Revisiting Research on Russian Media Workshop - Abstracts Day 1 (April 28)

PONARS Eurasia
04 May 2017

PONARS Eurasia held a two-day workshop on April 28-29 on the theme of "Rethinking Russian Media Strategy and Influence." Below are the panels and abstracts from April 28.
Click here for the panels and abstracts on April 29 (Day 2).


Panel 1. Revisiting Russian Media Studies
Chair: Peter Rollberg, George Washington University

Samuel Greene, King’s College London
Mixed Media, Managed Messages: Elective Affinity and Political Communication In and Around Russia

How do Russians use the news media? Oddly, this question is often elided in research on contemporary Russian politics, despite the widespread recognition that media use must somehow matter to processes of state-society interaction even in an authoritarian setting. Unfortunately, most research focusing on political outcomes—voting and protest behavior, most prominently—tends to view media usage in ways that are too simplistic and that deprive Russian citizens themselves of cognitive agency. Media choices are constructed as binary, with citizens choosing to consume either pro- or anti-regime messages, generally proxied by the choice between television and the Internet. The messages themselves, meanwhile, are assumed to be generated by media managers, with little or no room for interpretive autonomy. In effect, most of this research assumes that the Russian media consume Russian citizens, rather than the other way around. In part, as a result of these assumptions, large-N studies generally fail to find a significant role for media in shaping political behavior.

Observational research on how Russians consume news media, however, has long revealed a more interactive process, in which citizens themselves engage in a complex and purposive process of contextualization and interpretation, designed both to identify actionable information and to support social positioning. This paper returns to those insights and combines them with recent research on the cognitive and psychological foundations of contemporary Russian politics—research that reveals an important role played by citizens in constructing and constraining authoritarian power—in order to refocus attention on citizens’ own behavior. While news media on both sides of the political divide may provide important cues, this paper argues that we should expect to find citizens themselves actively creating both meaning and message.

Drawing on online social media datasets covering both pro and anti-regime mobilization, this paper finds two distinct modes of newsmedia usage. In the first, citizens driven to action by abstract or identity-based stimuli (such as Russia’s war with Ukraine, or corruption) use a multitude of diverse media sources, including those that we might not have expected given their assumed ideational attachments, but they do so instrumentally, in order to reinforce a pre-existing mobilizational frame. In the second, citizens mobilized by a more localized and more material grievance (such as housing rights in Moscow, or the truckers’ strikes), seem to avoid mass media consumption almost entirely, instead gathering and aggregating information through trusted sources in order to generate a new mobilizational frame. In all cases, it is ordinary Russians themselves who are found to be managing their media.

Hannah Chapman and Theodore P. Gerber, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Power through Persuasion: Russian Media and Soft Power in the Near Abroad

Powerful countries use foreign media broadcasts as tool for enhancing their soft power, yet there is scant empirical evidence as to whether such efforts are effective at swaying public opinion. Moreover, researchers have not specified conditions that may shape variations in the influence of foreign broadcasts. We propose a theory that predicts, respectively, agenda-setting and issue-framing effects of foreign broadcasts as functions of the salience and familiarity of the issues they cover. We test our ideas by examining the potential effects of exposure to Russia-sourced broadcasts on views of Russia and other foreign policy issues in Kyrgyzstan, based on a 2015 survey. Our results support our theoretical arguments, and they point to both the potential of foreign media broadcasts and their limitations as tools of soft power.

Tomila Lankina, London School of Economics and Political Science
Framing Popular Protest: How Russian Media Manipulate Popular Discontent at Home and Abroad

Scholars are increasingly recognizing that state-controlled media represent an important weapon in the “resilience building” strategies of authoritarian rulers. Protests are beginning to feature prominently in this literature. Although most researchers accept that some form of media manipulation of stories on public expressions of discontent is widespread in autocracies, we know far less about the precise strategies of media manipulation when it comes to coverage of protests with different issues and agendas. Based on recent theorizing and empirical scholarship on media responses to protest in Russia, China, and other authoritarian states, we propose a comparative framework to analyze how media in autocracies cover popular protest. Specifically, we distinguish between the control and manipulation aspects of media coverage of protest and argue that autocrats tailor these strategies depending on the issue dimension of discontent; a dynamic, learning component is also present in state media’s responses to protest.

