Social media offers a way to gauge the Russian electorate’s mood ahead of the September parliamentary elections. For now, it appears that many Russians will simply vote for the status quo.

A rare opposition party running in the upcoming September parliamentary elections is the PARNAS party. Posters in the back, read 'Restart the system,' and 'Parnas.' Photo: TASS

There are few signs that Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place just two months before the U.S. presidential election in November, will result in any change to the political status quo in the nation. As a result, there is only limited possibility for improved U.S.-Russia dialogue after the elections.

The first fact to consider is that the parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for December, were moved to September. As many voters will be returning back after summer vacations and may not even recognize the candidates, the turnout promises to be very low.

Based on public opinion polls, the level of trust of Russian citizens in the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections is quite low as well. According to Levada Center, the interest of the Russian people in the parliamentary elections fell to 45 percent in June, compared to 62 percent in the previous elections in 2011.

According to VCIOM (Russian state-owned opinion research center) polls, 43.1 percent of Russians are ready to vote for the United Russia party which is the biggest party in Russia. It is also known as the party of President Vladimir Putin. The motivation of the party’s supporters is simple: “this is the strongest party” and “the majority supports it.”  

Levada August polls show that 39 percent of Russians would vote for United Russia, 10 percent - for the Communist Party, 10 percent - the Liberal Democratic Party and 3 percent - for A Just Russia party.

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Interestingly, according to a Levada Center poll conducted in June 2016, about 46 percent of Russians have no idea what their members of parliament are actually doing, and 41 percent evaluated the current Russian parliament’s work negatively. Answering the question about whether it is possible to avoid fraud at the upcoming elections, 54 percent of Russians believe it is not possible, while only 20 percent believe it is.

In the study of voters’ attitudes, conducted in Russia in 2012 during the peak of the opposition movement in the country, some experts predicted that the escalation of the crisis and discontent among the population was inevitable. They argued that, “The Russian electorate is being transformed: people are starting to be more active and engaged in politics. A wave of protests will activate after the elections.” Others said that, “Russian voters don’t really know what they want, but they know what they do not want, and they will protest.” However, things have turned out differently.

According to research conducted by the Center for New Media and Society in Moscow, the current state of Russian voters’ moods, represented in social media can be characterized by the growing negative discourse, online aggression, cyber-trolling as well as by the growth of anti-American sentiment and patriotism (as an echo of economic sanctions, which mobilized the Russian audience for greater support of Putin in opposition to the West) and self-censorship (as Internet regulators clamped down, those Russians who previously expressed their political views in 2012 became self-censored).

Another trend in social media users’ behavior in Russia is a so-called “online detoxification.” After dealing with a significant amount of negative online content (starting from the crisis in Ukraine) many users decided simply to stop following and discussing political news, to unsubscribe from news pages and to shut down access to their pages, making them private and limited only to their “friends.”

With such a low level of trust in the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections and weak online engagement, Russian online users are turning into a passive electorate, which is focused more on personal survival strategies in the current economic crisis, rather than being actively engaged in political life.

Role of social media in political campaigns in Russia and the U.S. in 2016

Social media has fundamentally changed the way today’s political campaigns work and communicate with their voters. The Internet has become one of the most convenient ways for voters to be engaged in a political campaign. This has only increased social media’s impact on the elections process.

In the U.S. presidential election this year, the efforts of the candidates and their social media strategists are concentrated on winning the votes of millennials. Current U.S. President Barack Obama used social media in the 2012 presidential election. By some estimates, he spent nearly $47 million on his digital campaign, which was ten times more than his Republican competitor Mitt Romney. As of June 2012, Obama had almost twice as many Facebook 'likes' as Romney (1,124,275 vs. 633,597).

The Republican presidential candidate in U.S. elections Donald Trump is a candidate whose entire election campaign is built primarily on social media. Trump has significantly more followers, mentions, and re-tweets than any other candidate. His campaign is built around going viral on Twitter and Facebook. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also been very active in using Twitter and Facebook to engage with their supporters, and they both were getting endorsements from celebrities. Today Trump has 10.5 million followers on Twitter and Clinton has 8 million.

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Predicting electoral results based on social media

A primary tool in measuring support in the 2016 campaign has been the development of Big Data analytics, which uses a massive amount of data to measure the activity of social media and digital platforms for predictive modeling.

The first significant measurement for a predictive model is the overall volume of ‘mentions.’ It means if a candidate is getting mentioned often, it is a sign that his or her political message is resonating and reaching a lot of people. Big Data experts today use such social media predictors as ‘impact’, ‘engagement’, ‘reach’, ‘sentiment’ and ‘authenticity.’

A study conducted by Dublin City University in 2011 found that tweet volume was “the single biggest predictive variable” in election results, based on their analysis of political sentiment and prediction modeling. These findings were echoed by a study conducted by the Technical University of Munich: Based on their research, they found that “the mere number of tweets reflects voter preferences and comes close to traditional election polls.”

According to a study conducted by Spanish researchers Miguel del Fresno García, Alan J. Daly, and Sagrario Segado Sánchez-Cabezudo, regular friends and followers hold high levels of influence on social media, instead of blogs and campaign pages. Users with the most influence on social media fall into three different categories: users who disseminate knowledge, those who engage other people, and those who lead conversations. These are the three types of users whom others tend to follow and listen to through social media. Therefore, to truly reach as many people as possible, political groups need first and foremost to get those three user categories talking about their campaigns on social media.

Social media in political campaigns in Russia

While online political campaigns in the U.S. are becoming more and more heated, the situation with social media usage in politics looks quite different in Russia.

Until recently, the use of the Internet and social media for political campaigns has not been very common in Russia. Not every political party today even has a website. According to the survey conducted by the Russian Association of Public Relations, social media is not yet a major tool used in political campaigns.

Today, the most popular methods of political advertising in Russia are still traditional media campaigns, including street billboards and TV advertising. One reason for this is that the majority of governmental officials are not very experienced social media users, even though more and more of them are starting to use social media. The candidates themselves do not even allocate resources for social media political campaigns.

Another factor is that many social media and online platforms (such as Yandex, Odnoklassniki, Vkontakte) in Russia do not allow political agitation on their services. Those who start using social media end up being concerned by the number of subscribers, which is not as informative as the number of engaged target audience members.

The Russian opposition, however, is more experienced in the usage of social media platforms to spread their messages, since this is the only tool for communication they have had available in recent years. Russian blogger Alexey Navalny is one of the examples of opposition leaders building successful campaigns and mobilizing supporters online.  

Even though the Internet can be one of the most powerful ways for a politician to reach out to their electorate in remote regions, this does work in Russia where the level of Internet penetration is quite low. Therefore, the state-run national television remains the main source of information for voters in the country. Unfortunately, however, opposition parties often find it hard to access Russia’s national media channels and therefore struggle to deliver an alternative political agenda.