COVID-19 Disinformation: Two Short Reports on the Russian Dimension

By Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz

The Challenge to Counter-Disinformation Analysts: A COVID-19 Case Study for Policy Makers and Journalists

The EU’s main task force for fighting Russian disinformation is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself, and so of skewing policy decisions in the EU and the UK, as well as distorting public discourse throughout Europe. Based on EU-sponsored counter-disinformation analysis in relation to COVID-19, our report explains what is happening and why. It does not dispute the need to track disinformation campaigns. However, it argues that this work has to be done carefully, and differently. Earlier experiences point to a more reliable approach, the consequences of not adopting which are highly counterproductive.

Counter-Disinformation with an EU Stamp

As members of a Russian media research project at the University of Manchester we were recently asked to comment on material in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic produced by EUvsDisnfo, ‘the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force’, established by the European Council to respond to Russia’s ‘ongoing disinformation campaigns’. Since it bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided the basis for a series of national and international press articles featuring alarming accounts of how Russia was spreading COVID-19 related disinformation, including in The Daily Mail, The Guardian and Deutsche Welle. EUvsDisinfo’s research material, along with the narrative it corroborated, is acquiring viral momentum.

The EUvsDisinfo analyses consisted of English-language summaries of five Russian media stories promulgating coronavirus conspiracy theories. Whilst examining these five in depth, overall our team looked at more than twice that number (there were 112 in the EUvsDisinfo ‘database’ as of 26 March and more are added each day). Each item was given a headline title and it was with these headlines (not those of the original sources) that western politicians and journalists work. The summaries had clearly been translated from the original Russian in which they were compiled. They came with handy, fact-based ‘disproofs’ of the validity of those stories, and a table providing information about the countries in which they were circulating, their countries of origin, and a link to the original stories, some consisting of broadcast content, others of press articles.

Counter-Disinformation with a Question Mark?

Concerned that the summaries might be overgeneralising about ‘pro-Kremlin media’, we sampled a news bulletin from Russia’s main state-aligned broadcaster, Channel 1, shown on 12 March 2020. Coronavirus led the bulletin which also closed with a related story. Coverage here consisted, however, mainly of neutral accounts of recent developments, with much attention to how other nations were responding (inflected with an implicit suggestion that many were overreacting, but also pointedly dwelling on Western hygiene advice clearly intended for Russian viewers to heed). The closing item was a story about how swindlers across the world, including Russia, were exploiting fear of the virus and selling false, ‘folk’ remedies to gullible people. It concluded with a plea to viewers to turn to professional medical staff for advice. Russia’s generally anti-Western stance finds expression throughout Channel 1, but there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin ‘conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.

The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analysed is troubling. Two of the Task Force’s working methods are particularly problematic.

  1. The Problem of Context

a. From omission …

First, in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media content. One item identified a conspiracy theory claiming that COVID-19 ‘was probably created on purpose at the UK’s Porton Down laboratories’. It was aired on a well-known Russian political discussion show called ‘The Big Game’.  Most importantly, there is no indication in the EUvsDisinfo database that the theory is rebuffed by the show’s co-moderator, who has previously collaborated with the US government. He repeats several times during the programme that he does not believe the conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus. He himself broaches the notion that the virus was not ‘man-made’ (the ‘man-made’ fallacy was implicitly attributed by EUvsDisinfo to the entire programme), but transmitted to humans by an animal species, and footage is shown of the very pangolin to which the EUvsDisinfo’s ‘disproof’, citing Nature magazine, refers when rebutting the ‘pro-Kremlin’ conspiracy theory. Moreover, EUvsDisinfo fails to acknowledge that ‘The Big Game’ is a domestic Russian broadcast intended primarily for home consumption. Channel 1 is also widely available in Russian-speaking areas of the post-Soviet space but to the limited extent that ‘The Big Game’ is part of an overseas propaganda ‘campaign’, it contributes (a) only in very general terms, striving to keep its overseas audiences on board with its pro-Russian, anti-Western agendas, thus maintaining Russian influence in its ‘near abroad’ and (b) working with the grain of popular discourses prevalent in the Russian-speaking environment, but less widespread elsewhere.