The framework is supported with analysis of coverage of protest in Russian state-controlled media—newspapers and Television channels—during Russia’s 2011-2013 protest cycle and during Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Specifically, an author-constructed dictionary of framing of protest is employed. The dictionary allows one to discern variations over time in the state-controlled media’s framing of protest along a “protest as disorder” versus “protest as democratic right” scale. The analysis reveals that while the winter 2011-2012 domestic anti-regime rallies were initially covered favorably, following the re-election of Putin to the presidency, a significant shift toward the disorder framing of anti-regime street activism occurs. This trend contrasts with coverage of the October 2013 nationalist rallies and riots in Moscow’s suburb of Biryulyovo, which targeted migrants. Although these protests generated violence, we do not observe a significant tendency of leading state media to frame them as negatively as they did the anti-regime protests. Thus, just weeks before Ukraine’s Euromaidan and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, the Russian state pursued media narratives stigmatizing anti-regime street protest, while tacitly leveraging nationalist discontent for regime-reinforcing purposes. Furthermore, we find that around the time of Crimea’s annexation, the Kremlin-controlled media projected media narratives of the Euromaidan protests as chaos and disorder along with legalistic jargon about the status of ethnic Russians and federalization, only to abandon this strategy by the end of April 2014. The shift in media narratives corresponding to the outbreak of Donbas violence gives credence to arguments about Putin’s tactical and interests-driven foreign policy, while nuancing those that highlight the role of norms and values. The methodological tools developed in our study should aid observers in analyzing the role of Russia’s media in manipulating public opinion as the Kremlin prepares for presidential elections next year and when it covers public discontent during domestic crises in the “near abroad” and in the West.

Marlene Laruelle, George Washington University
The “Post-Truth” Debate and the Study of Russian Media

This paper focuses on the main issues and current directions of research for the study of Russian media. Western research on Russian media faces three major issues. First, the noise created by the current narrative about Russia’s alleged influence on U.S. elections and the European electorate, and the push to use “sticky terminology” such as fake news without a well-articulated, scholarly-based, understanding of what it means and how to track it. Second, linked to the study of Russian media influence abroad, is the risk of fallacy, i.e., a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid—for instance, conflating what can be the Russian government’s intentions and its projections on power, and its actual ability to influence foreign electorates (which is very limited).

The third issue, and this is a critical one, is the lack of comparative analysis. This creates two main biases. The first is a tendency to see Russian media used as a soft power tool as a by-product of the Soviet tradition of “active measures” while it is more a process of borrowing Western media techniques, especially American. The second bias is the tendency to always compare Russia to an idealized West in which media would be independent from political agendas, checking for objective facts, and promoting the truth. Yet, media in the United States and in Europe can be analyzed as communities of influence and agenda-setters as well. This opens the debate about the use of terminology, such as the word “propaganda.” The difference between propaganda, framing, or agenda-setting is maybe not about “essence” but about “scale.”

Two concepts may give some foundation to current research on Russian media. The first one is the “post-truth” debate, which relates not only to the desacralization of traditional media and institutions, but is a by-product of the end of the Cold War, and of the belief in grand ideological narratives. Rooted in post-modernism philosophy, it states that discourses are semantic constructs, with floating signifiers that are shaped by subjective and contextual environments. Russian official media captured this Zeitgeist, using this relativism to tailor narratives often originally produced in the West to build a storyline about Russia’s values and role in the world.

The second concept is that of co-creationism. Russian official media and especially television are probably one of the greatest successes of the regime in its agenda-setting strategy—even if one may see that the agenda-setting is currently eroding. But seeing Russian media as a top-down process is a mistake, as it is largely co-creational at several levels. Media consumers are cognitive agents, with their own interpretive autonomy. Russian state media have thus been successful at capturing genuine values, attitudes, and perceptions and turning them into elements of the regime’s legitimacy. This gave birth to what one can call an “ideational regime” in which state-sponsored media and a large part of society partner in creating meanings.

