Russian opposition figure and presidential candidate Alexei Navalny has been hailed for its effective use of social networks to circumvent a de facto ban on Russia’s state media. “Navalny at 8.18pm”, a new weekly show broadcasted live on Youtube, has already managed to attract a significant audience. But the deputy editor-in-chief of opposition-friendly radio “Ekho Moskvy” is now complaining that Navalny is also using his platform on social media as a way to avoid answering questions from journalists.
On her Telegram channel, Tatiana Felgenhauer explained how, after learning that Navalny was back from Spain (where he underwent eye surgery), she contacted his spokesperson to get comments from Navalny for the radio’s evening program. The spokesperson refused to put her in touch with the candidate, according to Felgenhauer, but told her to watch Navalny’s weekly show on his Youtube channel. “Great recommendation, considering the show is at 8.18pm and we start our program at 6pm”, Felgenhauer wrote.
The program that Felgenhaueur was redirected to is Navalny’s latest attempt to harness the power of social media: created in March, the Youtube channel “Navalny Live” features colourful, interactive shows where various members of Navalny’s campaign team as well as outside activists answer questions from the viewers. Once a week, Navalny himself gets in front of the camera to give the latest news about his campaign.
The formula seems to be working, with nearly 300,000 people already subscribed to the channel. On March 11, just a few hours after Navalny came back from Spain, his hour-long show attracted more than 50,000 viewers at the time, and has been watched more than 900,000 times since. Without the eyepatch he was sporting the previous week, the opposition candidate bashed Kremlin-friendly media who had implied he may not return to Russia, answered critics and took questions from Twitter. He also revealed that the passport allowing him to go abroad had been given to him after he sent a letter to Anton Vaino, the Kremlin’s chief of staff.
Felgenhauer did not appreciate the method. “It’s so convenient!” she wrote sarcastically. “You can choose which questions to answer. You can decide whether or not you answered them with enough details. Nobody can interrupt you, nobody can disturb you.”
“In my opinion, if you call yourself a politician on the federal level fighting against the current authorities, you should not act towards journalists the way current authorities do”, she added.
Navalny’s apparent disinterest for the radio would be all the more striking given that Ekho Moskvy is among the handful of Russian media willing to give him airtime. The politician is not entirely avoiding the radio, however: he gave Felgenhauer an interview just one month ago, and will speak again on the radio today.
But for another Ekho Moskvi journalist, Alexander Plyushchev, the real problem is that Navalny does not really need traditional media anymore: he can use the “Trump model”, that is, make his own media landscape and “get in touch with journalists not when they want to, but when he does.”
On march 11, Navalny revealed his interaction with Kremlin chief of staff Vaino on his own accord, and only after was the news picked up by various Russian outlets. With “Navalny Live”, Plyushchev and Felgenhauer fear, the opposition candidate is building his own media, freeing him from the risks that come with interacting with professional journalists.
Though Plyushchev and Felgenhauer both went with the Trump analogy, the launch of “Navalny Live” resembles the PR strategy of another presidential candidate, from France this time: far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who scored fourth at the presidential election, used social media as one of his campaign’s main instrument.
One of his most successful move has been the “Weekly Review“, a Youtube show where Mélenchon discuss the week’s events. Navalny’s show has a more modern look and puts a stronger emphasis on interactivity, but the format and strategy behind looks similar: Mélenchon’s campaign team openly described the show as a way to bypass traditional media while attracting a younger audience.
The fact that Navalny can attract people without the use of traditional media is “not a pleasant thing to realize for a journalist” says Plyushchev. “But if I was in his shoes, I would do the same thing.”