Indeed, despite the far greater level of state direction and minimal space for free speech constraining it, Russian television, like its British counterpart, tends to reflect back at viewers their own popular beliefs and fears, along with ideas which circulate in online realms often dominated by Russian nationalist positions more extreme than those of the Kremlin. These ideas infiltrate Russian state-aligned media without the explicit sanction of the Kremlin, or even of Channel 1 executives. Coronavirus and other such conspiracy theories rarely originate in the Kremlin. However, as long as they do not explicitly contradict Kremlin thinking, they are frequently aired in talk shows such as ‘The Big Game’. It is much rarer for them to be circulated in direct form in Channel 1 news broadcasts, though the other state channel, Rossiia, will regularly broadcast news bulletins (particularly those fronted by Dmitrii Kiselev, who is an unapologetic state operative) featuring preposterous anti-Western propaganda. By failing to furnish crucial information about the programme in which it features, the EUvsDisinfo packaging of the Porton Down theory overstates its significance.

b. To blatant distortion …

Another item related to an hour-long Radio Sputnik programme on the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Here, a short exchange between two participants is chosen in which one refers to a particular historical episode and claims that today international companies would use the situation ‘to establish control over Chinese markets’. The other participant, however, disagrees, warning against drawing any historical parallels. EUvsDisinfo’s report is misleadingly entitled ‘Coronavirus is an attempt by the Anglo-Saxons to control China’ and the summary represents the programme content accordingly.

In one case, EUvsDisinfo accuses RT’s Arabic branch of itself concocting a claim promoted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that COVID-19 is attributable to US biological weaponry, despite the fact that RT merely reports the claim (albeit without clarifying that it lacks evidence).  Altogether, EUvsDisinfo identified five RT reports that it classified as disinformation. All are from RT Arabic, including one report which denies that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign around COVID-19. EUvsDisinfo includes this in the database on the questionable grounds that its own staff identified examples of Russian disinformation elsewhere.

A still more troubling item related to a conspiracy theory purportedly promoted by Sputnik Latvia (a Russian-language outlet) and claiming that COVID-19 had been designed especially to kill elderly Italians. The article in question, however, was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the coronavirus. Rather than endorsing these theories, the article highlights their idiocy and urges people to give them no credence. This is one of the most significant examples of EUvsDisinfo’s tendency to misread or misrepresent its sources.

When it does identify genuine disinformation authored by Russian state actors, EUvsDisinfo uses its findings in an inflationary manner that seems designed to deceive. Thus, an article from what probably is a Kremlin-sponsored proxy outlet branded to look like a US alt right site, and containing outlandish ‘One World Order’ conspiracy theories regarding international responses to COVID-19, is recorded on the EUvsDisinfo database under eight different headings and as eight separate items, artificially boosting the overall tally of instances of ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’.

  1. The Terminology Problem

A second problem with EUvsDisinfo’s methods is its use of the vague notion of ‘pro-Kremlin disinformation’ to mis-associate programmes from state-funded media outlets with random websites without any traceable links to Russian state structures. The latter include, for example, conspirological, far-right sites which are actually critical of Putin. A further item related to the Porton Down conspiracy theory was labelled ‘The coronavirus is a biological weapon created by the UK’. It was promulgated in the Russian nationalist leaning (but hardly pro-Kremlin) Svobodnaia pressa (Free Press). The article’s title – ‘Patent has been found which proves the British trace in COVID-19’ – supports the EUvsDisinfo account of it. Yet a closer reading of the full article reveals that this title is itself misleading. The suggestion that the virus is ‘a biological weapon developed by the British, even if they pursued scientific goals’ is, indeed, quoted in the article, which, for sure, has a strongly anti-‘Anglo-Saxon’ bias and skirts around several conspiracy theories. However the author first presents this quote as originating in online forums, distancing himself from the quote by suggesting that ‘supporters of the claim are not completely sinning against the truth’. He later concedes that the most probable origin of the virus is the animal world, and specifically a bat species considered edible in China. The article is specious and lacks plausibility, but the EUvsDisinfo presentation of it is inaccurate.

The use of poorly defined notions of ‘pro-Kremlin propaganda’ has already prompted calls for the European Commission to halt the activities of EUvsDisinfo.  Parliamentarians and journalists in EU states criticised EUvsDisinfo on the grounds that it violates free speech.  Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation according to the East StratCom’s own definition of the term. Moreover, EUvsDisinfo’s announcement of the change of policy it introduced in 2018 in response to objections to its work is unhelpful, merely substituting the labelling of pro-Kremlin outlets as ‘disinforming’ with references to disinformation arising from the ‘pro-Kremlin ecosystem’.

EU and UK politicians and journalists are relying on EUvsDisinfo’s claims when asserting that ‘pro-Kremlin media have been spreading disinformation about coronavirus with the aim of aggravating public health crisis in the West’.  The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting Western countries with an organised campaign around the current public health crisis – which is not to say that COVID-19 disinformation of Russian, even Russian state, provenance is completely absent from the global media environment.

Reasons for the Problems

Why do we find ourselves in a situation where an EU-funded body set up to fight disinformation ends up producing it? There are two main reasons:

  1. A profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work.
  2. The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to perform the required tasks.

