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 29.
Click here for the panels and abstracts on April 28 (Day 1).
Panel 5. New Approaches in Studying Social Media
Chair: Tomila Lankina, London School of Economics and Political Science
Meme Tracking: A Tool for Detecting and Deterring Russian Propaganda in American Media
Sarah Oates, University of Maryland
In the past months, concern about Russian propaganda has moved from a question in foreign affairs and area studies to a prominent issue in U.S. political communication. While no doubt gratifying to scholars (and the Kremlin), this attention has highlighted a key issue in studying the effect of foreign propaganda on a native audience. While we can find ample evidence that countries such as Russia use the online sphere to leverage strategic narrative, it would seem that we can do little about it given the open nature of the U.S. media system. While there are well-founded concerns about Russian influence on media messages in the United States—ranging from bot-generated Tweets that misdirect the public to false information that is amplified by legitimate media outlets—there is not very much precision in the discussion. Which Russian media narratives are actually resonant in the United States? What is their origin? How do they spread? How much do citizens share them on social media and in what ways? How can we effectively counter false and deceiving messages that are designed to attack American values and institutions? How can we design and implement effective counter-narratives? In order to answer these critical questions, we need a better way of identifying, tagging, detecting, and following strategic messages emanating from Russia. This presentation suggests that the linguistic concept of memes as “short, distinctive phrases that travel relatively intact through on-line text” (Leskovec et al., p. 497) can be a useful tool for analysis. By identifying key Kremlin memes, reducing them to their core linguistic elements, and measuring how these memes diffuse across the contemporary media ecosystem, we can gain a much more precise measurement of the strength of Russian media messages in the American media ecosystem. This hybrid approach leverages international political communication and the study of strategic narratives with linguistics, data analytics, and media distribution in the digital sphere. If we can define, detect, and track Russian strategic messages in our own media system, then it is easier to both measure and counter their effects.
The Battle for Delegitimization: Mimicry and Appropriation of Fact-Checking and News Verification Practices in the Russian Media Sphere
Tanya Lokot, Dublin City University
With the hype generated by pundits proclaiming the arrival of the “post-truth era” and the emergence of information warfare as a key tool in the arsenal of states and non-state actors, the internal Russian media sphere has also been abuzz with debates about propaganda, media manipulation, and fake news. Despite the fact that a large chunk of mainstream Russian media is either run by or co-opted by the authorities, there is a vibrant minority of independent media, with a high concentration of them online. In the past three years, this segment of the Russian media sphere has seen the rise of a new kind of media outfit: the fact-checkers and the debunkers, based in Russia and elsewhere, but serving the Russian-speaking consumer and focusing largely on the news generated within Russia, including Noodleremover, Conflict Intelligence Team, a section on The Insider website, the Russian-language content on Bellingcat, Radio Liberty, and StopFake.org, among others.
These operations have gained a modest but loyal audience as they publish investigative pieces, verifying and debunking news and information from Russian officials, Russian state-run media, and sometimes even foreign media outlets’ coverage of Russia-related events. They view their role as beacons of objective media coverage, shedding light on false information and twisted facts, but increasingly they also emerge as institutions of media literacy, educating audiences about how to critically consume news and content in the digital era.
The Kremlin and those in the media loyal to its cause have been mostly dismissive of these efforts, branding the media outlets as “agents of the West” and as “provocateurs.” But increasingly, we see dismissals from the state being replaced with more active measures. Kremlin-funded media have begun to offer their own fact-checking stories: these appear in the Izvestia newspaper/website, on the NTV television channel, as well as the social media pages of the English-language RT. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up an official section on its website “exposing fake news” in foreign media outlets. And RT has recently said it wants to help Facebook to combat fake news by joining its “reliable sources” lineup. These efforts emerge as examples of pro-Kremlin media and information actors purposefully mirroring the genres and activities of existing independent actors in the area of investigations, verification, debunking, and fact-checking.
I argue that pro-government and state-controlled media outlets and online actors in Russia engage in subversive mimicry of existing verification/debunking initiatives and tactical appropriation of their tools, vocabularies, and modes of action in order to both discredit the efforts of independent media and online actors as illegitimate and build up their own legitimacy as representatives of the hegemonic power. In the media context, mimicry can occur through imitating the linguistic choices, design, composition, overall context and feeling of the content and its framing—akin to how social media users may attempt to mimic each other’s behavior, content choices, bio styles, or color schemes (De Choudhury et al. 2009).
The tools and genre sensibilities of the fact-checking and verification “movement” in the hybrid media space are mimicked and appropriated by state actors in the context of postmodern (and post-truth) media in order to be mirrored, re-inscribed, and pushed out to the public in an hegemonic fashion. Such postmodern juxtaposition also involves fetishizing certain terms—such as fake news—to the point of it becoming simulacra or empty signifiers (Baudrillard 1983, Lyotard 1988). Such an approach to appropriation through juxtaposition (Schugart et al. 2001) allows to re-contextualize and re-inscribe the sensibilities of the fact-checking community in a way that ultimately cements the dominant hegemonic codes and discourses in the Russian media sphere, while eroding the credibility of independent media.
