Professor Vera Tolz from the University of Manchester appears on BBC Newsnight, 9th October.

Our very own Professor Vera Tolz appeared on Newsnight with Kirsty Wark in order to discuss the revelations made by The Insider Russia and Bellingcat about the true identities of the Skripal poisoning suspects, in a segment about open source investigative reporting. Professor Tolz appeared alongside Robert Trafford, a researcher at Forensic Architecture to talk about the methods used by open source journalists and the response of the Russian media to the recent revelations in the Skripal case. On the identification of the Skripal poisoners, Professor Tolz said that ‘the access to passport information was obtained by Russian journalists and it is very important to emphasise that all of the leg work in the identification of these two GRU agents has been done by very, very brave Russian journalists […] at great danger to themselves’.

You can watch the full interview, starting at 26 minutes and 8 seconds, on the BBC iplayer here and can read Prof. Tolz’s recent article about the investigation of the officers’ identities here.

 

How RT (Russia Today) Navigates ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ | Precious N Chatterje-Doody

This article was first published on E-IR on 3rd October, 2018

800px-RT_covering_protests_in_Moscow_on_1012

FeelSunny [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

What Is RT and Why Is It Relevant?

Founded in 2005 as Russia Today and rebranded as RT in 2009, Russia’s state-funded international broadcaster has recently become the subject of increased political and academic scrutiny amidst deteriorating relations between Russia and various states in North America and Western Europe. In the context of an apparent “information war” with this “rogue state”, numerous journalists, academics and policy institutes have argued that RT, and the “useful idiots” that appear on it work within “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” to bring “Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences”. Following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, the British broadcasting regulator Ofcom announced an investigation into RT’s reporting, to ascertain whether it fulfilled the ‘fit and proper’ requirements of its license. UK political parties discouraged their members from appearing on the network, and there were calls in parliament for a ban. Most recently, RT aired a fantastical interview with the two men named as suspects in the poisoning of the Skripals, which – as Rhys Crilley and I have argued elsewhere – completely backfired with audiences. UK politicians were similarly unimpressed, with Prime Minister Theresa May calling the interview “deeply offensive”.

Despite such alarm over RT’s operations and influence, the empirical evidence creates a more complex picture. RT’s viewing figures appear substantially lower than often claimed. In the UK at least, they make up a tiny proportion of broadcast audience share. Online, RT’s claim to be “the most watched news network on YouTube” is misleading, since the bulk of its views are from light interest ‘shorts’ rather than core programming. As Prof. Ellen Mickiewicz has argued, for RT to have a real ‘impact’, its viewers would have to change their opinions as a result of being exposed to its outputs. There is no evidence that this is the case. Even though RT’s cross-platform operations might seem intuitively likely to increase the resonance of its messages, there is again no evidence to support such a claim. On the contrary, findings due to be published in November 2018 by the Reframing Russia project suggest that audience members attracted by particular platform outputs or special projects are not inclined to migrate across to RT’s core news content.

The same report – part of a three-year investigation into RT by scholars at the University of Manchester and The Open University – demonstrates striking similarities between those who follow RT news online, and those who follow other news providers. Where audiences choose RT, they cite specific perceived merits such as digital innovation, or its inclusion of ‘non-mainstream’ stories and perspectives. Crucially, RT’s audiences tend to be aware of its backing from the Russian state, and approach its outputs critically. Yet, if the network’s outputs consisted solely of base propaganda, then it would struggle to maintain these audiences. So, to deal effectively with the challenges that RT represents in the global news environment, we need a better understanding of its appeal. In fact, RT’s operations shed light on a wider range of trends within the contemporary global media environment.

Populism and the Media: RT and the Wider Media Ecology

Since the 1990s, there has been a steady expansion in low-cost online publishing opportunities for news and current affairs commentary, accompanied in recent years by the rise of interactive web 2.0 technologies across social media platforms. Together, these developments have altered the process of news production and dissemination, with more online citizen-journalism, and increased openings to news and commentary within a ‘hybrid media system’. As citizen journalists and online ‘influencers’ have increasingly found ways to monetise their content, the previously-dominant ‘legacy media’ institutions have experienced decreasing circulation and advertising revenues.

