“Conflict, Language and Diplomacy in a Hyper-networked World” | University of Toronto Visit

20191115_102729_HDROur Manchester team has completed a week-long visit to the University of Toronto (UofT) on November 15. It was an outcome of the Joint Research Initiative “Conflict, Language and Diplomacy in a Hyper-networked World” that brought together researchers and graduate students from Toronto, Canada and Manchester, UK. The visit consisted of several activities.

Firstly, Professor Stephen Hutchings presented our research at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His lecture was titled “Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: The Spies Who Came Back From the Snow”. A discussion with CERES research staff and graduate students followed the talk.

20191114_172856_HDRAdditionally, several PhD candidates from Manchester, affiliated with our project, participated in a workshop at UofT’s Faculty of Information (iSchool). The “Strategic Political Communication and Translocal Media Flows” workshop featured presentations by graduate and post-doctoral students and staff. Lucy Birge, Mollie Arbuthnot and Vitaly Kazakov shared insights from their PhD research. Event attendees also heard from students and staff working on the UofT project “Making Responsible Reporting Practices Visible: Humanitarian Crisis, Global Media, and the War in Syria”.

Finally, Lucy Birge also participated in graduate courses at CERES and iSchool during her stay in Toronto. The visit was hosted by Dr. Kenzie Burchell, an Assistant Professor of Journalism at UofT. It was a follow-up event after the UofT team visited The University of Manchester in June.

“What RT is doing is not unique” – Interview with Prof. Vera Tolz (University of Manchester) on fake news, propaganda and commemoration campaign of Russia Today

During her visit to Helsinki for this year’s Aleksanteri Institute conference on the theme of “Technology, Culture, and Society in the Eurasian Space”, Professor Vera Tolz gave an interview to Teemu Oivo of the Russian Media Lab Network, which is a multidisciplinary research network on media and communications in Russia and beyond. In it she discusses the project, RT’s 1917 social media campaign #1917Live, and the shift in narrative by UK press on RT and Russia more generally. You can read the interview in full here.

 

Uses of history in Putin’s Russia: Commemorating the revolution, legitimising the current regime | Precious Chatterje-Doody and Vera Tolz

The Leave.eu campaign has now apologised for its advert evoking victory in World War Two as a justification for Brexit. But as the UK moves towards a December General Election, this is unlikely to be the last we see of historical references being used to further particular political aims. Often – as in this case – history is used to justify a dramatic break from what has gone before. But in a growing number of neo-authoritarian regimes worldwide, we see the opposite process: political actors are attempting to manufacture historical controversy in order to bolster their own positions.

Our latest research, published here, shows that this is exactly what happened recently in Russia, when the centenary of the 1917 revolutions coincided with the start of a Presidential election campaign. Those revolutions helped destroy the Tsarist Empire, establish the first Communist state, and create the defining geopolitical dividing lines of the twentieth Century.

But the revolutions’ legacies remain contested: Russia’s still-popular Communist Party and the military are nostalgic about Soviet times, whilst the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian émigré communities have negative views of the Communist project.

In today’s integrated global media environment, the interactions between different cultural actors shape how particular historical events are commemorated. Even neo-authoritarian regimes cannot control this process, so they have to come up with some way to deal with it. Scholars predicted that the Putin regime would hedge its bets, by promoting ‘reconciliation and accord’ between the pro- and anti-Communist lobbies.

What emerged, though, was a manufactured conflict of historical interpretations. As we show through our latest research, this was not designed to make sense of history for the public. It was to bolster the ruling regime.

From ‘reconciliation and accord’ to electioneering at home

Both politicians and state-aligned media were the ‘official’ voices of the commemoration in Russia. This is because Russian state-aligned broadcasters often broadcast the messages considered too controversial for politicians to say directly. In this case, Putin’s December 2016 Decree named the domestic broadcasters, Channel 1 and Rossiya-1 – and Russia’s international broadcaster, RT – on the Organisation Committee for the Revolutions’ Commemoration.

