By Vera Zvereva
Something interesting happened in autumn 2019 in the sphere of pro-presidential media on the Runet. Several news sites – the Federal News Agency (RIA FAN, Federal’noe Agentstvo Novostei), Politics Today (Politika Segodnia), Nation News (Narodnye Novosti), and Economics Today (Ekonomika Segodnia) – announced the creation of the Patriot media group. Its board of trustees, according to the Patriot website, is chaired by the businessman Evgenii Prigozhin. According to the Bell and the BBC, this is the first time Prigozhin has been mentioned officially in connection with these media, although journalists have long associated his name with these sites and their umbrella media structure which they call the ‘media factory’, and with the Internet Research Agency, a ‘troll factory’ structure in St. Petersburg. The creation of the Patriot media group continues the trend of strengthening the pro-presidential media cluster on the Russian-speaking Internet.
Keeping a grip on digital space
In recent years, Russian state authorities have sought to address a complex challenge. They have tried to increase their control over communications in Russian society and to make the Runet a ‘safer’ and more manageable space, especially in the sense of deterring users’ protest activities. Therefore, they have tightened legislation and introduced restrictive measures to control user data and the dissemination of information online. On the other hand, full control over the Runet is hardly possible in the present day, thanks to the spread of digital communication and the proliferation of information channels. Moreover, overtly authoritarian attempts to bring the internet under state control, following the Chinese model, would undermine the image of ‘Russian democracy’ presented to the outside world.
In this situation, the strengthening of the state authorities’ influence in the digital space is being achieved not by legislation alone. On the Russian Internet a communicative system has been created that aims to manage meanings. In this system, actors willing to support the state authorities’ stance on current events – pro-Kremlin journalists, bloggers and social media users, paid propagandists and amateur volunteers, trolls and the ‘soldiers’ of information campaigns – have been enabled to fulfil this task by any means necessary. Besides individuals, the system also includes a multitude of ‘patriotic’ web resources, – websites, YouTube channels, communities on VKontakte, and so on, – publishing anti-Ukrainian, anti-EU and anti-American content. Not only official supporters, such as registered online pro-Kremlin movements, but also unofficial ones, including anti-Western communities on social media, sympathisers, semi-criminal ‘fishermen in muddy water’ and those who for any reason are willing to contribute, are invited to participate.
The law in this sphere is applied selectively. Proxies of the Russian state authorities receive tacit permission to attack, rebut or pour insults on communications by the political opposition and other ‘malcontents’. These ‘volunteers’ appear to be expressing their personal points of view. This gives them the freedom to jeer at or discredit their opponents, to overlook minor and sometimes major inaccuracies in their own material, to use derogatory language, and to indulge uninhibitedly in aggression and exaggeration in defense of the authorities (see Zvereva 2020 for an in-depth discussion). Among these volunteering supporters are trolls who, in seeking to provoke such reactions as fear, despair or aggression, or to trick users into accepting fakes as facts, also play an important part in spreading commissioned content. Often, it is the trolls who present themselves as the mouthpieces of internet freedom of expression which is being restricted everywhere (and which on the Runet is constrained, according to their logic, by pro-American ‘liberal’ journalists and bloggers). Trolls justify their upsetting and threatening discourse by reference to their own characterisation of reality as upsetting and threatening.
Ordinary internet users have no way of knowing for certain who is behind this or that claim – whether it is somebody like themselves or a paid author. However, ordinary users are themselves an important part of the system, consuming and spreading the messages in circulation. By doing so, they contribute inadvertently to the maintenance of this system of communication.
Emerging into the mainstream
This system of proxies and supporters developed rapidly after 2012, alongside the first legislative acts known as the ‘laws against the internet’. The most widely cited and investigated group of pro-government actors engaged in disseminating pro-state messages on Runet was the so-called Olgino Trolls. In 2013, the Internet Research Agency in the Olgino suburb of St Petersburg hired staff to work for what was effectively a ‘troll-factory’ – a conveyor belt of pseudo-bloggers to write posts and comments in bulk on prescribed topics: against the opposition, against America and Ukraine and in support of the Russian president. The trolls’ work was intended to increase the circulation of pro-government views on social networks, to counter quickly any criticism of the Russian authorities and their actions and to use aggression to deter opponents of the government from communicating online. According to an investigation published by the Russian media company RBK, the Internet Research Agency and a number of other media resources later absorbed into the informal group of businesses that journalists have labelled the ‘Media Factory’ were allegedly financed by Evgenii Prigozhin. In 2018, Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency among other companies and individuals were indicted by a US grand jury for organizing activities for the purpose of interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The sites RIA FAN and Economics Today, along with several others, were included by the US Treasury Department in the sanctions list drawn up as a consequence.