The result has been a general shift towards media logics which prioritise specific news values and storytelling techniques, and blur the distinctions between news production and consumption. Boundaries between categories, genres and audiences similarly collapse. Respected broadsheets and international broadcasters alike have diversified their outputs towards more online-appropriate interactive and multimedia content. These formats can promote engagement from transnational online audiences. The content and form of news has also evolved to suit the specificities of online reading processes, including through recourse to online ‘listicles’ and other ‘clickbait’-type content. Within this environment, origin is not necessarily a reliable indicator of quality, and individuals are obliged to exercise personal judgement about the media that they consume.

Such evolutions in news values and format influence how people come to think about, and respond to, world affairs. Visual images in particular can rapidly transcend national boundaries, forge mental and emotional associations, and be used to make supposedly objective knowledge claims. So, often, audiences are inclined to treat as (and act upon) basic ‘facts’ which in reality are media interpretations that are intimately are bound up with audio-visual representations, and with audiences’ emotional responses to what is being viewed. Such responses are similarly influenced by the extent to which they feel an affective investment in the identities and discourses represented within those media.

It is in this context that transnational populist communication logics have come to the fore across the global media. Taken as the “distinct set of formal discursive qualities” that govern populist communication, these logics encompass the substantive assertions made in a given instance; the actors involved in producing them; the reasons for their involvement; and the ways in which the assertions are produced – all of which are influential in today’s increasingly networked global media ecology. To date, populism in the media has predominantly been seen as the reproduction of ‘populist’ politicians’ messages by media outlets – whether as a result of audience demand or as part of a mutually-reinforcing relationship. However, this contingent understanding of media populism is no longer appropriate within the fundamentally interactive contemporary global media environment and some more recent scholarly accounts have attempted to decouple media populism from populist movements.

Nowadays, a range of media actors (including legacy outlets, web 2.0 platforms and their users) are all involved in co-constructing key messages through transnational processes of discussion and interaction. This is partly because the rise of social networks and web 2.0 technologies has decreased the impact of journalistic gatekeeping and news production cycles; helped close the gap between political actors and their audiences; and promoted personalised leadership and ‘media-centred’ communication. With new patterns of circulation arising between social and other online media, a range of audiences and platforms (both directly and via their inherent circulation logics) become directly involved as co-producers of the emotional and affective appeals and normatively-driven identities that populate our media space. Within this environment, there is a recurrence of specific populist communication logics, which feed into the particularities of the contemporary media circulation processes. These logics include the implication of an opposing, dichotomous relationship between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’; the incorporation of stylistic informality/‘bad manners’; attempts to stimulate affective responses using crisis or immediacy; and the use of emotive signifiers to promote audience engagement and interaction (see also here).

‘Us’ and ‘them’: Positioning RT and Its Audiences

More so than many other international broadcasters, RT operates at ease within this environment. It is true that, as some observers have already pointed out, RT’s programmes tend to include overwhelmingly negative reporting on the ‘West’ and its institutions, with a particular focus on the USA. But given that these critiques are of its audiences’ home societies, how can a foreign-owned news network articulate them without intended audiences feeling alienated?

One answer lies in RT’s active adoption of populist communication logics within both its outputs and brand identity. This means that RT’s programming does not present as an outsider’s critique of Western societies. Rather, the network’s outputs set up communities of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in which the critiques it airs come from within segments of the societies in question: RT appears as a neutral witness to this conflict. Though the representations of opposing ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups is a consistent feature of the network’s output, their supposed members are subject to variation. The result is ideologically-ambiguous programming, which nevertheless reaffirms populist tropes.