In the early part of 2017, politicians and media discussed the revolutions within ‘reconciliation and accord’ frame, and were deliberately ambiguous. Putin bluntly blamed Lenin’s incompetent state-building for the USSR’s ultimate collapse, but his Culture Minister, Medinsky, balanced his own criticisms with praise for the Bolsheviks’ state-building efforts.

Channel 1 interpreted the revolution variously as a global phenomenon that ‘determined world developments in the twentieth century,’ or a tragedy, ‘which resulted in numerous victims and threw our country back by many decades‘. Rossiya-1 aired harsh condemnation of the revolution from the well-known dissident writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, alongside a presenter’s rather contradictory conclusion that Lenin was concerned with ‘building, rather than destroying’ and ‘made people believe in the reality of a just world’.

By the October-November anniversary, though, this ambiguity was gone. Russia’s state-aligned broadcasters turned completely negative, and for the first time ever in state-endorsed accounts, the revolution and its enduring legacies were thoroughly tarnished.

Hollywood-style serials, ostensibly based on factual information, graphically portrayed Bolshevik treason, cruelty and moral depravity. In Channel 1’s Trotsky, Lenin was a murderer no better than Stalin, responsible (with Trotsky) for the first wave of post-revolutionary terror. One central character dismissed the revolution’s legacy as a future built by ‘bandits and criminals’ (ep. 8). Rossiya-1’s Demon of the Revolution gave a similarly negative portrayal of Lenin and his entourage as treasonous, German-funded mercenaries.

Historical documentaries, The Great Russian Revolution (Rossiya-1) and The True History of the Russian Revolution (Channel 1) foregrounded similar themes, patched together out of factual and fictional accounts. They portrayed the masses as unconscious revolutionaries, manipulated into subverting Tsar Nicholas II’s benign rule by cynical traitors – both Bolsheviks and liberal oppositionists. The chaos of Bolshevik take-over was explicitly linked with the traumatic state collapse of 1991, and Putin’s saving of Russia from another collapse in 1999.

Traditionally in Russia, discussions of the pain and disorder of the revolutionary process have been offset with an acknowledgement of Soviet achievements and national resilience. This has been a cornerstone of Russia’s post-Soviet identity. So why the sudden change?

It is no coincidence that the Communists and their legacies were so unambiguously trashed right as a Presidential election campaign was kicking off. This saw Putin facing off against a dynamic new contender from his closest rival party – the Communists. Although the election result was a foregone conclusion, the size of Putin’s majority still matters. So, whilst the media vilification of the Bolsheviks was not intended to court national consensus, it made for a very dramatic pre-election statement.

Social justice and progressiveness abroad

Media coverage of the revolutions’ centenary for international audiences was similarly instrumentalized, but the overall narrative was totally different. Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, built up a romantic picture of the revolutions and their globally-progressive legacies. Its interviews, discussion shows and documentaries alike all drew together personal impressions to emphasise the positive social legacies of the revolution globally.

The most significant element of RT’s centenary coverage was the 1917LIVE historical re-enactment on Twitter. The most extensive re-enactment of its type to date, it involved dozens of accounts live tweeting the revolutions in the first person, a hundred years after the fact. Archival resources, historical quotes and newly-created resources were compiled in an act of online docu-fiction which actively encouraged social media users’ participation. It drew in celebrity guest-tweeters (e.g. Brasilian author Paulo Coelho as Mata Hari), and won a plethora of social media marketing and educational awards.

Followers of the project felt that it provided an entertaining educational opportunity to re-live history. The interactivity of the project gave it an ambiguous overall narrative, but #1917LIVE still ended up engaging with messages that were also central in the domestic coverage, including role of the ‘West’ in stoking the revolution.

From nation’s history to regime’s future

Historical commemoration is often used to come to terms with a society’s past, and inform its future direction. Dramatic changes in interpretation of the past usually only happens with political leadership changes: new contenders try and discredit the legacies of the incumbent, whilst spelling out a new direction for the future.

But in neo-authoritarian regimes like Russia, true leadership challenges are few and far between. Here, politically-allied actors offered strategically conflicting interpretations of the past. They not only cast aside their own previous stories about the revolution, but they also offered totally different stories for domestic and international audiences – despite their collaboration within the official commemorative regime.