Panel 2. Framing in Russia and the United States. Mirror Games?
Chair: Marlene Laruelle, George Washington University

Emma Briant, George Washington University, and Dmitry Chernobrov, Sheffield University
Competing Propagandas: Russian and US Mutual Representation of Propaganda Efforts

Amid resurgent tensions between the West and Russia following the Ukraine crisis, both the United States and Russia have expanded their propaganda efforts. Russia’s propaganda strategy is often criticized as centered on the creation of uncertainty and doubt, while U.S. narratives, although claiming truth and accuracy, are frequently accused of ignoring alternative contexts, cultures, and interpretations. There has been little academic exploration of how propaganda is discussed as a topic within these media. This paper asks if the two sides represent each other’s propaganda within these models externally, how both create and resolve uncertainty, and how the two establish and legitimate the boundaries of political and historical knowledge that can be questioned. This paper will compare how they represent each other’s and their own propaganda using the case studies of Radio Free Europe and RT America. The paper will analyze the representations, editorial strategies, and strategic objectives using discourse analysis of online articles and interviews with journalists and key Public Diplomacy professionals. 

Floriana Fossato, Independent Analyst
“Vospitatelnye Raboty” through Television and Social Media in Russia (2007-2017) and Different Patterns of Activation of Populistic Frames in Eurasia, Europe, and the United States

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, we have been on a steep learning vector concerning the importance and the uses of the media by Russian authorities. The focus of analysis has been on the Russian media as an “information war” tool, which first caught countries surrounding Russia by surprise and then very rapidly also the West. Language evokes frames and mental structures that shape the way we see the world, as words are defined mainly in relation to conceptual frames. When we hear a word, its frame is immediately activated in our brain (Lakoff, 2004).

Therefore the “information war” frame used during the last few years, by its language, has led us to the examination of the “media arsenal” deployed by the Russian authorities first against their citizens, then against Ukraine and other Eurasian nations, and increasingly against the entire Western world, which is portrayed by the Kremlin as Russia’s “civilizational enemy.” The study of the various components of this frame provides important knowledge about the manufacturing and penetration of fake news, including the use of automated netbots and the emergence of human troll factories. It also helps understand the synchronization of these online tools with a network of Russian and international news agencies, television channels, and radio stations that are intent at manipulating, confusing, and ultimately subjugating citizens, taking advantage of a 4D know-how: Dismiss, Distort, Distract, Dismay (Nimmo, 2016) that is essentially a 2:0 upgrade of Soviet-era “active measures.”

In this presentation, it is argued that although extremely valuable, the “information war” frame focuses on the operational side of the Russian media effect. In so doing, it limits the depth of the analysis to understanding the tools and immediate goals of media manipulation. Its very language does not allow us to visualize and comprehend the conceptual basis of an operation that is essentially an attempt to react to the identity crisis prompted by the end of the Russian/Soviet empire.

Preventing the physical and political self-destruction of the Russian state has been at the center of Vladimir Putin’s concern since his appearance on the political scene. An analysis of his public speeches and of his decisions vis-à-vis the media indicates that Putin understands the power of perceptions created and disseminated using a wide range of means, the media being the most immediately visible. As he spelled out in a January 2012 newspaper article, “shaping a mindset that binds the nation together is one of the [the state’s] challenges. So, subtle cultural therapy is what is recommended for Russia.”

Proposed here is a more comprehensive frame of Vospitatelnye Raboty (“educational works”) as a lens that sheds light on the deep reasons and the set of short- and long-term goals of the “subtle cultural therapy” employed under the guidance of Putin and his associates. A multi-disciplinary approach is used to illustrate how this frame has been employed in flexible and often conflicting ways to shape the mindset of Russian citizens and how it has been increasingly adapted to activate populist frames in Eurasia, Europe, and the United States.