People versus Elite

RT constantly elides mainstream media, politicians and ‘deep state’, and builds antagonism between ‘people’ and such ‘elites’ into the design of its shows. These are expressly intended to “[break] through the mainstream headlines” (BoomBust) and give “a new perspective, a different view” of current affairs (George Galloway’s Sputnik), to discuss “the stories that aren’t being covered by the UK mainstream media” (RT UK’s Going Underground), or more explicitly to uncover “government hypocrisy and corporate deception” (The World According to Jesse). Guests are “dissident voices” (On Contact) who “question the conventional wisdom of modern life” (Renegade Inc.) and provide “uncommon opinions” (SophieCo) about “the hard questions that others avoid” (Worlds Apart).

However, RT’s outputs are inconsistent about precisely who these corrupt elites are. For example, RT’s documentary Soft Occupation (2017) alleges that Germany has been under de factooccupation by the USA since World War Two, and that the US and its transnational delegates constitute a threat to the unity of the EU. In The Greek Depression: Hostage to Austerity (2016), however, the EU and its austerity programmes threaten the lives and democratic freedoms of ordinary Greek people. This opposition between ‘people’ and ‘elite’ can become overtly conspiratorial, such when the death of a US-critical journalist in Soft Occupation is reported as being “Officially… of a heart attack, but what caused it has yet to be specified” (24:41).

RT’s disproportionate airtime dedicated to social ills in and of the ‘West’ further reinforces the people-elite dichotomy. This is compounded by RT’s choice of experts. Various contributors come from the far-right or far-left of the political spectrum, are clearly situated on one side of a specific contemporary debate, or have direct links to Russia or RT itself.  Others are noted conspiracy theorists. Yet the network also extensively platforms oppositional politicians, former members of establishment institutions, and representatives of NGOs critical of particular state policies. The critiques they air are therefore not external, but from the internal margins – and they appear not as criticisms from a foreign power, but as personal appeals from an ‘us’ group of which the audience feels part – directed upwards at the holders of power.

Stylistic Informality/‘Bad Manners’

RT’s outputs incorporate stylistic informality where it is least to be expected. Its daily news bulletins and web news coverage frequently incorporate sarcasm and satire. Linguistic informalities are also often used – for instance through the insertion of puns into the headlines and information bars of even the most serious kinds of news item (see 12:20). Similar informalities are present throughout various of RT’s extended current affairs programmes. Participants in RT’s ‘flagship’ discussion programme, CrossTalk are encouraged to interject and talk over one another – generally, a carefully-curated pool of guests offers similar perspectives on the issues under debate, all contradicting the ‘mainstream’. Where contributors differ from this mould, they are talked over by the other commentators, or the host.

In shows in which stylistic informality is to be expected (satirical programming, for example) such techniques are used to tackle more weighty ideological matters. This includes by explicitly articulating a conflictual relationship between an ‘us’ group of citizens contrasted with a corrupt, corporatist elite ‘them’.

Affective stimuli (foregrounding crisis or immediacy)

RT promotes immediacy by integrating web 2.0 technologies throughout its outputs and standard news broadcasts extensively sample and/or report upon social media activity. At times, these are used as the source of headlines; at times as a proxy for the consensus of ‘the people’. RT also actively courts engagement from its online audiences. Shows routinely end with calls for the audience to get further involved in person or via RT’s social media channels, and the network has produced several innovative interactive online special projects.

Another way in which RT creates immediacy of coverage is through the use of personally-involved commentators. Narrative voice is frequently delegated to these close witnesses using vox populisegments in news and current affairs programming, mobile phone recordings from eyewitnesses, plus formal interviews and informal home-made video diaries in extended programming. Similar patterns of affective immediacy are present with the network’s professional presenters. Reporters and moderators often disclose their own opinions, whilst documentary presenters more often than not have a direct personal connection to the topic that they are reporting. Audio-visual techniques further reinforce the ideas of crisis and immediacy: anchors explicitly highlight the magnitude of particular news developments; and recordings taken on hand-held personal recording devices are used even by its professional presenters.

Emotive Messaging to Promote Audience Engagement or Interaction

RT cultivates emotive messaging by prioritising issues related to social justice, and reporting them primarily through the framework of personal narratives rather than rationalist argumentation. In this way, commentary on social issues is filtered through the struggles of particular individuals. Sometimes, such processes occur at one remove – as in the recent production of the high-profile ‘grassroots’ documentary, ‘Failed by the State: the Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell’ by Redfish media – which is funded by RT.