These commemorations were not about making sense of the past. They helped the incumbent regime to legitimise its position in the face of rather different domestic and international challenges. So, whilst today’s global media environment poses challenges to neo-authoritarian states such as Russia, media commemoration provides one means by which they can attempt to confront these challenges.

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Precious Chatterje-Doody, a former Research Associate on our project, is now a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at The Open University.

 

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Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

 

 

Is RT an Attack on Democracy? | Aleksanteri 2019 Conference

IMG_20191024_110658On October 24, 2019, the Reframing Russia team took part in the 19th annual Aleksanteri Conference in Helsinki, Finland. The theme of the conference was “Technology, Culture, And Society In The Eurasian Space”.

Professor Vera Tolz, Professor Stephen Hutchings and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody participated in the panel entitled “Russian Information Influence and Democracy in Europe” and delivered a paper “Is RT an Attack on Democracy?” The panel also included papers “RT, Sputnik and Finnish Online Intermediaries​​​” by Teemu Oivo and “Russian Information Influence and the Securitisation of Social Media in EU Policymaking” by Dr Mariëlle Wijermars.

Read more about the panel and the conference here.

Out now: The European Journal of Cultural Studies special issue ‘The Cultural Politics of Commemoration: Media and Remembrance of the Russian Revolutions’

The European Journal of Cultural Studies (EJCS) has published a special issue entitled ‘The Cultural Politics of Commemoration: Media and Remembrance of the Russian Revolutions’, which the ‘Reframing Russia’ project team edited and contributed to. You can view the full list of articles on our Academic Publications page.

Maverick minds of the anti-establishment? The personalities behind Sputnik radio | Lucy Birge

Russia’s international broadcasters RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik international have been widely criticised for granting airtime to members of left- and right-wing fringes. Research has identified both far-left and far-right commentary in RT’s news and its presenters and regular contributors similarly range from Slavoj Žižek to Nigel Farage. But thus far there has been little research into RT’s younger sibling, Sputnik.

Sputnik is principally a digital radio broadcaster and multi-media web platform. It was founded in November 2014 following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Sputnik’s two English languages hubs are based in Washington DC (producing five shows) and Edinburgh (producing two). Sputnik’s shows are fairly typical of the “talk radio” genre – discussion of news and current affairs. However, my doctoral research into Sputnik’s English language channels shows how the broadcaster’s content is shaped by a star line-up featuring four key categories of anti-establishment characters:

1. The “lefty”

With only few exceptions Sputnik English-language journalists come from left-wing and anti-racist activist backgrounds.

On the US side, Garland Nixon, co-host of Fault Lines, is a National Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who previously sued the Department of Natural Resources for race discrimination and harassment. Dr Wilmer Leon, presenter of The Critical Hour, is a public intellectual and columnist interested in racial inequality in the United States. Sean Blackmon, co-host of By Any Means Necessary (a phrase famously uttered by 1960’s civil activist Malcom X), is the organiser of Stop Police Terror Project DC, born out of Black Lives Matter.

Brian Becker picture in 2012 . Creative Commons licence: Elvert Barnes

Several more presenters are prominent members of the anti-war and civil rights organisation Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition (ANSWER). Eugene Puryear, Blackmon’s co-host on By Any Means Necessary, is one of ANSWER’s national organisers whilst Brian Becker, host of Loud and Clear, is its national director. Puryear and Becker also have close links to a Marxist/Leninist political party, The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), with Becker being a founding member, and Puryear having been the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2016.

However, radical left-wing politics is exceptionally marginal in the United States. It is hard to see how this kind of Sputnik content could garner large swathes of the American population.

In the UK, however, this political perspective is slightly more mainstream. This is reflected in the choice of presenters.