First, EU politicians and journalists’ claims about Russia are too often based on the false perception that the Kremlin controls all Russian media and communication technologies. Russian affairs specialists frequently caution that in Russia, where the internet is policed only partially, there still are numerous news sites that function independently from the Kremlin, and that a propaganda machine centrally coordinated by the Kremlin exists only in the Western imagination. Sadly such messages tend to get lost in the fog of what is increasingly, and problematically, referred to as the ‘information war’.

Secondly, the East StratCom Task Force relies on as many as 400 volunteers to trace Russian disinformation. It is impossible to check that hundreds of volunteers possess the qualifications essential for passing judgement on what disinformation is and, if this is identified, for summarising the findings in a credible way. Such qualifications, particularly those certificating the skills needed to interpret the data collected, require lengthy training. According to a Dutch public broadcaster investigation, a single jobless volunteer has been responsible for reporting no less than 25 percent of all EUvsDisinfo’s 3,500 disinformation cases. Such volunteers, moreover, are operating in a post-Soviet space saturated (for very understandable reasons) by anti-Russian sentiments from which they are unlikely to be completely free. By outsourcing vital research to volunteers working in ideologically fraught environments, EUvsDisinfo will inevitably struggle to present reliable, robust findings.

The EU is not alone

The tendency to outsource research which in previous decades would have been carried out by trained experts is not peculiar to EUvsDisinfo. With its budgets severely constrained by years of austerity and its own teams of qualified experts diminished, the UK’s Foreign Office is prone to the same policy, the risks to which were illustrated by unwelcome political scandals surrounding its funding of research carried out by the controversial ‘Institute for Statecraft’. Ironically, the Russian state follows not dissimilar tactics, and its notorious IRA ‘troll factory’ is a case in point. Not only is the IRA an example of state outsourcing, it is now itself outsourcing work to networks across the world. There are three linked problems with this strategy. First, it encourages its beneficiaries to skew their research results to reflect what they believe their benefactors want to hear, exacerbating the second problem of unreliability and inconsistency illustrated by the work of EUvsDisinfo. Together these two problems generate distortions which in turn produce a third problem: the unleashing of a self-renewable dynamic of claims, rebuttals and counter-claims. The Institute of Statecraft scandal furnished rich material for Russian state-aligned media’s own campaign against disinformation.

An Alternative Approach and the Consequences of Not Following It

It would benefit the European Commission to learn from disinformation analysis of an earlier period. In the 1980s, Vera Tolz worked as an analyst at the Research Department of Radio Liberty, a US-funded radio station that broadcast to the Soviet Union. These analysts identified some of the most significant Soviet disinformation campaigns. The Department’s weekly reports were used by Western government officials and the media. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the analysis was the result of appointing qualified staff whose work was systematically supervised and checked for accuracy by researchers with long experience. There was a clear understanding that one’s origin in a particular country, the ability to speak its language and having ‘reliably’ anti-Soviet views did not make one a research analyst. Further lessons on how high-quality, dependable media analysis is produced can be learned from the work of BBC Monitoring whose well-trained experts follow media across the world, including Russia. The UK’s broadcasting regulator, OFCOM, also deploys appropriate expertise, as demonstrated by its rigorous, balanced and nuanced report on RT’s breaches of due impartiality during the period of the Salisbury poisonings crisis.

The European Commission’s reliance on East StratCom is jeopardising its credibility as an evidence-driven policymaker. It is giving valuable ammunition to Russian state media counterclaims that it is the EU itself which produces disinformation. Indeed, RT has launched its own extensive FakeCheck operation which, in turn, has spawned take-down analyses pointing out that ‘the fact checks published by RT usually result in conclusions that align with Russia’s agenda’. Poor quality counter-disinformation initiatives nourish the wider disinformation ecosystem by feeding off one another as disinformation mutates, virus-like, into its antithesis – counter-disinformation – and back again.


Coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Website of RT (formerly Russian Today)

Analysis of RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic carried out by the Manchester University-led ‘Reframing Russia’ AHRC-funded project suggests that it fits with the project team’s overview of RT’s approach to reporting. This overview is based on close monitoring of RT’s output over the last three years (2017-2020). The main features of this approach are:

  • During periods when Russian actions are not under the international spotlight, RT’s coverage is more factually accurate and biases are less strongly pronounced than when it covers issues specifically related to Russia’s policies. Particularly after the sanctioning of RT by OFCOM for its coverage of the Salisbury poisonings, RT International, which provides news in the English language, has become more careful in how it presents controversial news stories. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such story.
  • RT’s coverage becomes extremely biased and borders on disinformation when events which are of particular importance for Russia’s foreign policy agenda and international image are in the spotlight (e.g. Russia’s annexation of Crimea; the Ukraine crisis; and the Salisbury poisonings). Such events take place only occasionally, and should not be used to draw inferences about RT’s ‘typical’ reporting strategies.
  • RT has a tendency to foreground stories that put Western democracies in a bad light. This is consistent with its proclaimed mission ‘to provide alternative perspectives on current affairs’. At the same time, RT also claims to be a regular international news provider. Even allowing for justifiable scepticism about this claim, it should be acknowledged that much of RT’s output is purely factual and consists of aggregations of news reports by leading Western news agencies. Without this approach, RT would stand to lose even the modest audience it currently has.

