WATCH ONLINE | SSEESing Salisbury |14th November 2018

This Wednesday, 14th November, Reframing Russia‘s Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody will be presenting some of the findings from our research on RT’s coverage of the Skripal case at SSEESing Salisbury, an  event organised by the Post-Soviet Press Group at UCL SSEES.

From Wednesday 14th November, you will be able to watch this panel discussion here:

 

Event description:

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with Novichok in Salisbury on 4 March 2018. A police officer investigating the incident also fell ill after coming into contact with the nerve agent. Subsequently, two further people – Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess – were poisoned, the latter fatally. Agents of the Russian military’s foreign intelligence agency – commonly referred to as the GRU – are the prime suspects in the British authorities’ investigation. What is the broader context, and what are the broader implications, of these poisonings? How has the Russian political leadership responded? How has media coverage varied? Join us on 14 November from 19:00 in the Darwin Lecture Theatre for a panel event to discuss these issues.

Panel:

Ellen Barry (The New York Times)

Dr Peter Duncan (UCL SSEES)

Dr Precious N. Chatterje-Doody (University of Manchester)

Dr Aglaya Snetkov (UCL SSEES)

Chaired by: Dr Ben Noble (UCL SSEES)

 

First year board meeting |26 October, 2018

On Friday, 26th October, 2018, members of the Reframing Russia team presented their preliminary research findings to a small audience of advisory board members. Attendees included academics and postgraduate researchers from various disciplines and countries; journalists and members of international broadcasting bodies; and representatives of policy-oriented think tanks.

The event provided an invaluable opportunity for extended debate and discussion about our research to date, and the ways in which it can be developed over the future course of the project: including discussions of methods, case studies, and impact opportunities.

The whole of the Reframing Russia team would like to thank our advisory board members and guests for their attendance, attention and input. We continue to welcome all of your comments on our ongoing work.

“It’s not me, it’s you.” – Russia’s Perspective on ‘Information War’ | Connell Beggs

Since two Russian nationals were publically accused of committing the Novichok poisoning attack of March 2018 on Sergei and Yuliya Skripal in Salisbury (UK), the case has repeatedly made headlines across the world. The battle of narratives between Russia and the UK has only intensified following the alleged exposure of the suspects’ real identities – military intelligence officers Colonel Anatolii Chepiga and Aleksandr Mishkin. As an example of how hostilities between Russia and the West are played out through the media, the Skripal case has become a subplot in a broader storyline of ‘information war’ that has been simmering away since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

What is ‘Information War’?

Essentially, ‘information war/warfare’ (IW) is regarded as the use of information to achieve strategic aims. IW can be: 1) structural – concerned with operational infrastructure and communication capabilities (as with cyber warfare); and/or 2) psychological – concerned with targeting and affecting (international) public opinion through information.

The term ‘information war/warfare’ has become a central topic of public discussion in both Russia and the West post-Crimea. The charge of state-level engagement in IW has since been repeatedly brought against Russia by Western commentators. Russian elites, however, see the situation differently – instead arguing that Russia is the victim of IW and the West is its perpetrator.

To understand Russia’s actions and adequately assess the threat posed by Russian information activities, an essential knowledge of Russian elites’ perceptions of IW is vital. Here are some of the main characteristics and patterns that are present surrounding their discussions of IW.

US Origins, Russian Academic Engagement

The term ‘information war/warfare’ originated in the United States during the Cold War, but only began to appear in Russia in the late 1990s. Despite this, Russian academics were engaging with the concept long before their Western counterparts. In particular, academics Georgii Pocheptsov and Igor Panarin explored the concept throughout the 2000s, mainly scrutinising only the West’s information activity and firmly judging it to be IW. Pocheptsov mostly focused on the forms and mechanics of information activity, not originally grounding IW in politics but rather linking it to communication theory, public relations and marketing. Panarin later explored the geopolitical aspects of IW, vigorously driving forward this area of IW study. Panarin, who has strong links to Russia’s government and security services, has been especially critical of the West in his work.

The content of Russian scholarly literature on IW also became generally more anti-Western post-Crimea, suggesting the politicisation of academic output. Fundamentally, whilst Western academics treat IW as a Russian phenomenon, Russian academics have long considered it to be a tool of the West.

From Textbooks to Television

Since the annexation of Crimea, IW has often featured as the main topic of political talk shows, has regularly been brought up on current affairs programmes and has frequently appeared in news programming on Russia’s two main television channels, Pervyi Kanal and Rossiya 1. The media framing of IW closely aligns with the position and rhetoric of the country’s political figures, whose commentaries are prominently reported.