George Galloway, former MP turned anti-establishment commentator, is Sputnik’s newest left-wing presenter. Galloway is a prolific anti-war spokesman, founder of charity Viva Palestine, supporter of Corbyn and a proponent of Brexit. He is also one of the longest serving figures on RT, having presented Sputnik: Orbiting the World, since 2013. His Mother of All Talk Shows appeared on Sputnik in June 2019, probably intended to build on his popularity on RT.

But where does Russia come in, for Sputnik’s left-wing pundits and anti-racist activists?

Sputnik’s commentators see Russia as a counterweight to American hegemony. Sometimes, this translates to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, as in a Loud and Clear episode marking the Russian Revolution’s centenary. Here Becker and his guest exhibited particular nostalgic reverence for the Soviet Union. Becker’s guest that time was his colleague from Sputnik, ANSWER and the PSL – Eugene Puryear.

2.   The “Whistle-blower”

John Kiriakou at his 2015 release party. Creative commons: Slowking

The Sputnik journalist with arguably the highest international profile is John Kiriakou. The co-host (with Becker) on Loud and Clear, Kiriakou rose to fame as a whistle-blower. He was the first CIA agent to be convicted, and sentenced, for passing on classified information to a reporter, after a 2007 televised ABC interview in which Kiriakou disclosed the CIA’s use of waterboarding, a form of torture, on terrorist captives.

Since his release from federal prison in 2015, Kiriakou has become a prolific anti-establishment voice, orator and author (having written three books). Kiriakou has campaigned for Julian Assange’s release, using his Sputnik show as a platform. He has also discussed the impossibility of Assange receiving a fair trial on mainstream media outlets.

Sputnik’s defence of and support for Assange (who regularly appeared on RT) and Chelsea Manning, brings to mind the case of illustrious whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia. By supporting and employing whistle-blowers including Kiriakou, Sputnik can discuss in detail the failings of the US and its corrupt institutions from an insider’s perspective. The network can also present itself – and by implication Russia – as the defender of free speech, in contrast to the USA.

3. The network friend

Sputnik shows have many repeat guests including other presenters from Sputnik and RT. As well as Galloway’s expansion from RT to Sputnik, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert have built on their long-running RT economics show, Keiser Report, with a similar concept for Sputnik, called Double Down.

But the recurrence of ‘external’ guests in Sputnik is no less remarkable. In particular, John Kavanaugh, the New York based editor of online left-wing “social analysis” platform Polemicist.net appears so frequently on Sputnik’s US based shows, Loud and Clear, The Critical Hour and By Any Means Necessary, that he could almost be described as one of Sputnik’s principal voices. Indeed, whilst Kavanaugh’s Polemicist affiliation appears to indicate a journalistic profile independent of Sputnik, his meagre Twitter following of 654 belies this.

Alexander Mercouris is another maverick media personality with multiple guest appearances on Sputnik’s shows. Mercouris, based in London, is the editor-in-chief of alternative multimedia news platform the Duran. The Duran describes itself as: “a conservative news-media platform that advances a realpolitik position” and Peter Lavelle – host of RT’s Cross Talk – is one of its co-founders. Unsurprisingly, Mercouris is a frequent guest on his show, too. While the fringe media platform has a larger following than that of Kavanaugh’s, its 89.7 K followers on YouTube is still negligible for a global internet platform.

Sputnik so frequently hosts fringe media figures promoting their own material that it acts as a hub in a network of various non-mainstream media publications. The profiles of its few right-wing presenters – and their approach to contemporary journalism – gives further indication of how this works.

4.     The right-wing populist

The two stark exceptions to Sputnik’s left-wing activist presenter model are the right-wing populist personalities Lee Stranahan (US) and Jon Gaunt (UK). Reactionary views notwithstanding, Stranhan and Gaunt are still staunchly “anti-establishment”.

A former investigative reporter for HuffPost and the far-right American Breitbart News Network and a self-proclaimed “populist Republican”, Stranhan has co-hosted the Sputnik US show, Fault Lines, since April 2017. Alongside his Sputnik show, Stranahan sells online courses in citizen journalism, as he claims that the online dissemination of news by everyday citizens is the only antidote to the biased mainstream media. Stranahan promotes a similar line on his website, Populist.TV. With a tagline “making you smarter”, Stranahan uses the website to promote his own journalistic material, including that of his Sputnik show Fault Lines.