Sergei Samoilenko, George Mason University
Media Biases and Negative Framing in Covering International Conflicts in Russia and the United States

In an ideal world, the free press supports democracy by delivering fair and balanced news that represent both sides of a story and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. According to Entman (1989), genuine accountability news requires proper historical context, diverse perspectives, and explicit linkages to the officials responsible for policy outcome. Objectivity requires depersonalization and balance meaning that reporters should refrain from inserting their ideological or substantive evaluations and aim for neutrality by “providing both sides with roughly equivalent attention.”

The decline of journalistic standards, once seen primarily in autocratic regimes, has become pervasive in democratic societies. Predictably, news stories frequently represent selective constructions of reality that encourage audiences to perceive that reality in a particular way (based on journalistic choices). By favoring certain agendas, the news media inevitably engage in the process of framing which involves selecting some aspects of a perceived reality while obscuring other elements, which might lead audiences to different reactions. Frames often employ emotionally charged words and images highly salient in the culture and that often make news audiences think and feel in a particular way. A minor slant in the news is able to trigger emotional logic in a target audience by reinforcing negative stereotypes about political actors. Slant refers to individual news reports and editorials in which the framing favors one side over the other in a current or potential dispute (Entman, 2007).

Frequent independent interpretations of events, and frequent news slants in line with the government agenda become more evident during international crises. Moreover, mass media plays a critical role in manufacturing the perceived reality of crises and shaping public attitudes toward them. This observation is consistent with numerous studies focusing on the negative effects of the mediatization of politics, such as simplification, negative representations of politics favoring conflict, and personalization (Esser & Matthes, 2013). The high emphases on personalization explains the popularity and appeal of demonization and fear themes in the news media. Naturally, this contributes to creating a media environment in which rumors and character attacks on politicians and other public figures becomes a norm. In order to reach the widest audience, elaborate narratives must be distilled to familiar symbols, slogans, and cognitive associations. Also, dramatic scripts, the stories and actions of archetypal characters (heroes and villains) should be easily recognized by any audience and relate to the mental scripts and expectations of ordinary people.

This presentation specifically discusses the use of news slant in the television news coverage of the 2014 Malaysia Airlines crash by the U.S. and Russian television broadcasting networks. The findings show that both Russian and U.S. news coverage contained various types of personalization and other types of news slant, but proved to be different in frequency and complexity. The results suggest that television media in both countries offered one-sided framing of the event to their audiences with no alternative narrative.

Masha Lipman, Chief Editor, Kontrapunkt
Why Are We So Obsessed with “Post-truth” and “Post-fact”?

The obsession with what is perceived as a dramatic loss of “truth” in modern society calls for a more poised analysis. What is the nature of this phenomenon? What is truly new and what is familiar? Even if a deeper understanding does not bring “lost truth” back, at least we might feel less despondent if we get a better idea of what we are dealing with.

What is fake news? It is many things at once. It indicates information that is plainly untrue, invented, and simply not credible. It also covers other notions such as conspiracy theories, unwelcome interpretations, propaganda, partisan coverage, and anything that someone is anxious to refute or condemn but lacks the evidence to do so. Frustrations over “post-facts” and “post-truths” obviously has to do with the broader public falling prey to fake news, wrong ideas, and politicians who lie without shame. To those who feel frustration, it is especially depressing that there are those who still do not change their opinions even when presented with solid facts.

At least one reason why people fall for false information appears to be about the easy reach of modern communication technologies—any website or blogger can compete with long-established media institutions. But why is technological progress apparently more beneficial for those who disseminate fake and wrong views? One possible component may be that “liberal values” are connected with those who believe in adherence to “truth.” Another lies in the rise of the anti-establishment, illiberal trend. The liberalization of the previous decades—expansion of gender and racial equality, rapid progress of LGBT causes, broad promotion of tolerance toward others—created a sense of a liberal consensus (“manufactured consent,” according to some left-wing critical discourses). Those who disagreed with these trends were marginalized but they did not disappear and they grew increasingly discontent. Resentment toward the prevailing establishment, intellectual elites, and liberal academics who claimed “expert” knowledge, created a demand for anti-liberal and anti-establishment politics. Therefore, it was probably natural, even inevitable, that the counter-demand would be met by politicians. The attraction of anti-liberal and anti-establishment fake news is part of this nature; people readily absorb what they were already inclined to believe.