In 2017-18, Facebook and Twitter removed several hundred accounts presumed to be associated with the Internet Research Agency because of alleged interference in the US elections. Among them were accounts of the Federal News Agency (FAN), the main information resource of the ‘Media Factory’. It is important to note that the FAN has never been clandestine: from the very beginning it has operated openly on the Runet. In 2017, ‘Media Factory’ included at least 16 online information resources, nine of which were registered under the official category ‘mass media’ with Roskomnadzor. According to RBK, its combined monthly audience in 2017 was more than 36 million, which exceeded those of Runet’s largest established media resources. Thus, in Runet these newer media resources have been consolidating their position among established media, despite their delegitimization in the West.
It seems that over the past three years, this field of communication in the Runet has begun to change. Proxy warriors took an active part in the anti-Ukrainian information campaign, the campaigns against the European Union and America because of the imposition of sanctions, information support for Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, and in the fight against the Russian opposition. More recently, however, new laws regulating freedom of expression on the Internet have come into force in Russia, and new means developed for restricting various kinds of digital dissent. At the same time, ordinary Runet users have become more familiar with the activity of internet propagandists and trolls. In this new political and legal reality, the need to maintain a shadow army of trolls has disappeared. Therefore, a substantial part of the FAN media resources on the Runet has begun to operate like ordinary mainstream pro-Kremlin media. The creation of the Patriot media group represents a logical continuation of this process.
In particular, a discursive rapprochement is taking place between these dubious (from the Western point of view) resources and the mainstream media. The boundaries between them are becoming difficult to define. Many of the websites associated with the former ‘Media Factory’ had a similar agenda to RIA Novosti, RT Russia, and others, and simply reiterated their news, opinions, and interpretations on the Internet, keeping users inside the discursive space and the circle of resources that they sought to manage, but without reciprocation from the established media. Now, however, RIA Novosti and RT Russia are sharing the links and banners of Patriot group news sites. A network structure allows the same interpretation of events to be quickly propagated from site to site. At the same time, the language circulating in this environment is becoming more similar, whether it is used by high officials or by ordinary users, partly because the language of ‘patriotic’ web-resources often mimics that of the political establishment, and partly because the political language of Russian officials in the media has itself become so rich in street language, non-diplomatic idioms and elements of trolling that what officials say is no longer clearly distinguishable from the speeches of less respectable media actors.
The landing page of the Federal News Agency thus looks quite respectable. It displays photos of the president of the Russian Federation, ministers, and deputies of the State Duma. It offers a similar selection of news stories to what appears on the RIA Novosti and RT websites. In terms of style and language, as well as in its promotional and persuasive techniques, FAN differs little from the mainstream media that present news ‘patriotically’. Political news is discussed in the same way on the FAN and other sites of the Patriot media group as has been practised for years on Russian news and current affairs television programmes and talk-shows.
Politics Today, Economy Today, and Nation News also present themselves as respectable resources. However, the partner materials on these sites often link to teaser networks like Lentainfo, Infox.sg and 24smi, which frequently publish clickbait and content which is inaccurate or misleading. According to investigations by journalists of Lenizdat into the promotional system of the site Nation News, in 2018 this material was promoted not only with search engine queries dealing with content linked to the current news agenda, such as ‘the war in Syria’, but also ‘movies for adults’, ‘watch video 18’, ‘’Serebro’ [pop group] naked’, and so on. Clicking on links from these websites very quickly leads to scandal sites that promise sensation, true crime horror, trash photos and adult content.
For example, on 13 April 2020 the ‘News from our partners’ rubric on the Nation News website included clickbait links such as: ‘It’s all happening on 30th April. Golikova [Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy, Labour, Health and Pension Provision] reveals the truth’ and ‘Mishustin allowed to shoot down civilian aircraft: the details’. Clicking these links leads to the page of the teaser network site Infox.sg, which in turn encourages readers to access a text entitled ‘Kirkorov’s [Russian celebrity musician] perversions revealed’, linking in turn to the dubious News-fast.com site promoting ‘50 naughty beach shots’ as well as an article published on Rossaprimavera.ru (‘Krasnaja vesna’) entitled ‘UN expert believes that coronavirus was created in the USA in 2015’. Thus, the mainstream political discourse promoted by these websites is just a click away from Internet resources offering the discourse of scandal, ‘fake news’ and debased language.
Promoting good news and fighting ‘anti-Russian’ media
According to Patriot’s own website, the media group was created in order to disseminate information about events happening in Russia ‘to create a favourable information space aimed at developing the country.’ The group’s websites try to present ‘positive’ stories. Thus, on the FAN website under the tag ‘good news from Russia’, FAN holds a regular contest for good news stories to encourage regional journalists promoting a positive agenda. For example, on February 25, 2020, it is reported that readers voted the first prize (30,000 roubles, about £350) to a journalist of TASS Chechnya for her report ‘Chechnya has patented technology for manufacturing healthy lemonade with fern extract’; and 20,000 roubles second prize to a journalist from the Chelyabinsk Argumenty i Fakty newspaper for the story ‘My eyes and ears: Lekha the cat saved his owner from a fire in Chelyabinsk’.
