New project launched on Russian propaganda strategies of online persuasion | University of Helsinki

This month saw the official launch of a new project on Russian online propaganda at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute. The project, called Strategies of Persuasion: Russian Propaganda in the Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA), was set up to provide a better understanding of how Russian state-aligned media and other relevant actors frame and disseminate strategic communications within traditional and digital media environments.

The project was initiated in response to the limited understanding of this phenomenon to date, which has meant that despite the threat from Russian ‘fake news’ and disinformation being at the top of political agendas across Europe, many of the initiatives being proposed in response (automated content removal, banning broadcasters) risk unduly constraining freedom of speech.

According to Dr Mariëlle Wijermars, Lead researcher on the new project,

“research up until now has studied Russia’s messaging to domestic and foreign audiences in separation, while much can be learned by analysing this issue within a comparative framework”.

The STRAPPA project aims to create a more detailed picture of how contemporary information operations work, in the hopes of promoting realistic solutions. The project will be investigating what kind of strategies of persuasion are used; how they fit into today’s ‘post-truth’ environment; and what is the degree of tailoring of messages to target audiences?

The research will also be examining how these strategies have evolved in response to the changing technological environment in the current algorithmic age: How does propaganda work in the age of social media, recommender systems and botnets?

Strategies of Persuasion: Russian Propaganda in the Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA) will run at the University of Helsinki from 2019-2021 and is associated with the Digital Russia Studies initiative. You can sign up for project updates by sending a message to marielle.wijermars@helsinki.fi

Envisioning Terror: Representations of Al Qaeda on the BBC| Jared Ahmad

Representing terrorism

There is an intimate relationship between the news media, politicians and terrorist groups. For journalists, terrorist violence fulfil several essential “news values” that help to attract and secure large audiences. Politicians and terrorist groups use the news media to promote their own, preferred images, symbols and representations. Indeed, given the relatively infrequent nature of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, for most of us, news media representations formulate one of our primary sources of knowledge about such phenomena. Despite access to a growing range of information sources, research suggests that television remains the most important source of news for citizens across the Western world during terrorist incidents. And yet, often news media representations distort public understanding of terrorism and reinforce simple “us” and “them” binaries.

ahmad bookj

It is these representational practices that I explore in my latest book, The BBC, the “War on Terror” and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism: Representing Al-Qaeda. Published as part of Palgrave-Macmillan’s “New Security Challenges” series, it interrogates the shifting ways in which the BBC sought to represent the al-Qaeda phenomenon for British television audiences during the opening stages of “war on terror” (2001-2011). Drawing on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, and combining rigorous multimodal analysis of BBC “News at Ten” bulletins and interviews with the Corporation’s top journalists and editors, the book the provides much-needed insight into the way these representations developed over a ten-year period.

As the nation’s most trusted news provider, with over 80% of Britons using its services daily, the BBC makes an important case for extended analysis. Its “News at Ten” bulletin, the subject of my analysis, regularly receives around 35.9% share of audience ratings, and is the U.K.’s most watched news programme. Yet, when it comes to coverage of issues of war, political conflict and terrorism the Corporation has been criticised for its bias and the fact that it often functions as a mouthpiece for the state. My book, however, paints a more complex picture of the BBC and provides deeper insight into the challenges faced by the broadcaster today.

Challenging dominant representations of terrorism

In the widespread uncertainty following the September 11th 2001 attacks, the BBC’s representations functioned as a site for a continually-shifting range of fears, identities and discourses. Simplistic, cliché-ridden stereotypes about the East, Islam and terrorism appeared alongside more nuanced assessments of the various aims, motivations and backgrounds of the hijackers.

During the first few days of coverage, for example, al-Qaeda was depicted as a conventional “terrorist organisation”, “a group of Arab fundamentalists” or “an umbrella network of Islamic militants”, alongside more fleeting characterisations as a “faceless”, “elusive”, “shadowy” and “unseen enemy”. Visually, these tensions were further played out by juxtaposing images taken from al-Qaeda’s grainy, home-spun propaganda releases with a series of more benign, yet equally unsettling, family portrait photos of the hijackers. While sometimes bewildering for audiences, these fluid patterns of depiction served to call into question deep, culturally-ingrained representations of the terrorist “Other”, offering deeper insight into the everyday reality of the terror threat.

The complexity of these representations became even more apparent with the July 7th 2005 London bombings. Since the perpetrators were British citizens, BBC journalists began to explore difficult questions concerning the identity of the bombers and their possible motives. This not only involved correspondents directly quoting from al-Qaeda propaganda statements describing the attacks as “revenge against the British government for… its massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan”. It also led to several reports exploring the perception of Western foreign policy on individuals within Muslim communities across Britain. In one report, for example, a Leeds teenager suggests that “[i]t doesn’t help when there are these American and English are going into our countries and killing our brothers and sisters” (emphasis in original).