This phenomenon is well-described by scholars through psychological and sociological terminology such as “confirmation bias,” “biased perception,” and “motivated reasoning.” Indeed, as we all know from our everyday experiences, our perceptions are shaped by our “preexisting conditions,” which are linked to many aspects of who we are, such as our upbringing, education, peers, beliefs, and ideas. There is even neurological evidence confirming this phenomenon. It has been written that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs.

In Russia, loss of authority is not unfamiliar. Russian liberals have for several years experienced bitter disappointment that they failed to preserve the “authority” that they briefly had in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These days, they are just as eager to blame Russia’s illiberal views on Kremlin propaganda as anti-Trump Americans are to blame the rise of Donald Trump on “Putin propaganda.” The problem in Russia is not so much along the lines of Pyotr Pomerantsev’s “nothing is true” sentiment (and therefore everything is fake news) but that liberal discourses and left-wing politics progressively lost dominance, attraction, and credibility. Thus, fake news may not be so much about a new social illness but rather a lament by those who lost positions of authority.

Panel 3. The Russian State’s Communication Strategies
Chair: Masha Lipman, Chief Editor, Kontrapunkt

Anna Kachkaeva, Higher School of Economics, Moscow
The Global Media Opposition (2014-2016): Distortion of Media Space and Issues of Critical Thinking

Complexity and uncertainty are predominant characteristics of the modern world, in step with a transformation of values and new emotional cultural matrixes. This contributes to seeing “reality” through the prism of media confrontation and as a new form of unconventional warfare. This media confrontation is accentuated by the mass consumer’s new tools of interactivity and accessibility, social media reactivity, echo chambers, and the flow of meanings that excite, entertain, and distract consumers of news, and it may serve as a powerful instrument for mobilization and propaganda. All these elements amplify the effect of confrontation and the aestheticization of discursive aggressions.

Policy wordings play a critical role in shaping the public mindset. In the 21st century these wordings are primarily transmitted by television and more increasingly by digital networks. Both U.S. and Russian models of media policy are aimed at creating emotional projections, designed to simulate reality in both mass and individual consciousness. The metaphor of the “war on terror,” for instance, activated a frame of fear while the narrative of “patriotism” triggered a rally-around-the-flag movement and support for the center. Detailed analyses of the media-context and framing of the Iraqi campaigns after 9/11 in the United States demonstrate fascinating parallels with the 2014 Russian reactions to the Ukrainian crisis, taking for example the slogans “hybrid warfare” and “Krymnash” (“Crimea is Ours”).

By its visuality, television not only simplifies the picture of the world, but also designs the production and multiplicity of emotions. For these purposes, television uses tools such as reconstructions, performances, and storylines masqueraded around objective news. An increased degree of “emotions” was noticeable on Russian television during the acute phase of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014. Effects were achieved through a deliberate increasing of the duration of television programs, non-data-enabled content of a “military style,” and a new “emotional regime” of interpretations and reviews generated by a limited circle of experts. By 2016, the Ukraine topic had been gradually diluted and moved to the periphery, although it is still “smoldering” and always near at hand. Yet the Russian notion of confrontation, particularly with the West, is preserved and carefully nurtured on television. It is also fueled by the promotion of an army theme, weapons (symbol of power and pride), and military operations abroad (fighting the world’s evil and barbarians).

Russian television, which has a corporate concentration of power and political monopolization, is experiencing conflicting situations. On one hand, the oligopoly of the three media corporations, which are a product of Russia’s vertical of power, must constantly demonstrate creativity and dynamism to keep audiences within zones of influence. On the other hand, it faces rigid constraints in terms of content. Its broad angle, for instance, is to include mythologization of the past and contribute to narratives of fear and the mythology of a collective identity (army, Church, Soviet nostalgia, anti-Western rhetoric). As a result, audiences see the future as frightening, alarming, and incomprehensible.

