‘Colour Codes of the Coronavirus: a Case Study of RT Deutsch’ | Guest Blog

By Maria Zhukova

Electronic microscopes allow us to see SARS-CoV-2 only in black and white. In principle, the colour of this virion (or virus particle) can’t be seen with the human eye. The proteins, ribonucleic acids, and phospholipids that make up the virus particle absorb light almost exclusively from the ultraviolet spectrum, invisible to us.[1] Nonetheless, it didn’t take long before people’s creative imaginations had painted this new enemy of civilisation in all colours of the rainbow. This kaleidoscope of colour can be seen on the pages of online news networks around the world, where the new sections about COVID-19 that appeared in the spring of 2020 were often accompanied by coloured icons depicting a virus particle. For example, RT Deutsch sported a new heading — “Aktuelles zu COVID-19″/”COVID-19 news” — accompanied by a red icon.

The German-language news portal RT Deutsch was launched in 2014. This service of the Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) explicitly positions itself as an alt-media outlet within the German media system. The content produced by RT Deutsch tends to be particularly hyper-partisan. Its output actively and overtly attempts to manipulate people’s emotions. This blog looks at how the service uses specific colour codes for this purpose.

Despite the growing interest in digital information culture, the vast majority of recent publications on the effect of colour don’t pay particular attention to online news resources. Research on visual perception in human–computer interaction (HCI) tends to be addressed to web designers, and doesn’t investigate the relationship between the content of a digital resource and its colour effect — the features of colour perception depending on nationality have provoked greater interest. Amid the wide-ranging responses to the coronavirus pandemic by academics, few publications have addressed the issue of visualisation in pandemic-related content.[2]

Attempts to influence readers via the anticipated emotional effect of certain colours and colour combinations can be seen in a significant proportion of the “Aktuelles zu COVID-19” output. This large body of material requires further research. The focus of this blog is one of the first reports featured in that section, entitled “Over One Thousand Corona Cases in Germany Already: DAX Drops”.

The article contains updates on the impact of the virus on events in Germany and around the world, such as upcoming Bundesliga matches to be held behind closed doors and Saudi Arabia’s suspension of air travel with nine countries. Besides its basic informative function, this material undoubtedly also has other, underlying aims. One of these is to attract new audiences, since, in comparison to other German-language news outlets, RT Deutsch’s reach is relatively small. Another aim is to convey and underline the danger that coronavirus poses to Germany. The text is dated 9 March, when the WHO had not yet declared a pandemic (11 March) and Germany had not yet introduced social distancing measures, which followed only on 17 March. However, this early article already shows how the precise and well-thought-out interconnection of themes, linguistic techniques, and visual features — especially colour choices — contribute to exacerbating the impression of fear and danger. Let us look in detail at how the relationships between the colour, graphic, and textual elements of this material work.

During the course of the pandemic, almost all German online publications introduced a specific section dedicated to the spread of the new virus, but not all of them came up with a corresponding icon. In the case of RT Deutsch, the graphic design and colour of the icon are obviously particularly significant.

The new “Aktuelles zu COVID-19” section heading has a strong presence on the RT Deutsch page precisely because of its colour: the red icon contrasts with the green of the RT logo. According to the experiments of a research group led by Russian avant-garde artist Mikhail Matyushin, as discussed in his Guide to Colour (1932), pairs of contrasting or complementary colours are not perceived equally quickly. The recognition of red as the corresponding colour to green is second only to violet and pale yellow, in terms of how quickly the viewer perceives the colour contrast (see pages 22–23). That is to say, the green of RT’s logo is associated with red in the reader’s mind. In other words, the page (green) begins to be naturally associated with the virus (red), compelling an audience craving information on the topic to return to this section again and again.

The graphic design of the icon also lays the foundation for convincing the audience of the extreme danger of the virus. The RT Deutsch icon, which was also used on RT’s English service, mimics the virus’s spherical shape but considerably exaggerates its structural features. The so-called S-proteins, which help the virus attach itself to the surface of the cell, are often called “spikes” by scientists but are nonetheless more likely to be depicted visually as something that looks more like a mushroom (see the model developed by the Thomas Böttcher research group, University of Konstanz) or plant forms (such as the model designed by Markus Hoffman, of the Leibniz-Institut for Primate Research, Göttingen) (top row, respectively, left to right, in the illustration below). In the RT icon, the repeated rows of identical spikes or teeth, both around the outside of the circle and within it, suggest the motion of a circular saw and give the image an aggressive character. For comparison, see alternative images of the coronavirus in the equivalent section of the website of major German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a parody of the logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now postponed to 2021), the image used by Russian news outlet Meduza, and the icons used by RT’s Spanish and Russian-language services, which all depict the S-proteins in a way much closer to the scientific models (bottom row, respectively, left to right).