Across the Atlantic, Gaunt displays an analogously right-wing populist stance on politics and journalism. He is a supporter of Brexit and Farage’s Brexit party. As with Stranahan, Gaunt has previous experience in journalism. He has presented on BBC London and several BBC regional outposts as well as Talksport , and is also a former columnist for British tabloid paper The Sun.

Gaunt has presented Shooting From the Lip since its launch in July 2018 when the UK’s divisions were laid bare. The show’s name refers to speaking confidently on a subject without possessing expertise or prior knowledge. Together with its tagline, “real opinions for real people”, this clearly establishes the show as a populist platform. Amongst the show’s most controversial guests, is British far right activist and founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.

Stranahan and Gaunt’s appointments demonstrate that Sputnik’s producers are responding to new waves of right-wing populism unleashed by Trump and Brexit respectively. It is notable that Gaunt’s hit the air a few weeks before the left-leaning Hard Facts was axed from the UK service. Crucially though, these personalities are not only railing against the elite, but also, against the practices and dominance of Western mainstream journalism that Sputnik seeks to challenge.

Sputnik: mavericks, markets and memberships

Sputnik actively promotes anti-establishment voices from both ends of the political spectrum. Often these come from activist-type backgrounds whose concern with racial and financial injustices resonates with particular audiences. Sometimes, they have professional experience in more conventional outlets, which makes their criticism of Western mainstream media more credible. Sputnik can then discuss the biases and malpractices of Western mainstream media at first hand. In turn, Sputnik projects Russia as an impartial pioneer of the new digital journalism.

Sputnik is clearly attuned to market considerations: it has commissioned new shows from successful RT presenters; and has included more right-leaning populist content in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, as my research has revealed, Sputnik’s commentators are predominantly left-wing. But how do we account for Sputnik’s left-wing orientation in the USA – a country where such views are extremely marginal?

To me it seems there is a twofold answer. On the one hand, it seems plausible that Sputnik has a harder time attracting right-wing pundits who, in light of Russiagate, may be disinclined to associate with Russian government funded media outlets like Sputnik. On the other hand, Sputnik appears to be establishing itself as a platform for a particular community with shared affiliations and memberships. Whether Sputnik can boast any real impact on these groups, though, my project will endeavour to elucidate.

 

Lucy Birge (@BirgeLucy) is a third year PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Lucy holds a degree in Russian Studies from the University of Sheffield (2012) and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from the University of Cambridge (2014). She has studied and lived in Yaroslavl and St Petersburg, Russia. Lucy’s research explores Russia’s outward projection strategy via its international broadcasting outlet, Sputnik.

 

Is Russia Today an attack on democracy? | Manchester Policy Blogs

Just before the European elections, EU officials raised concerns about Russian attempts to influence the democratic process, and Russia’s international broadcaster, RT (Russia Today) came under scrutiny for its anti-EU content. But is RT really an attack on democracy? What should be done about it? Reporting findings from the first substantive project researching the activities of this provocative media actor, and in advance of sanctions against RT due to be announced by Ofcom, Professor Steve Hutchings, Professor Vera Tolz and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody suggest that a measured, evidence-led response may be more effective than swiftly imposed, harshly punitive sanctions.

You can access their full article on Manchester Policy blogs, here.

Differentiated Visibilities in Russia’s Role in the Syrian War: RT Arabic on Social Media | Deena Dajani, Marie Gillespie, Rhys Crilley

Despite Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Syria, there is a significant gap in research on how Russian state-funded media represents its presence in Syria to Middle Eastern audiences. Our work redresses this gap. It focuses on how RTs social media output in Arabic represents Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria.

Our key finding is that while Russia’s military presence is rendered almost invisible, its role as a political and diplomatic actor is highly visible. Although Syrian civilians feature as the most prominent actors, they do so mostly as helpless victims and passive witnesses. Syria is represented as a non-sovereign, dysfunctional state, vulnerable to incursion by foreign forces who are vying for power and control in the region. Russia is portrayed as coming to the aid of Syrians and Syria, as a benign presence promoting the establishment of good governance, and skilfully managing the complexdiplomatic relations surrounding the conflict.

