The CRGA is pleased to release its new report; "Exploring Religion in Today's Russia: An Analysis of Religion on Russian Social Media Platforms." The report brings together key findings from a survey of religious expressions on social media in Russia by analysing content on the three largest social media platforms in the nation (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki and Facebook). A brand new and unique methodology has been developed for both the research process and analysis.
The first phase of the research consisted of scraping pages associated either with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) or Islam. This research has resulted in a snapshot of religious expressions on Russian social media.
— In total, 5,991 Orthodox pages were found with close to 21 million followers. In contrast, there were only 2,956 pages associated with Islam; however, these had a higher following, with 25.5 million individuals in total. A plausible explanation for the larger following of Muslim pages is that these have a greater international audience than Orthodox pages, which are more local and nationally focused.
— Compared to ROC, the Islamic social media presence was more ‘centralised’ with a fewer number of pages but a greater number of ‘very large’ or ‘large’ pages.
— The wide variety of topics covered on social media bears witness to the vitality and creativity of online religious activity in Russia.
— It is interesting to note that over half of ROC pages (53%) were dedicated to local groups. A large proportion of Islamic pages (23%) were similarly linked to local religious communities. This suggests a high level of correlation between the digital world and offline activity.
— By far the most prevalent function of Islamic pages was to discuss and disseminate scriptures, a feature nearly absent from ROC pages.
— Unsurprisingly, ROC pages had a nationwide geographic spread,whereas Islamic pages were, as expected, more concentrated toSouth-Western Russia.
The project’s social network analysis allowed inferences to be made through observing how online religious communities, groups and individuals are connected and the sources of the content shared.
— The findings of the network analysis suggest that the ROC and Islam exist in complete isolation from each other on social media. Interestingly, not a single connection between Russia’s largest religious communities’ social media activity was found.
— The network of Islamic pages was divided into several different large clusters with few connections between them. This division partly runs along Sufi versus Wahhabi lines, with two large clusters dominated by preachers and institutions from the two respective schools. The largest cluster, however, contained ‘mixed content’ pages.
— A greater interconnectedness was found amongst ROC pages. Nevertheless, a few larger isolated clusters were identified, such as one focusing on the lives of martyrs and saintsand another on youth.
In the final phase of the research, a sample of 1,002 posts, and 1,700 images and videos from the social media scraping were decoded and analysed. Semiotic analysis of these offers a more detailed understanding of religious thought, practices and symbols in Russia.
— Social media plays a significant role in maintaining and reinforcing the influence of both religious communities investigated in this research. This can be seen in a number of common themes including commitment to political entities, strengthening and maintaining traditions, safeguarding the nation/community against the weakening of moral values, promoting knowledge of the past, teaching of scriptures, reinforcing community cohesion through religious practices and affirming positive transformational aspects of religion.
— There were important differences between the Russian Orthodox and Muslim narratives online. Russian Orthodox Christian discourses were often inwardly focused (e.g. preservation and protection of Russian religion and culture), while Muslim discourse was much more outwardly focused (e.g. international Muslim brotherhood and helping fellow Muslims abroad).
— Political expressions were found to be the least prevalent category in the Russian religious landscape online. While ROC social media content is rife with nationalistic sentiments, explicit political expressions are relatively rare on religious social media in Russia.
— A considerable amount of content on ROC pages is given to expressing the idea of the role of Russian Orthodoxy as an integral part of Russian national life. The clergy are portrayed as maintaining communal life, saints as epitomising the Russian soul and church patrons as a bulwark against the nation’s enemies and so forth. Muslim patriotism was expressed through allegiance to regional identities and locations, such as Tatarstan.
— There is a near-complete rejection of the violence of Islamists on the three social media platforms included in the research. Conversely, there is a widespread call to give charitably to those suffering from war and to help Muslim brothers and sisters facing persecution.
— A large proportion of the social media content discusses the mundane – such as food, online dating, requests for prayers and information about festive celebrations – rather than larger national, global or even philosophical issues.
— One interesting point of difference is that whilst both religions reinforce traditional domestic gender roles, an emerging trend on Islamic pages is that women are increasingly portrayed as being assertive, rather than submissive.
— Social media plays an important educational role for both religions. Believers are introduced to their teachings, encouraged to live morally upright lives, engaged in theological debates and summoned to worship and prayer.
— An emerging trend is the use of contemporary styled videos, new media platforms and innovative uses of technology to engage younger generations.
The research findings are complemented with essays written by leading academics on religion in Russia today.
— Providing a brief sketch of religion in Russia, the first article highlights the resurgence of religion in the post-Soviet era, not least the cultural and societal prominence of the ROC.
— The second article. written by Russia expert Geraldine Fagan, seeks to counter-balance the overly harmonious portrayal of religion in Russio that emerged from the research by outlining some of the major lines of religious tensions.
— In the final article, Dr Moral Shterin discusses the place of the ROC in Russia’s foreign policy. During the Putin years Russian Orthodoxy has been mobilised os a ‘soft power’ expanding Russian cultural identity beyond its borders, not least through strengthening ties with diaspora communities.
Kindly click on the picture above to download the report. We will shortly release further data gathered and analysed in the research process leading to this report.