Often, audio-visual editing techniques are used for emotive purposes (e.g. overlaying informational news packages with graphic visuals and dramatic soundtracks). Emotion is further built into RT’s outputs through the careful curation of featured voices and the way that even historical discussions are framed not around chronological developments, but personal stories or responses to events. This is reinforced by RT’s multiplatform experimentalism, encouraging audiences to co-produce narratives.

Making Sense of RT’s Treatment of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

RT is often portrayed as a ‘fake news’ propaganda network. Yet, if the network’s outputs were restricted to blatant propaganda, it would struggle to maintain even the modest audiences it does – much less to resonate with their concerns.

Instead, the network skillfully incorporates populist communication logics within its outputs. Such logics are not the sole preserve of this state-funded international broadcaster; they reflect a range of commercial and technical trends in the wider global media ecology. Yet, in its stated remit to provide a counterbalance to hegemonic accounts of the news, RT’s institutional identity allows it to more effectively internalise transnational populist communication logics than networks whose identities are linked to public service and balance. Indeed, RT’s freedom from these constraints has enabled it to respond more rapidly to breaking news events. At the same time, RT situates its critiques of the ‘West’ as coming from ‘us’ groups within it – frequently through personal testimonies or expert commentary from within the boundaries of ‘legitimate’ discourse. RT’s own contribution to such criticism comes at one remove, as an apparent witness to moral conflict between an ‘us’ group neglected by a powerful ‘them’. The reliability of RT’s accounts becomes somewhat irrelevant, since they appear to reflect deeper truths that matter to its audiences. Any response to RT’s editorial line, then, can only be effective by engaging directly with the social divisions that fuel it.

 

If you liked this article in E-IR, you may be interested in Dominant Narratives in Russian Political and Media Discourse during the Ukraine Crisis | Stephen Hutchings and Joanna Szostek

Colonel Chepiga: who really identified the Skripal poisoner and why it matters | Vera Tolz

Where exactly does our news come from? And are those who unearth it getting fair credit? As media consumers, these are questions we should be asking on a regular basis.

Take the case of “Colonel Chepiga”. The BBC reported on September 27 that “Ruslan Boshirov”, one of the suspects accused by the UK government of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury is, apparently, a highly-decorated colonel of Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency named Anatoliy Chepiga. According to BBC News, the revelation was the result of the work of a British online citizen investigative journalistic site, Bellingcat – and the BBC interviewed its founder, Eliot Higgins.

Nothing was said in the BBC report, however, about the fact that the actual investigative work had been largely conducted by Bellingcat’s Russian collaborator – online citizen investigative journalism site, The Insider. For it was, in fact, The Insider’s founder, Roman Dobrokhotov, and another Russian, Moscow-based journalist, Sergei Kanev, who conducted hours of painstaking research of open online Russian-language sources to identify Boshirov-Chepiga.

In contrast to the BBC report, Bellingcat clearly acknowledged The Insider’s role in this investigation – and to be fair, on September 29, the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme broadcast an interview with Dobrokhotov, too. But the BBC’s original omission can tell us much about how many news outlets and journalists operate today.

Read more…

How badly did Russia’s interview with the Skripal poisoning suspects backfire? | Precious N. Chatterje-Doody and Rhys Crilley

Last week, RT aired an exclusive interview between its Editor-in-Chief, Margarita Simonyan, and the two men named as suspects in the Skripal poisoning case.

Reception of the interview across social media was overwhelmingly negative, with audiences roundly rejecting the two men’s account. More than this, many of those who viewed the interview found that it caused them to rethink their opinions about Russian government involvement in the poisoning. Still others found that the interview reflected poorly on RT itself.