By modulating quite subtle shifts in optics and vantage points, rather than by using straightforward propagandastic or hardline ideological narratives, RT Arabic creates its own style of persuasive soft power on social media. This style ischaracterised by the differentiated visbilities afforded to Russia’s military, diplomatic and political roles. Deftly balancing exposure and concealment, RT Arabic performs alegitimating function  – rendering Russia’s presence and power in a positive light – especially for the younger, social media savvy, Middle Eastern audiences who engage with RT’soutputs. But does this style of strategic representation work on audiences?

Our research suggests that Middle Eastern social media usersdisplay only a very superficial engagement with RT Arabic’s output, and so caution is required before making assertions about RT’s influence.

Our findings challenge common perceptions of RT as unworthy of either scholarly or political attention, given its presumed status as purely a Putin mouthpiece. Our work shows that RT is forging its own regimes of strategic representation to project Russia’s Great Power status around the world and serve its interests. But it does so in different ways, in different parts of the world, across different platforms. It experiences variable levels of success and probably limited influence, especially given the superficial levels of engagement identified. Let’s examine the context and the research in more detail.

Russian media is on the rise in the Middle East

Among the broadcasters delivering content to Middle Eastern audiences, RT Arabic remains understudied. This is the case despite research carried out by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)’s international audience research department that suggests that some 11 million people watch RT Arabic weekly in North Africa and the Middle East. According to the BBG findings, 2.4 million people in Syria, 2.1 million people in Iraq, and 1.2 people in Libya watch RT Arabic on a weekly basis. Moreover it seems that RT’s TV audiences are rising more and faster in the Middle East than elsewhere.

RT Arabics social media platforms also reveal significant interaction levels. In a study that examined the top 100 commented on posts on the Facebook feeds of 10 Arabic language news outlets, RT Arabic came in third position for the most active audience engagement after BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera with Al Arabiya and Sky News Arabia lagging behind.

To find out more about RT’s Arabic social media output and whether and how it is engaging Middle Eastern audiences, we conducted a qualitative content analysis of RT Arabic’s social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) and the RT Arabic website articles they link to. The analysis covered all postings relating to Syria over a week chosen at random: 15-21st March 2018. This amounted to 402 social media posts and website articles.  Arabic social media content was coded in terms of key actors and the actions they were associated with, and the main frames and narrative themes displayed. Of the 402 entries, 232 were social media posts about Syria across the three social media platforms, and 170 were website articles they linked to. Here are our main findings.

Superficial engagement with RT’s social media

Of the 232 social media posts, the majority were posted via Twitter (68%), followed by Facebook (18%) and YouTube (14%). However, Facebook was the most engaged with of all three platforms, accounting for 92% of the total sum of likes, shares, comments, and other responses (including dislikes), while Twitter and YouTube’s shares were 4% each. Despite this, engagement with and reactions to Facebook posts were much higher than the actual clicks/views of the link posted in 57% of cases. In other words, in 57% of all posts on Facebook, audiences on RT Arabic’s Facebook page tended to like or comment on a post without actually reading the article itself.

We call this engagement “superficial” because it was generating reactions but those reactions were not in response to the actual content itself. For example, an article from RT Arabic’s website posted on their Facebook Page on 17 March 2018 entitled “Turkish Army consolidates control over Afrin” generated 2.2k likes, but the website article itself has only been viewed 725 times. This suggests RT’s Arabic audiences are responding to headlines rather than reading its content.

Syrian civilians represented as helpless and in need of Russia’s help

The next step involved identifying key agents/actors in RT Arabic’s Syria coverage, their prominence, theircharacteristics and the actions they are associated with. We also sought to study how some actors and actions were given prominence visually and narratively.