Networked social media is ultimately the space where most of the fact-checking and verification discourse occurs, so this is also the space where subversive mimicry and tactical appropriation by state-connected actors are implemented, negotiated, and contested. Since the goal of the original projects engaged in fact-checking and verifying information is to delegitimize information manipulation and media propaganda, the subversive activities of pro-state actors seek to delegitimize the practices of these actors first, and then to re-legitimize themselves. Therefore, the independent media actors are no longer simply fact-checking, debunking or verifying facts or news—they are also engaging in a debate about the meaning (and meaningfulness) of these very media practices—ultimately a battle for legitimacy and de-legitimization in the hybrid media system.
Political Bots on Russian Twitter: Detection and Patterns of Activity
Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal, and Joshua Tucker, New York University
In this project, we study how autocratic governments develop and apply tools for conducting propaganda online, particularly in the social media. When social media first burst onto the political scene, they were considered a powerful tool for ordinary citizens to access information and organize for political causes. They appeared particularly promising in autocratic countries, where traditional media were put under the tight control of the ruling regime. In just a few years, most autocratic regimes were able to develop an extensive set of tools to block, marginalize, and infiltrate social media, making them less and less hospitable to alternative opinions and independent information. Moreover, the tools they developed are now increasingly used in democratic countries, contributing to the polarization of opinions on social media and helping to spread fake news. We draw on the experience of Russia in identifying government strategies on social media. We also built machine-learning algorithms that expose government activities in social media.
In particular, we have developed a novel classification of strategies, both legal and extra-legal, employed by autocrats to combat the opposition and, more generally, conduct propaganda online. Our classification distinguishes both online from offline options and censorship from engaging in opinion formation. For each of the three options—offline action, technical restrictions on access to content, and online engagement—we provide a detailed account of the evolution of the Russian government’s strategies since 2000. To conduct an empirical analysis of government activities online, we used the resources of the SMaPP Lab to collect a large dataset of politically relevant Twitter activity from a crucial period in recent Russian history (2013-2015). We then developed machine-learning algorithms that allow distinguishing between genuine human activity and automated postings by bots, based on the originality of tweeted content as well as a wealth of metadata. As a result, we uncovered that bots are remarkably prevalent in the Russian political Twittersphere.
Panel 6. Meeting Methodological Challenges in Studying Media Effects
Chair: Samuel Greene, King’s College London
Why Do People Ignore Independent Media Sources that Are Available to Them in Authoritarian Regimes? A Panel Study of Russian Media Consumption 1999-2015
Henry Hale, George Washington University
One of the most often-overlooked puzzles in the study of media in authoritarian regimes is that people often do have access to relatively free media sources but simply do not make use of them, effectively choosing to rely on the state-dominated narrative of events, which arguably reinforces the regime’s control over society. While part of the story is surely self-selection, with people who are already sympathetic to the state choosing to consume state-controlled media, just as surely people choose news sources for other reasons and opt to stick with these sources despite their dependence on the state. This study uses panel survey data (re-interviewing the same individual multiple times over a given period) to take advantage of two natural experiments in media consumption occurring in the 2000s and 2010s in Russia, a country where observers frequently cite the state’s control over media as a source of authoritarian stability. Specifically, it examines: (a) what kinds of people chose to stick with NTV after it was taken over by the state-controlled Gazprom-Media and who sought out other independent sources; and (b) what kinds of people turned to the Internet as their primary news medium as the Internet first became widely available as a source of political information for Russian citizens and as it continued to develop through 2015.
Autocratic Foreign Media: A Survey Experiment on Russia Today
Aleksandr Fisher, George Washington University
In the past decade, Russia, China, and Iran have spent billions of dollars on foreign news propaganda (FNP) because they believe they need to secure a certain level of international support and control over foreign public opinion to achieve their policy objectives. However, we have little understanding about the conditions under which state-sponsored propaganda can effectively change foreign citizens’ political attitudes.
My project uses a survey experiment to examine the influence of the Kremlin’s Russia Today (RT) on U.S. citizens’ attitudes toward Russia and the conflict in Ukraine. Specifically, I evaluate whether knowledge of the message source moderates the effectiveness of Russian propaganda and whether Democrats and Republicans respond to Russian messages differently in a time of increased political polarization.
I find that knowledge of the message source has little effect on audiences’ receptivity to Russian propaganda but that Democrats do experience a small boomerang effect when exposed to Russian propaganda. I also find that the main effect of exposure to Russian foreign messages is lower favorability toward Ukraine rather than higher favorability toward Russia and that education and political awareness slightly moderate partisan cues on Russia.
The findings have large implications for evaluating the heterogeneous effects of disinformation on ordinary citizens and the role of source credibility. More broadly, this project theorizes and empirically evaluates the micro-foundations behind propaganda receptivity and comments on the practical and normative consequences of foreign propaganda.
Finally, I propose that future work should evaluate not only how Russian propaganda affects attitudes toward Russia and Ukraine but should also assess the subtle effects of political propaganda amongst foreign audiences. While extant work focuses on the unifying role of propaganda and the mechanisms by which political messages mobilize populations for particular political goals, it often overlooks the ability of foreign propaganda to create dissent amongst foreign audiences and evaluate how countries utilize propaganda to confuse and disorient foreign public opinion in order to impede political action.