Reframing Russia’s Precious Chatterje-Doody and Rhys Crilley analyse RT’s coverage of the Skripal affair, and share their preliminary analysis of audience reactions to it, over on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

‘Party like a Russian!’ RT and Russian soft power at the 2018 World Cup | Rhys Crilley

 

With the FIFA World Cup well underway, all eyes are on Russia as it hosts the largest international sporting event of the year. The decision to host the tournament in Russia was made back in 2010, and since then FIFA has been mired in controversy due to bribery and corruption at the heart of the organisation. Three years after various FIFA officials were indicted and charged, concerns about the 2018 World Cup shifted away from worries of organisational corruption and were instead focused on fears of hooliganism, as well as racist and homophobic discrimination that fans might face in Russia. ‘England fans in danger of ‘extreme violence’ from Russian hooligans at World Cup’ and ‘Russia sees spike in racist and homophobic chants before World Cup’ ran the headlines in the British press. So far, these fears have not been realised. Indeed, England fans who have travelled to Russia have been keen to comment on how welcoming their Russian hosts have been.

World cup on RT

Russian hospitality has become one of the main focuses of RT’s reporting on the World Cup. Whilst RT lacks the rights to show the games, it makes up for this by focusing on the fans and Russian culture. RT has employed Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho as a pundit, and audiences are invited to test themselves against his match predictions. Elsewhere on the channel, viewers can watch The Stan Collymore Show or The Peter Schmeichel Show, where the former Premier League stars interview players, explore Russian cities, and sample Russian culture. RT’s social media strategy is aimed at giving a #FansEyeView of the tournament based on user generated content. This involves a live YouTube feed made up of fan videos, alongside a mosaic of photographs taken from individual Instagram pages. Ultimately, this visual social media innovation – labelled the #footwall – draws upon user generated content to provide a seemingly more authentic, real-time insight into the everyday experiences of football fans than what might be found in other media coverage. Subsequently, in RT’s reporting of the World Cup, stories have focused on how US fans are supporting Russia and ‘building bridges’ with the host nation, how England fans have paid respects to Russian sacrifice in WWII and have ‘won friends’, alongside articles that depict fans from all nations celebrating together.

RT’s coverage of the World Cup therefore seems to be a lot less anti-western than you might expect. Whilst there is still the odd article or two that focuses on, and emphasises the popularity of Putin, RT has been critical of Russian MPs who have sought to introduce authoritarian laws that would introduce fines for anyone critical of the national football team. All of this suggests that a more detailed and nuanced account of RT’s coverage of global news is warranted, particularly in the context of the World Cup.

Cambridge professor David Runciman has recently suggested that ‘international football barely features’ in the politics of now, because the world is turning ‘away from soft power towards the colder comforts of hard power’. Contrary to this view, football does matter, and is intertwined with soft power at the World Cup. Research suggests that sport and sporting mega events have been a key aspect of the Russian state’s soft power strategy. Notably this was seen at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics during geopolitical crises in Crimea, and sport has consistently been used by the Kremlin to promote nationalism and national identity.

By analysing RT’s representation of Russia, Russian culture, identity, and nationhood during their coverage of the World Cup, our ongoing research at the Open University aims to provide further insight into the contemporary contours of Russian soft power. More importantly, through engaging with audiences of RT’s World Cup coverage, we aim to highlight how Russian soft power is interpreted and made sense of by those who view and engage with it.

In the run up to the World Cup, RT was highly critical of western concerns about the event being hosted in Russia. Despite this, so far it seems that with their coverage of the tournament RT is moving away from the vehement anti-western rhetoric that has characterised  their past. Instead, RT is focusing on cooperation and the shared experiences of the Russian public and their global counterparts. RT is doing so by drawing attention to Russian hospitality, Russian culture, and by highlighting positive fan experiences. Over the course of the next few weeks our research will provide a detailed analysis of RT’s World Cup coverage on social media, alongside audience responses to it. For now, the excitement of the World Cup continues on, and off, the pitch.

Rising powers special – The BRICs uncovered | Precious Chatterje-Doody

In a recent audio-documentary series, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur investigated in detail the global trends influencing the ongoing development of each of the BRICs, and their potential future directions.