The most visible actors were Syrian civilians, appearing as primary or secondary actors in 80 out of 232 social media posts. However, they are represented as helpless victims. This portrayal emerges through the most frequent depictions of civilians migrating (in hundreds of thousands, as an undifferentiated mass) or as under attack, or as witnessingatrocities at the hands of Syrian Opposition Groups.

Representations of Syrian civilians in RT Arabic videos of Syria: 15 March 2018  https://twitter.com/rtarabic/status/974240994584489985 and 16 March 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzifXQCZMQU.

It is the regularity and consistency of such depictions that conveys such a potent image of Syrians as powerless victims, endangered, unable to govern themselves, and in need of help.Who, then, is to govern and help them?

Russia’s military presence is obscured

The governments and armies of Turkey, Syria, and Russia all appear among the most frequently depicted actors, albeit after Syrian civilians and the Syrian Opposition. Turkey and Syria appear most frequently through their armies (62 and 30 times respectively), rather than through representatives of their governments (13 and 12 times). In contrast, Russia is most frequently represented through a member of its government (22 times) while its army appears only 14 times. Across the coverage, Russia is represented mainly as promoting governance rather than military force.

While state actors from Turkey and Syria both appear more frequently, the focus is firmly on their military presence. The Turkish and Syrian armies are both highly visible in the coverage, the Russian army considerably less so. In fact, the Russian army appears much less frequently than the YPG Kurdish forces. The Turkish army and Turkish incursion into Syria is made highly visible while the Russian military intervention in Syria is rendered invisible. Russia appears visible as a legitimate presence, protecting helpless Syrian civilians and the Syrian regime against hostile ‘foreign’ forces.

Syria as a dysfunctional non-sovereign state in need of Russia’s help

One of the most frequent media frames used in the outputs analysed was “Syria as a non-sovereign state” incapable of governing itself. This frame was closely linked to an ongoing narrative of Syria as a global battleground being fought overby predatory and/or hostile states vying for power and a stake in Syria and in the region. For example, it included posts reporting the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, news stories about American, French, and Israeli plans to “intervene” in Syria, and stories describing the many ways in which the Russian government strongly rejected ‘foreign meddling’ in Syria. Such stories were used to affirm Russia’spresence as protector and peacemaker.

The narrative of the war in Syria as being caused by or exacerbated by “foreign meddling” was much more prominent than portrayals of the impact of the war on Syria itself, the devastating death toll on civilians, the advances of the Syrian military, the deepening tragedy of the civil war, and the continuing fighting and negotiations between the Syrian regime and Opposition Groups.

RT Arabic presents a narrative of the war in Syria as a geopolitical conflict between various political players with questionable motives. Its coverage of the Syrian conflictrenders Russia’s military intervention invisible, clean and bloodless. The predatory meddling and violence of otherstates is made much more visible.

Through such representations, social media users are encouraged to see Russia as a good governance actor whosepresence is not only legitimate but essential in order to resolve the conflict in Syria. Whether they do so, of course, is another matter.

This initial research report will be published in extened form in an academic journal. It is part of a wider research project on Russian media in the Middle East. For further details of our research or to send feedback and comments please contact: marie.gillespie@open.ac.uk

A Cluster Analysis of RT Followers on Twitter | STRAPPA project partnership, Helsinki University

This May, Reframing Russia’s Dr Rhys Crilley presented a cluster analysis of RT’s international Twitter followers in a lecture at the Aleksanteri Institute of Helsinki University. Given as part of Reframing Russia’s partnership with the Strategies of Persuasion in an Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA) project, the lecture introduced a new method for identifying and analysing similar clusters of Twitter followers, and applied this to Twitter followers of RT and other international broadcasters such as the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, and CNN. Through comparing the audience clusters of each broadcaster, the findings of this cluster analysis suggested that the majority of RT’s Twitter audience is similar to that of other international broadcasters, yet RT also has an audience who are more likely to follow celebrity accounts, special interest accounts (such as sport, technology and Bollywood accounts), and alternative news sources. In presenting these contrasts, the lecture demonstrated the importance of undertaking further detailed analysis of audiences in the digital age, in order to inform study of RT and contemporary Russian soft power more broadly.