These publications are reminiscent of a well-known feature of Soviet journalism of the Brezhnev period: reports of positive news such as ‘an increase in the milk yield’ were used as a pretext for discussing those whom the media presented as ‘anti-Soviet’. Indeed, on Patriot sites still more energy is invested in creating another kind of text familiar from the Soviet press – texts about the ‘detection of the enemy’.
The Patriot website declares: ‘Amid the development of modern technologies and the Internet, there is a growing number of media outlets, anti-Russian ones among them, that promote negative information and don’t notice the good things happening in the country’. Most of the attention of these resources is devoted to combatting those media, voices, and interpretations that express points of view that challenge the positions of the Russian authorities. Declaring such sources of information and interpretation as ‘anti-Russian’, the publications of the Patriot group overtly articulate sharper assessments than would appear in the official state media – RIA Novosti or RT.
On the FAN website there are thematic sections devoted to the fight against the ‘anti-Russian’ media: for example, the section ‘Bought by Khodorkovsky’ or ‘Rating of anti-Russian media’. In the FAN project ‘Media Classifier’, media are categorised as follows: Foreign, Anti-Russian, State, Patriotic, Socio-political, and Ukrainian. In the Foreign section one can read, for example, the following: ‘The BBC Russian Service: [this] media regularly publishes materials representing corrupt opposition figures as martyrs and victims of the regime, and also welcomes in its publications the anti-Russian sanctions of the West’. Or ‘Medusa: [this] media promotes homosexuality, incites hatred between nations, publishes custom-made materials advertising fraudulent Internet services, and discredits charities.’ FAN also strategically makes counter-allegations about the USA spreading anti-Russian fake news, investigates the activities of ‘Russophobic media’ and exposes foreign agents in Russia. Thus, FAN tries to seize the initiative by asking who should investigate whom?
An important task for the publications of the Patriot group is to re-interpret ‘inconvenient’ news. For example, in early April this year, news spread in the media that the Novgorod regional police had stopped a convoy of the Alliance of Doctors union and detained activists who were bringing personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, protective suits, goggles, and disinfectant – to doctors in Novgorod hospitals. When detaining the head of the Alliance of Doctors, Anastasia Vasilyeva, police officers had used physical force and then brought charges against her for disobeying the police and violating the self-isolation regime. In response to the ensuing public outrage on the Internet, the Patriot websites posted a number of articles, all repeating the claim, with slight variations that recall the guidelines for writing texts for troll factory employees, that the detention of the activists was justified because they had violated the quarantine regime; that Vasilyeva was associated with Alexei Navalny; that the actions of the Alliance of Doctors and Vasilyeva were not humanitarian aid, but caused harm; and that Russian hospitals have been provided with everything necessary to combat the coronavirus epidemic.
Here are a few quotes. FAN: ‘The Alliance of Doctors trade union is disguising itself with good intentions for the sake of flouting the self-isolation regime. The leader of the union, created by the odious blogger Alexei Navalny, was detained on 3 April on the M-11 highway in the Novgorod region. … At the same time, local medical institutions had no need of support – everything they needed was already available. … The Association of Health Managers has already issued a statement stressing that Vasilieva is trying to sabotage the work of hospitals and is putting the lives of doctors and patients in danger.’
Politics Today: ‘The raids of the Alliance of Doctors in the Moscow regions are aimed at discrediting Russian doctors. Anastasia Vasilieva and her Alliance of Doctors union have staged several provocative actions in Russian hospitals. She … is herself a project of the infamous blogger Alexei Navalny.’
Nation News: ‘The Alliance of Doctors has violated three decrees to comply with the self-isolation rules. The actions of the head of the Alliance of Doctors trade union, Anastasia Vasilyeva, who travelled to the regions, may constitute evidence of a violation of the high alert regime in Moscow. Alexei Navalny’s attending physician herself thinks differently …’
The Patriot group sites have become an important part of the information system with its ‘control points’ in different communication nodes, from official information agencies to informal social media groups and everywhere in between. At these control points, a concept may be taken and have its meaning adjusted in accordance with the line given at the top.
While their reporting objectives vary with current events, the Patriot news sites appear to follow two strategies consistently. They seek to gain greater legitimacy as news media, while continuing to carry out those tasks from which official state media refrain.
P.S. On 17 April 2020, FAN reported that Google had blocked its media account and its associated YouTube account. Representatives of the Patriot media group have claimed that these actions violated its right to free speech. According to TASS, ‘The Kremlin considers Google’s blocking of Russian media accounts unacceptable and expects that such decisions will be reviewed. This was reported to journalists by the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Peskov.’
Vera Zvereva is a Senior lecturer in Russian language and culture at the University of Jyväskylä