Home Affairs Editor Mark Easton offers insight into the challenges faced by BBC journalists at the time. As he explains,

I think that it is absolutely right after such an appalling series of attacks that we reflect really hard on what this tells us about our society and the things that helped create that situation; to ask ourselves difficult questions, and indeed ask what we could, and should, do to try to prevent this happening again… The motivation from our point of view was to try and understand a confused and contradictory and difficult situation, not to over simplify, but equally not to dismiss as too complicated to go into. We absolutely had to understand the environment in which those attacks happened.

The BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines and public purposes further help to explain such fluid representations. These policies specifically call upon the broadcaster to not only avoid playing politics with terrorism, but also report on such issues in an impartial and socially responsible manner. This led the BBC to find ways to draw a clear distinction between al-Qaeda’s violence and the beliefs and practices of Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims.

Drawing boundaries around the BBC’s representations

Importantly, despite the complexity of such portrayals, my findings do lend some support to the BBC’s many critics. In particular, around the time of the 2003 Wood Green ricin plot, the BBC’s representations aligned themselves much more closely with the government’s own exaggerated threat assessments. The event was considered the first instance of “al-Qaeda-related” activity in the U.K., and reporting incorporated careless speculation about the alleged links between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussain’s Baath Party and weapons of mass destruction. Taken together with wider social anxieties regarding immigration and Britain’s asylum policy, this meant that the broadcaster led considerable support to claims made at the time by politicians such as Tony Blair and Colin Powell. In one report, for example, London correspondent Ben Brown made the connection explicit, stating, “[d]ocuments discovered in Afghanistan showed Osama bin Laden’s terror network had planned to produce ricin, and the Iraqis are said to have manufactured it in the past”. These comments were immediately followed a statement by the prime minister, declaring “[i]t is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of it [weapons of mass destruction], and as the arrests that were made earlier today show, the danger is present and real and with us now, and its potential is huge”.

What is most concerning about the BBC’s coverage of this event, however, is the fact that it coincided with the final build-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In my interviews with those who reported on this case, few were comfortable discussing this period. One correspondent noted, anonymously it should be said, that the Corporation was somewhat unwittingly “sucked into the narrative of the ‘war on terror’” during this event. Indeed, given the shifting portrayals witnessed in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 and July 7th 2005 attacks, the representations seen here clearly raise significant questions for the BBC and its ability to challenge “official” accounts when covering alleged terrorist plots. As I suggest in the book, during such events, government control over the flow of information severely limits the range of representations the broadcaster can offer its audiences, thus leading to more simplistic depictions.

Looking forward

Evidently, the BBC has a difficult balancing act when it comes to representing phenomena such as al-Qaeda. First, it must provide citizens with vital information about the threat posed, the diverse origins of those involved and the context and causes in which they act, and the ways in which government are expected to respond. Moreover, it has to do this in ways that steer an informed middle-ground between “official” and “unofficial” representations, and thus avoiding propagandising on behalf of one group over another, while also avoiding alienating sections of its audience. Despite focusing on one facet of its news output, The BBC, the War on Terror and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism provides a clearer assessment of the way the Corporation represents terrorist phenomena such as al-Qaeda and sheds light on the barriers to such portrayals.  

And in an era in which the very notions of “truth” and “factuality” are increasingly being called into question by both political elites and citizens themselves, the difficulties facing the BBC are certainly not going away. It is subject to frequent attacks from both left and right-wing politicians, global media outlets such as RT, a partisan and increasingly bitter press, and a host of new “attack-sites” such as Media Lens, The Canary, News-Watch and Biased BBC. This has fed repeated calls to end its licence fee. The broadcaster faces more threats than ever in today’s hypercompetitive and multi-layered media environment, and in the face of such pressures, the BBC must seek to maintain the quality of its reporting and its ability to offer nuanced representations of terrorist phenomena.

Yet, the picture is not all bleak. While it is clear that the BBC does not always adhere to its own exacting standards, what distinguishes it from other news organisation is that it is a broadcaster that has an enduring capacity to learn and reflect on its journalistic practices. As veteran correspondent, and current BBC Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen put it to me,

I think there is an ongoing attempt at the BBC to want to educate people in terms of what’s going on around the world, and I think that what it takes is a lot of editorial vigilance, that editors and senior editors need to be able to say that “look, the tone isn’t quite right” or “the nuance is wrong”. And as well as that, not to fall into easy stereotypes. Sometimes as well, to be aware of the frames that governments use and you have to be critical of that. And when governments and militaries use these umbrella terms, like “the war on terrorism”, you’ve got to be quite careful to try to look at the bigger context and deconstruct it if necessary. This of course takes time and effort, but I know it is possible and can be done.

 

ahmad headshotJared Ahmad is a lecturer in Journalism, Politics and Communication at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The BBC, the ‘War on Terror’ and the Discursive Construction of Terrorism: Representing Al-Qaeda (Palgrave 2018) and his work has also been published in international journals such as Critical Studies on Terrorism and Media, War and Conflict.   