With expert commentary from a number regional experts, the final, feature-length, episode of the series, takes a broad overview of developments in the BRICs.

Reframing Russia‘s Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody discusses Russian economic and political trends following the imposition of sanctions.

Countering the doping and hooliganism scandals: why Russia needs a good World Cup | Vitaly Kazakov

As the World Cup kicks off, all eyes are on Russia. Of course sporting mega events offer a great opportunity for political leaders to re-brand their countries in the eyes of international publics, and in recent years, leading Russian politicians pulled out all the stops to secure events such as the Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup for Russia.

But the negative impact of recent doping scandals, the well-publicised activities of Russian hooligans and Russian government’s responses to them have created reputational damage that is hard to erase.

As Vitaly Kazakov explains for The Conversation, government PR campaigns will struggle to turn these perceptions around. It will be up to the Russian people to showcase an image of Russia which is different from that which is painted in the West. Read more…


vitalykazakovVitaly Kazakov is a PhD candidate at The University of Manchester. His research examines large-scale sporting events in Russia.

Mediated militarism: Affective investments in RT’s coverage of the conflict in Syria | Rhys Crilley and Precious Chatterje-Doody

 

Following our team’s busy past month of conference presentations, we’re pleased to be able to share with you a video of one of the papers, ‘Mediating militarism: affective investments in RT’s YouTube coverage of conflict in Syria’. Co-authored by Dr Rhys Crilley and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, this was presented as a work in progress at Comparative Media in Today’s World, Saint Petersburg State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Video courtesy of Il’ia Bykov, Saint Petersburg State University.

Latest conference news

Over the last few weeks our team have been busy presenting at a number of conferences. Most recently, Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody travelled to St. Petersburg to present at The Comparative Media in Today’s World conference, held at Saint Petersburg State University. The paper, co-authored by Dr Rhys Crilley, was entitled ‘Mediating militarism: affective investments in RT’s YouTube coverage of conflict in Syria’.

CIBAR (Conference of International Broadcasters’ Audience research Service) was held in Bonn, Germany 15-18 April and our team at The Open University presented individual papers: ‘Measuring networks of influence on Twitter. Why, how and what then?’
(Dr Alistair Willis); ‘RT and the shifting sands of international broadcasting in the Middle East’ (Professor Marie Gillespie and Dr Deena Dejani) and ‘What can we learn from RT’s social media re-enactment of the Russian revolution?’ (Dr Rhys Crilley).

The team at Manchester (Professor Stephen Hutchings, Professor Vera Tolz, Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody) were joined by PhD student Vitaly Kazakov at The British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) when it held its annual conference in Cambridge 13-15 April. They presented a panel entitled ‘Russia and the “Information War” – The Role of RT’ which included the following papers: ‘RT and the calibration of Russia’s ‘war on truth’’ (Professor Hutchings); ‘Cultural memory and political legitimacy in a neo-authoritarian regime: Russian representations of the 1917 revolutions at home and abroad’ (Professor Tolz and Dr Chatterje-Doody); and ‘From Russophone to Russophobe: RT, Eurovision 2017 and the Russian-language social mediasphere’ (Vitaly Kazakov). As part of another panel at the same conference, Dr Chatterje-Doody presented a paper entitled ‘From domestic elites to transnational publics: RT’s re-framing of Russian identity for international audiences’.

Finally, the 28th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) took place on 27-28 March at LSE. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘The New Nationalism: populism, authoritarianism and anti-globalisation’ and Professor Vera Tolz appeared on a book panel discussing The New Russian Nationalism Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism 2000–2015 Edited by Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud. Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody presented her paper ‘Curating Identities and Dissent in a Globalized Media Ecology: Cross Front Populism on RT’.

 

 

Our latest articles: Russia’s media manipulation isn’t neo-Soviet propaganda and a ban on RT isn’t the answer

Latest articles

Photo by GiantsFanatic, Creative Commons

In this batch of recent articles, members of the Reframing Russia team have taken a wide-ranging look at what’s happening in the global media following the poisoning of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, and why UK responses to date leave something to be desired: Continue reading