IW is presented on Russian television only as a one-way process – the US/UK-led West conducting an unprecedented and unjustified IW campaign against Russia. Therefore, it follows that these media discussions have been stridently anti-Western in nature – politically, socially and culturally. As the majority of Russians rely mostly on television for their news consumption, the increased frequency of the term across the mainstream media has helped to popularise this interpretation of IW across the country.

(Information) War of Words

 IW also spread to Russian politics post-Crimea. Russian politicians have accepted, adopted and/or commented on the concept far more than their Western counterparts. A number of high-level political actors – including Vladimir Putin – argue that ‘an information war is indeed currently being conducted against Russia in the media,’ but “we [i.e., Russia] are not interested in [information] wars” (Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov). Western accusations are firmly rejected by outright denying any state-level engagement in IW.

A number of non-ministerial members of the political administration have adopted more hard-line rhetoric, in contrast to the relatively diplomatic approach of senior ministerial figures. For example, Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Maria Zakharova posted on social media this year that two former members of the Obama administration, John Kerry and Jen Psaki, were ‘soldiers of the information war.’

As with the Russian media, politicians point the finger of blame firmly at the West. Denials and dismissals are often followed by assertions that the Russian government is legitimately compelled to respond defensively and proportionately in kind to incoming information operations. Clearly, these assertions logically contradict their insistence of non-engagement in IW.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Through the introduction of government policies, various departments within the Russian security forces have recently been expanded and their duties and powers broadened in order to specifically address and engage in information operations. However, state representatives have either been very vague in explaining what such information operations entail, or have completely avoided clarifying. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu described their activity as a continuation of ‘counterpropaganda’, for which he advised that “[Russian] [p]ropaganda must be smart, competent and effective,” as a “harsh and uncompromising information war is being carried out against Russia.”

The country’s armed forces and security services have been receiving significant investments of resources to ‘fight back against […] Western propaganda’ by “engag[ing] in information warfare.” By pursuing a policy of ‘fighting fire with fire’, as they perceive it, political elites admit to Russian engagement in IW, conducted in a way that does not necessarily foreground the truth or facts.

The military has adopted rhetoric that echoes the mood music of the political administration – Russia as the victim, under sustained attack from Western information activities. Interestingly, however, most high-ranking serving military personnel have avoided using the specific term ‘information war’. This is likely to reserve use of the word ‘war’ for conventional cases of armed conflict, so as not to devalue and dilute the term through liberal and inappropriate use. NATO, on the other hand, has discussed IW extensively and repeatedly insisted that the Russian state has adopted a large-scale IW programme.

 

Despite originating in the USA, the term ‘information war/warfare’ was enthusiastically picked up by Russian academics after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who applied the concept to their own national case. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to usage of the term increasing and spreading considerably, with politicians and the media being the main drivers behind its popularisation. Fundamentally, Russian elites frame the West as the aggressor-perpetrator of IW and Russia as the victim. This perception has become widespread in Russia and has only intensified over the course of the continuing crisis in Ukraine. As a result, polarisation and tension has increased significantly between Russia and the West. In this context, the apparent unmasking of the Russian suspects in the Skripal case is read not just as an example of independent investigative journalism, but a ‘crude provocation’ in the latest chapter of the West’s ‘information war’ against Russia.

 

Connell BeggsConnell Beggs is a PhD candidate in Russian Studies at the University of Manchester. His research explores the influence and interests of Russian cultural organisations in post-Soviet space.

Post-truth politics and the rise of populism, University of Warwick

The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal earlier this year has provided an important episode in the contemporary ‘information war’. Not only has the affair had profound diplomatic implications, but it has also brought into stark relief the processes of media reporting and framing by which such events are represented to publics – and the responses of those publics to such coverage.

For this reason, the Reframing Russia team has been undertaking detailed comparative analysis of media reporting of the Skripal affair by Russian and British broadcasters for their domestic and international audiences. Followers of our project may already be familiar with some of this work, since we have recently published short articles on audience reactions to the interview with the Skripal suspects and a deconstruction of journalistic ethics surrounding the revelation about the true identity of accused poisoner ‘Ruslan Boshirov’.

This week, Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody presented work-in-progress on the Skripal case at the 2018 Warwick Graduate Conference in Security Studies. The event, organised by  Dr Georg Loefflmann at the University of Warwick, was dedicated to critical exploration of the interconnections and implications of political, economic and cultural insecurity, and the relationship between knowledge, identity and (in)security in a global context. Dr Chatterje-Doody’s paper, entitled Seeing (in)security through spy stories: Conspiracy mirrors in the #Skripalcase presented preliminary findings about the ways in which conspiratorial narratives surrounding the case and its aftermath were articulated, repurposed or insinuated by omission in the media coverage.

 

 

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.