RT’s Coverage of Donald Trump
Elizabeth Nelson and Robert Orttung, George Washington University
How can RT use the contemporary media system to attract audiences and convince them that the Kremlin cause is worth supporting? We explore a case study of RT (formerly Russia Today) YouTube programming, relying on a sample of nearly 70,300 videos. We examine which topics RT focuses on for different audiences and its relative success in getting viewers on different channels. We argue that RT seeks to target a different mix of news to different audiences, adapt its coverage to the broader international news cycle, promote a particular Kremlin-dictated message, and counter the West by attacking it across the same criteria by which Western countries criticize Russia. RT is a good example of “tailored persuasion” and it has a lot in common with other biased media efforts, such as those established by climate change deniers. We find that RT has distinctly tailored its message to suit Russian policy toward particular events, such as the 2016 U.S. election that we will discuss here as one of our main case studies. The failure of RT videos to set the agenda of the global discussion forces Russia to rely on more traditional means, particularly military power, to assert its influence on the global stage.
Panel 7. Journalists, Culture and Politics
Chair: Henry Hale, George Washington University
Similarities and Differences between Contemporary and Soviet Media
Nataliya Rostova, Independent Researcher
Over the 30 last years, many distinct changes certainly occurred in the post-Soviet space, not least of which was the shift from a planned economy to capitalism. Journalism was a field that also changed, but then changed back again. In the early years of the post-Soviet transition, questions could be asked and facts could be uncovered. Journalists were seen as messiahs, but then they became servants of the state. Whereas they once functioned as critics of the authorities, many became “officials” themselves. They wrote about corruption but many became corrupt, often being participants in pay-to-publish “jeansa.” How did journalism change and then change back in Russia over the past decades? What can we say about the core of Russia’s journalism system? Analyzed here are the changes that occurred in journalism in Russia, the influences the Kremlin began to have on journalists, the presidential decrees that shaped the media sphere, and the issue of censorship and self-censorship.
“Adekvatnost” in the Russian Media: Freedom of Speech Restricted from “Below”?
Elisabeth Schimpfossl, University College London
Adekvatnost is a specific notion of self-censorship that is widespread in present-day Russia. It involves sensing, accepting, and anticipating the (often unspoken) political line. Adekvatnost is usually perceived by Russian journalists as non-coerced and as a professional virtue, something they embrace and not something they feel forced to submit to. This type of self-censorship is ideal for the authorities, as it provides the right balance between entertainment, originality, and limits of what is politically acceptable to the regime. It helps avoid making media content dull and boring. In a country, where the stability of the regime heavily depends on what is shown on the television screen, being boring is the last mistake the authorities want to make.
The ability to credibly play by the rules without having any clear guidelines to follow and without limiting one’s professional creativity is crucial not only for journalists, but also for media managers. Some media managers have shown exceptional flexibility. They are highly capable of “correctly” navigating continually changing political environments. Social semi-formal or informal interaction are part and parcel of what it means for media managers to act appropriately in their roles, that is, of being adekvatno. Moreover, in contemporary Russia, the success of media managers depends not only on how loyal they have been to the Kremlin, but also on how decisive their role has been in manufacturing consensual attitudes toward the current regime. Notwithstanding this, less loyal ones can also preserve their position providing that they, like the loyal ones, abide by specific informal and unwritten rules of adekvatnost.
Elena Johansson, Södertörn University, Stockholm
Social media as a Professional Tool for Russian Journalists: Updated Traditions and New Challenges
The Russian media model combines elements of the West’s market economy with the considerable influence of the political elite. In regard to professional journalism, it is characterized by state control of media, restriction of journalistic autonomy, and censorship (including self-censorship). The Russian media system today is a hybrid composed of the main public sphere (state-owned mainstream media) and a parallel public sphere/counter-sphere (mainstream media relatively disloyal to the Kremlin and using social media).
Russian journalism has certain peculiarities that are based on deeply rooted traditions combined with the modern media system. It has developed a double professional culture; on the one hand, it serves the state interests, and on the other hand, journalism has been a mission of enlightenment and education in the tradition of the “intelligentsia.”
New technologies drastically affect media work. Since the mid of 2000s the introduction of social media challenged journalists’ role in society as well as professional practices and norms and created new conditions for journalists worldwide. As one of the basic components of the new media system, these new media services provided journalists helpful tools for professional work.
Russian journalists actively use new social media services, e.g. blogs. Since 1999, LiveJournal has represented one of the most popular and relatively non-controlled blogging platforms. It has been considered as a core medium of political and public discourse in Russia until recent years when its popularity declined.
This paper discusses the patterns of social media usage by Russian journalists taking into consideration the historical roots and socio-cultural and political background of the field. The findings show the extent that journalists’ blogging (“j-blogging”) assisted them in their work and used as a compensatory medium (or tool) for professional and personal self-expression in conditions of editorial restrictions.