Vasily Gatov, University of Southern California, Annenberg
“Not Your Average Publicist”: Russian Strategic Communication Campaigns in 2012-2017

In this research, we decided to adhere to the definition of “strategic communications” in a broader sense as derived from the White House 2010 National Framework for Strategic Communication. Russian state actors have designed and executed numerous “strategic communication campaigns” since Vladimir Putin’s election to a third term. We analyzed major external campaigns linked to the Russian regime’s foreign policies: two that focus on Syria (2013 and 2015-2017), several that focus on Ukraine (2014-2017), and the campaign focused on the EU (2016-2017).

These campaigns clearly originated from state-level actors, demonstrating a synchronization of words and deeds, and outreach persistence to selected audiences. They also involved multiple actors in the domains of public affairs and public diplomacy, and utilized professional information operatives. They showed strategic “double targeting” aimed at “the abroad” while also playing a major role in framing Russia’s domestic discourse and media agenda. They all share the following traits:

· They are “consistent projection campaigns”—the Russian state employs stable, constant messaging, which also serves as a reflection of the state’s long-term political goals.

· They are “reactive campaigns”—they employ oversized explanations of Russian state reactions to the words and deeds of other state actors.

· They use “camouflage campaigns”—they seek to deceive and misinform audiences about factual Russian actions and attitudes, often resembling Soviet “active measures.”

Ilya Yablokov, University of Leeds
Post-Soviet Russian Journalists and Conspiracy Theories: The Unethical Romance?

Whilst nowadays conspiracy theories are mainstreaming all over the world—the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit are cases in point—contemporary Russia is a curious example of producing and consuming conspiracy theories where the production of these ideas is highly encouraged by the ruling regime. From the mid-2000s, the Russian government has spent years and huge sums of money to spread fears about Western conspiracies among the Russian population thus serving to guarantee the stability of popular support for Putin.

Russian media has played a key role in this process. It is constantly spreading falsified evidence of subversive activities of the Russian opposition with the alleged support of the West. From the end of the 2000s, the Kremlin reshaped the international television channel RT into a source of various conspiracy theories thereby turning a media outlet into a sophisticated public diplomacy tool. Its journalists and producers have constantly been working to spread conspiracy theories globally to undermine the policies of the Kremlin’s biggest geopolitical rival—the United States.

On the domestic scene, Russian journalists have also been very active in adopting conspiracy theories as a part of their professional toolkit. The dramatic lack of professional ethics has made possible the application of unverified ideas (often supported financially by both private and state owners). The 1996 presidential campaign and journalists’ active involvement in mudslinging toward Gennadii Zyuganov as well as the information wars of the late 1990s completely undermined any sense of professional ethics in the journalistic community. Given the ability of conspiracy theories to attract attention, they became important and highly popular items on the day-to–day agendas of Russian newsrooms.

Following the approach suggested by Mark Fenster (2008), I look at the phenomenon of conspiracy theories as a populist tool of power relations that helps relocate legitimacy and power among different political actors. I argue that the failure of the journalistic community to develop a code of ethics and create a strong, united professional community caused a situation when the quality of journalist output has been less important than loyalty to owner or state. In this paper, I demonstrate the evolution of the Russian media community over 1991-2016, compare the popularity of conspiracy theories in the media in the United States and in Russia, and demonstrate how journalists became one of the main drivers of the popularity of conspiracy theories in contemporary Russia.

Panel 4. New Media Ecology and their Consumers/Activists
Chair: Sergei Samoilenko, George Mason University

Olessia Koltsova, Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg
Internet and Social Media in Contemporary Russia

Russia’s Internet industry has been one of the most successful in the world, which is in sharp contrast to most other Russian industries. Russia is the only country where local Internet businesses are beating global giants on the local market, without any protective barriers. The Yandex search engine has been always more popular than Google, and the Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki social networking sites (SNS) attract far larger audiences than Facebook. The Internet business in Russia owes its achievements to the abundance of “tech savvy brains” rather than investment money. Another factor is probably its novelty: other big business sectors in Russia were “earned” on the cheap during early post-Soviet privatization. The Russian Internet industry, however, was born later and therefore not encumbered by inefficient new owners and Soviet-era infrastructure and platforms.