Conspiracy, media and politics | Reframing Russia in conversation with Ilya Yablokov

Ilya-Yablokov.jpgDr Ilya Yabokov is a Lecturer in Russian Studies at the University of Leeds, author of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet World, and co-organiser of the Russian Readings seminar series on contemporary social developments in Russia. He talked to Reframing Russia’s Precious Chatterje-Doody about how conspiracy theories can help us understand how people engage with politics beyond their control, and how political and social elites try to manipulate this to their own advantage…

Reframing Russia: People tend to think of conspiracy theories as a pretty niche interest that’s only relevant if you have a particular mindset. But your scholarly work really engages with the idea. So what are the benefits of taking conspiracy theories seriously?

Ilya Yablokov: We tend to think about conspiracy theories as showing a paranoid mentality and something that has no relation to reality, real politics, real issues. On the contrary, conspiracy theories provide us a way to explore current social and political issues, but from another angle. They help us better understand crises that take place in the outside world. Crises that are being considered and reconsidered by people, the common man if you like. So, ordinary people try to reconcile themselves with these big issues and crises by viewing them as a kind of a plot. This means that conspiracy theories are not just problematic, but they’re a method people use to engage with current issues.

RR: So what was it that first brought you around to this topic of study?

IY: It’s a very long story!  I first got into conspiracy theories back in 2005, and that was very unexpected, a very surprising track for me. First, I studied work on American conspiracy theories because of the availability of literature on the topic and facilities to conduct the research. In fact, American conspiracy theories were studied for decades from the early 20th Century, but in Russia because of problems in the study of arts and humanities, there was just no academic work on the topic.  They were actually very popular in Russia in the 1990s, but nobody was investigating them from the academic angle, because of the stigma surrounding conspiracy theories. It was a completely unexplored topic, so I took this as a challenge and published the first book on that.

RR: It’s funny that you mention that the topic was previously so under-explored, because since your book came out earlier this year, it has generated quite a stir. It’s not just the rave reviews from academics, even the public talks you’ve given about the book have been selling out. Obviously, the wider subject is really topical right now: the book basically gives an account of how Russia’s political elite uses conspiracy theories. Could you tell us a bit more about how they do this?

IY: In short, conspiracy theories are a tool for public mobilisation. First, they help to visually create, through various media sources, help to create this image, this image of the majority, the idea that there is a majority of people who support the regime and stand against foreign plots – the general public. Second, conspiracy theories delegitimise opponents, and legitimise the projects of current regime. This has been done for the last 30 years, since the end of the Soviet period, and my book looks at the period since 1991. The third way the current regime uses conspiracy theories is to try and create, temporarily, a certain national cohesion, to create a community of people united by certain ideas – in that case foreign plots against Russia.

RR: I know that conspiracy theories are just one element of your current work. What else are you involved in at the moment?

IY: I’m one of the organisers of the Russian Readings public seminar series at the University of Leeds, and that’s keeping me really busy. We’ve already hosted an event on how journalists can deal with the post-truth age and the major shift in their profession: media going digital. We’re gonna have two more events in March and May next year where we are going to discuss how the media can survive in the digital era (not because of political challenges, but because of financial issues – this is a big problem for all media in the world of how to survive in digital age if they don’t have state sponsorship to pay their bills). The third event will be about ethics in current journalism; how to approach this issue of ethics.

I’ve got a few interesting research projects coming up shortly as well. I have a couple of special issues which should be all finished up: both are about news production in Russia and Central-Eastern Europe. Then I am going to be working on an article about liberal conspiracy theories in Russia; it’s not just the Kremlin or national patriots who use conspiracy theories – I think it’s much wider… it’s a more fruitful project to look at how so-called intelligentsia or liberal opposition think about conspiracy theories. Actually, I’ve been contemplating this project for a while. And then, you have to look at the role of conspiracy theories not just domestically, but internationally. Of course, that’s what we’re working on at the minute for our new book together on conspiracy theories and international broadcasting.

After that, I think, I shall embark upon a big and challenging project about intellectuals and power in post-Soviet Russia. This will include the analysis of the role that various intellectuals play in empowering the political regime in Russia. This will not only include academics, or political technologists like Gleb Pavlovsky (I talk about it briefly in my book), this will also include media elites and writers/musicians/artists. It’s a kind of sociology of elites – and we’ll be seeing how we can expand the concept of adekvatnost that I worked on with Elizabeth Schimpfössl from media elites to elites in general – intellectual and cultural elites. We’ll be working on the nature of political regimes – the Russian regime and authoritarian regimes in general – using this idea of adekvatnost.

RR: It sounds like you have a really busy period ahead! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today and best of luck with all your exciting new projects.

 

Ilya Yablokov’s latest book, Fortress Russia: Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet World, is out now.

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, (mostly Russian) academics in post-Soviet space were engaging with the concept long before their Western counterparts. In particular, the scholars Georgii Pocheptsov (Ukrainian, but publishing in Russian) 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 Beggs

 

Connell 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