The headline, placed immediately underneath the section heading, begins instilling the idea of the extreme danger that the virus poses for Germany in particular, by referring to economic factors that will be directly relevant to the German reader. The construction of the sentence implies that the second part, after the colon, is a direct consequence of the first. That is, that the drop in the German stock exchange (Deutscher Aktienindex, usually abbreviated as DAX) is due to the number of coronavirus-related deaths, a connection that is not mentioned at all in the text of the article. The headline’s emphasis on the unstable financial situation is intentional: according to surveys conducted in January 2020, this is considered an important issue by 30% of German citizens.[3]

The photograph that follows the headline intensifies the effect of its first part, exaggerating in visual form the idea of illness and disease. The red circle with an arrow (directing coronavirus patients to an outpatients reception) resembles the virus icon in its colour and shape, but is much larger in size, while below, in a separate image but placed in relation to the photo of the sign, depicts the yellow triangle containing three circles which since 1966 has been the recognised standard symbol for biohazards.

The exponential increase in SARS-CoV-2 cases, which was already being discussed in the media in March, is even embodied in the specific visual forms used to represent this topic: the red dot of the icon has turned into a giant red circle in the first photograph (the effect of which is enhanced by the burgundy tones of the background). The “spheres” also increase in number, as depicted in the yellow biohazard symbol, where there are already four, if not five, of them — according to Matyushin’s observations on colour and form, the “warm range of the spectrum, from yellow to red, gravitates towards wide, round shapes”, “so, swollen, a yellow pyramid loses some of the sharpness of its corners.”

The threat that the virus poses to Germany is thus established on a textual and a visual level. The photograph of the yellow biohazard sign is attached to an article discussing the New York stock exchange. However, this American content isn’t illustrated with the famous Charging Bull sculpture of Wall Street, by Atrturo Di Modica, but animals more familiar to a German reader: bull and bear figurines, based on large sculptures designed by German Rainer Dachlauer for the 400-year anniversary of the Frankfurt stock exchange in 1988. It’s not especially important whether the average reader is familiar with the financial jargon in which Bullеnmarkt/bull market and Bärenmarkt/bear market mean, respectively, an increase and decrease in stock prices. It is more important that the biohazard sign between the two figurines is associated with recognisable features of the Frankfurt urban environment, familiar from television coverage, and consequently with the situation in Germany as a whole.

In this way, the idea of the virus as a threat is located on German soil, as implied by the figurative and symbolic associations of the typically “German” animals, the bull and the bear. A third animal joins the bull and the bear in this row of zoological allusions: the badger, which is referenced in the headline. The Deutsche Aktienindex (DAX) was introduced in 1988, the same year the bull and bear sculptures were installed. The acronym DAX sounds similar to the German word for badger — der Dachs — making it easy to remember (more so than the equally plausible but unused acronym DAI). This example of linguistic homophony — words that happen to sound similar despite different spellings — is commonly utilised in journalism, including taking advantage of its humorous implications (see also another example related to animals: the acronym PIIGS introduced in 2010 to refer to five economically-disadvantaged EU countries, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). In summary, we can state that the animals indicated here, both visually and phonetically, not only create subsidiary meanings but also infantilise the audience, diminishing their analytical faculties and stimulating an emotional response.

If we return to Matyushin’s colour experiments, which showed that yellow and violet are instantly perceptible as contrasting colours, it is not difficult to see how the following photograph, depicting brown coronavirus particles on a light-violet background (which links to an article entitled “Two Months Before Outbreak Coronavirus Simulation Predicts 65 Million Deaths”) rhymes perfectly with the yellow biohazard sign.

The eye is guided by colour indicators, adequate for ordinary perception, to glide towards the bottom of the page. The video report embedded at the end of the main text — “Coronavirus: Opinions on Worldwide Stockpiling” (lit. “hamster buying”) — replicates the same aesthetic techniques (animal imagery, red–yellow–violet colour scheme), reinforcing these already-formed blocks of meaning in the different and more easily comprehensible format of video. Thus, colour choices in the visual design of news material are far from accidental. Skilful use of colour, synthesising the graphic and textual layers of meaning, acts as a powerful factor in shaping the reader’s response.

[1] I thank Thomas Böttcher (Zukunftskolleg, Univ. Konstanz) for clarifying the structure of the virus to me, as well as providing his graphic model.

[2] Latter source reproduced from The Conversation, where it is currently inaccessible.

[3] I refer here to data in the “2020 Security Report”/”Sicherheitsreport 2020”, a survey conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach on behalf of the Zentrum für Strategie und Höhere Führung. 33% of respondents over the age of 16 said they fear poverty in old age, 27% fear loss of earnings, and 26% inflation. Only senile dementia and climate change were cited as greater causes of concern (42% and 40%, respectively). According to the 2020 Security Report’s special investigation into coronavirus (Sicherheitsreport 2020 Spezial Corona), conducted in mid-May 2020, 76% of respondents were concerned about the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Maria Zhukova is a Research Fellow at the Slavic department and Associated Fellow in Zukunftskolleg at Konstanz University in Germany. She leads a postdoctoral project ‘TV Discourses in Print Media, Film, and Literature in Late Soviet Russia of the 1950s-1980s‘.

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