‘From Russophone to Russophobe: Eurovision 2017 and Russian-speaking social media audiences in the age of the ‘information war’

Professor Stephen Hutchings and Vitaly Kazakov, The University of Manchester, in Freedom of Speech and Critical Journalism in the Russian Media Sphere edited by Katja Lehtisaari and Mariëlle Wijermars.

Abstract

The Eurovision Song Contest is a major international media event attracting the attention of audiences around the globe. It is a prominent arena within which national broadcasters are able to project their country’s soft power through, among other means, their choice of participant at this international competition. Russian state broadcasters have traditionally seen the contest as an opportunity not only for nation branding and the (re-)articulation of Russia’s relationship with European identity, but also an occasion to build support among Russian-speaking communities based outside of the Russian Federation. Recently, the convergence of (a) the digital media revolution and (b) the heightened ‘information war’ between Russia and the West in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis of 2014 have radically changed the dynamic of these processes. As a broadcaster at the forefront of the ‘information war’ and a child of the digital age that has shown itself to be adept in its use of new technologies, RT (formerly, Russia Today) offers a valuable insight into this changed dynamic.

A particularly vivid and revealing context in which to explore the issues at stake is the Eurovision 2017 competition in Kiev which became the subject of an international scandal revolving around Russia’s boycott of the competition whose official slogan was ‘Celebrate Diversity’. This followed the banning of Russia’s strategically selected entrant, Iuliia Samoilova, a wheelchair user, who had earlier breached Ukrainian law by performing in Crimea after 2014. The battle of broadcast media narratives thus became one of the selection of Samoilova as a cynical provocation by an imperialistic aggressor, against that of Ukraine as an uncivilised nation that had breached Eurovision rules on political impartiality, shown prejudice towards the disabled and aligned itself with the Russophobia and decadent values of Western Europe.

The chapter is based on a qualitative and quantitative analysis of a total corpus of 87,301 tweets collected during the Kiev Final between 14 and 16 of May, 2017. Of these, 120 used the RT hashtag or Twitter handle referring to “Евровидение” (the name of the contest in Russian). Our findings are triangulated with the results of focus group interviews carried out in Russia and Ukraine, as well as select examples of user engagement on other social media platforms. By comparing the reactions and attitudes of RT Russian’s social media audiences to those of the Russian-speaking Twitter community more broadly, we will attempt to gauge the relative traction of these narratives, and, consequently, the success or otherwise of Russian state broadcasting in being able to instil their positions among Russian-speaking social media commentators in the transformed media and geopolitical environment of Russia’s ‘near abroad’. The chapter will also strive to answer larger questions about the national and cultural allegiances of Russian-speaking Eurovision fans, and the fracturing and reconfiguration of the Russophone community in Russia, Ukraine and the transnational Russian-speaking world.