Once the Russian government realized the uniqueness of the Internet industry, it was eager to make it the “locomotive” for the rest of the Russian economy and to have other industries borrow its entrepreneurial approaches. However, this aim has been clashing with its own competing goal of gaining control over the Internet, which undermines the unified, non-pluralistic narrative of events drawn by the “mainstream” Russian media (television). Yet, the government’s attempts to control the Internet might result in it damaging one of the only healthy industries in Russia.

Thus, when a Russian company bought the once-popular blogging platform LiveJournal, the cradle of the Russia’s online public sphere, in 2005, its oppositional bloggers began gradually migrating to other social networking sites, notably to Facebook. Facebook usage is still in the minority, however it is the primary conveyor of news, especially of non-mainstream news. Since the Facebook news algorithm feeds its users with news based on their previous choices as well as the choices of their friends, critical news reading seems to be self-increasing on Russian Facebook. As a result, in early 2016, the Yandex news aggregator that used to rank news according to online popularity, acknowledged that the primary source for its top news listing was Facebook. Shortly after that, legislation was passed that obliges search engines to fill such rankings with officially registered and published media only.

To make the situation less damaging for Yandex and other local Internet players, the government offers protectionist support. Thus, as Yandex started losing to Google in the growing sector of mobile devices, Russian courts supported Yandex in its legal action against Google. Google was forbidden to preinstall applications/programs on Android devices. Likewise, according to new legislation, all social media companies are obliged to store the data of their Russian users in Russia. LinkedIn did not comply and was blocked, although Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram still function despite their refusal to comply. The situation currently looks stalemated as the government takes no action to further enforce the law.

Meanwhile, television viewing is the leading media activity for Russians on average, but it is declining among younger audiences, which is a disturbing trend for the government. It seems that the Kremlin concluded from the Arab Spring that SNS-driven transparency of boundaries of formerly isolated national media systems makes nations outside “the First world” vulnerable to external interference that can lead to regime change and even to state collapse. The Russian government is thus taking the middle position and is implementing three main tactics: (1) gaining ownership over online media, (2) producing its own “user-generated content” (hard to prove), and (3) adopting legislation and then actively blocking websites and SNS accounts (the latter includes a large proportion of sites that are about pornography, drugs, suicide, and other content widely accepted as dangerous). One result of this approach so far has been the dramatic polarization between the loyal majority and the critical minority both online and offline. The likely outlook is that Russian social media users will soon encounter a “mild” version of China’s Internet firewall in combination with further attempts to internationalize Russian Internet business and political influence.

Svetlana Bodrunova, Saint Petersburg State University
Four Russias in Communication: Post-Soviet Communication Cleavages or World-Like Social Polarization?

Post-Soviet Russia has experienced many increases in social gaps, as seen by the Gini index and political preferences. Some scholars argue that Russia is fundamentally fragmented, that there are “four Russias” in socio-economic terms. This is mirrored in communication patterns, where both the offline and online communicative milieus are not enough to create an all-encompassing social discussion. Since 2013, social and political polarization has only been growing (again) in Russia, and it is a dynamic happening in a post-recession, polarizing world. We argue that the polarization today in Russia in the media sphere mirrors both Russian domestic post-Soviet divisions and the rising worldwide trend of anti-progressivism.

Sergei Davydov, Higher School of Economics, Moscow
Russian Civil Activism and the Media

In the 2010s, various groups of Russian citizens demonstrated the need for the implementation of various social improvements. One of the most famous of such projects was the political protests of 2011-2012, which was, in fact, social in its background: people invested their time and effort into the electoral system as well as into the growth of their own social capital. Some initiatives were supported by the authorities, for example observer activities during the 2012 presidential elections, charitable aid initiatives, and various volunteer movements. In other cases, the authorities tried to take control of such (social) activities and even limit them. The realm of “new media” typically has a significant role in the development of civil activism, as shown in this discussion, which is based on several cases surveyed by the research group of the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design at the Higher School of Economics.

Click here for the panels and abstracts on April 29 (Day 2).

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