. In 2012 the domestic search engine Yandex out-performed the most popular free-to-air television channel, Pervyi karial, in terms of advertising income. Other new players of the emerging Russian digital media ecosystem -, Vkontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki social networks and the Telegram messenger - have acquired the largest audience and advertising flows, forming an integral system of production and distribution of digital content between authors, producers, media companies and users. The role of legacy media in this new digital environment is steadily decreasing (Veselov, 2017).

Recently, there has been a big increase in the use of social media: search engines, social networks and messengers are the most popular Internet resources for Russian users Google became the most used Internet platform with a monthly audience of 82.5 million, overtaking its main competitor the Russian search engine Yandex (81.2 million), while YouTube had a monthly audience reach of 81.2 million, in comparison with popular Russian social networks - Vkontakte (69.8 million) and Odnoklassniki (52.3 million) (Mediascope, 2020a). Among message services, WhatsApp was the clear leader, with more than 41 per cent of Russians using it. However, the rapid success ofTelegram, a messenger created by Pavel Durov from Russia, was a surprise success in 2018, with about 10 per cent of Russians using it. With 22 million monthly users, Instagram, too, was very' popular among Russians (Internet v Rossii v 2018, 2019).

Another important trend in the digital media landscape is the popularity of user-generated content accessed through LiveJournal,, YouTube and Telegram. A large number of bloggers, including professional and non-professional authors, compete with the legacy media for audiences and advertising on several digital platforms. Russian blogger Iliya Varlamov, for example, was one of the top authors on Telegram and his photo blog on LiveJournal, as well as on his own online media, attracted two million visitors per month. Russian language video blogs on YouTube, producing a variety of entertainment and infotainment content, are also extremely popular among the young demographic. Well-known journalists - notably Yury Dud, Leonid Parfenov and Maxim Shevchenko - have started new careers on YouTube with socially significant interviews and documentaries, analysis of political issues or film and book reviews, for a discerning audience.

The growth of content available on social media and digital platforms has also affected digital audiences in several ways. First, there is a clear trend towards diversification and complexity of the audience structure and digital media usage compared to the early years of the Russian Internet, when users were mostly the younger and wealthier urban population. Currently, digital audiences include an increasing number of females (more than a half of all users), as well as members of various ethnic and linguistic groups and residents of small towns and villages (Internet v Rossii v 2018, 2019). Second, the younger segment of the Internet audience has grown substantially: in Russian cities with a population over one million, about 70 per cent of youngsters aged under 22 are active users. Surveys have shown that almost all schoolchildren and students from large and medium sized cities access Internet through mobile and social networks, which have become a new ‘entry point’ into the digital media landscape and communication space (Dunas et al., 2017).

The communication behaviour and media consumption of young Russians is different to that of older age groups, and scholars have focused on the media consumption of the ‘generations’ X,Y and especially Z, as particular communities united not only by common media habits but also by lifestyles and values (Vyugina, 2017). As Dunas and Vartanov argue, their primary reasons for such consumption patterns ‘are associated not only with socialization as the adoption of prevailing norms and values but with the satisfaction of the need for attachment and involvement in a specific community, the approval of its members and integration into that community’ (Dunas and Vartanov, 2020: 8). In the last decade, the online media environment has also begun to play a crucial role in public communication, making an impact on election campaigns, public debates, agenda setting and discussions on economic, social, cultural and ethnic issues (Davydov, 2020). It might be argued that, as a consequence of Internet expansion, the structure of the Russian Internet audience resembles and even replicates the structure of society, indicating the societal significance of digital media.

Digital divides

Digital inequalities reflect the existing inequalities between regions in terms of their economic prosperity, development of telecommunication infrastructure, differences in legal systems, etc. In a country of multi-ethnic and linguistic diversity, comprising 190 ethnic groups speaking more than 170 languages, the Russian Federation remains a kaleidoscope of plurality, despite a centralized polity dominated by one powerful leader. The digital divide is the result of a complex set of factors including the socio-economic status of users, their education, location, etc. (Ragnedda and Muschert, 2013). Inequalities as a result of limited access to digital infrastructure and digital capital are also related to ethnicity through a complex of dependent variables, as many ethnic minority groups live in economically less developed regions of the country (Gladkova et al., 2019).

The government has a responsibility to promote equality on ethnic, cultural and linguistic grounds and overcome the digital divide, through political programmes and setting a policy framework for federal and regional levels. These include such federal laws as ‘On Languages of the Peoples of the Russian Federation’ and ‘On Securing Rights of Small Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation’, as well as programmes, notably, ‘Strengthening of the Unity of the Russian Nation and the

Ethno-cultural Development of the Peoples of Russia (2014-2020)’. They all aim to strengthen the role of the media in building intercultural dialogue and provide media content in different languages of Russia’s ethnic groups. However, given the current legal regulation of Russian media and the multiplicity of strands within media policy (discussed below), there are questions about the efficacy of the state as the sole policy maker, as well as the effectiveness of regulation to prevent digital inequality (Timofeyev, 2019).

The growing importance of the Internet within the Russian media system has challenged traditional media in relation to political agenda-setting and news and entertainment provision. Growing social media networks today provide audiences with a huge variety of journalistic and user-generated content. Different and radically opposite views and ideologies are widely represented in the digital sphere: not only political parties and official state agencies, but also numerous personal sites of opposition leaders create a diversity of political and cultural views. While some scholars consider this digital landscape to be intolerant, ignorant and incompetent (Samartsev, 2017), others underline the importance of the variety of viewpoints, essential for an informed citizenry (Davydov, 2020).

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