Our search of RT International’s web-site,* conducted on 24 March 2020, revealed over 300 items, including video clips of news items and web articles, related to COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a Russia-related development, meaning that RT (and the Russian state) have little incentive to initiate a coordinated disinformation campaign around it.

Of the identified RT reports on COVID-19, 23 deal with conspiracy theories, and the overwhelming majority of these amount to rebuttals of western media accusations of Russian conspiracy mongering, or mockeries of conspiracy theories touted by others. Typical examples include: ridiculing a conspiracy theory tweeted by a Hollywood actress; and dismissing as ‘Russophobic’ US State Department accusations of Russian conspiracy-theory dissemination.

It is worth noting how RT International covered claims made by officials in China and Iran that COVID-19 was a US attack on their countries, given that China and Iran are Russia’s allies against the West. RT reported the allegations with a caveat that they were ‘unverified’ and that there was ‘no proof that they could be true’ (see examples 1, 2 and 3). However, RT’s cautionary note was much less robustly phrased than the outright dismissal of the Chinese and Iranian officials’ claims by mainstream Western news providers.

The remainder of the 300 stories were either neutral reports replicated from Western press sources, OR attempts to link COVID-19 to various weaknesses and injustices in the UK and other Western states. Examples of RT International’s use of the pandemic to criticize Western elites and media include: a story about how mainstream media reportedly attempted to pit Trump against his health officials; a report on how Twitter users criticized a prominent Daily Telegraph columnist for xenophobia because of her crude anti-Chinese tweet; an RT web article concluding that in Western societies the tendency inflexibly to follow procedures could actually impede efforts to save lives from the deadly virus. This last example represents a variant on RT’s circumspect approach to disinformation; it targets not disinformation itself but the overly cautious branding as ‘fake news’ of what could turn out to be a genuinely effective treatment. The notion of an excessively risk-averse West poorly equipped to take the bold decisions needed to address the COVID-19 crisis appears to be a theme in RT’s op-ed columns.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that most of the items that use the coronavirus pandemic to criticize Western countries are on-line op-ed articles, rather than reports in daily news bulletins. This is in keeping with RT’s usual strategy of reserving its most savagely anti-Western material for op-eds, with a standard disclaimer at the end: ‘The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.’ The apparent mirroring of western journalistic standards of transparency forms part of RT’s identity as a respectable international broadcaster.

A more questionable practice equating to the populist ‘alt media upstart’ component of RT’s brand image is the provision on its web-site of links to hyper-partisan news sites in the column ‘From our partners’. Such ‘partners’ include mixi.media, a news aggregator of unclear provenance, which uploads material from ultra-right wing US sites, such as RealClearPolitics and Grabien. These links appear alongside links to reports by RT and the Russian state-funded Radio Sputnik. In relation to COVID-19, RT provided a link via mixi.media to a RealClearPolitics article by a US doctor who, at an earlier stage of the pandemic, claimed that the mainstream media were creating an unnecessary ‘hysteria’ around the virus.

RT’s services in languages other than English are often subjected to less scrutiny and appear to feature poorer reporting practices. This applies particularly to RT Arabic (but less so to RT France, which is being very closely monitored by the Macron administration). When reporting the statement by the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to the effect that COVID-19 ‘might be a biological attack’ by the US on Iran, in contrast to RT International, RT Arabic omitted any clarification that there was no evidence for the claim. RT Arabic’s short report, entitled ‘The Revolutionary Guards: Corona Could be an American Biological Attack’, merely quoted from Hossein Salami’s statement.

This is, of course, poor journalistic practice. However, it is different from how the European Commission-funded EastStratCom Task Force, set up to respond to Russian disinformation, represents this RT Arabic report. Here, the channel is accused of itself concocting and promoting the IRG claim. Altogether, EastStratCom identified five RT reports that it classified as disinformation. All are from RT Arabic, including one report which denies that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign around Covid-19. EastStratCom includes this as an example of Russian disinformation on the questionable grounds that its own staff identified examples of Russian disinformation. In every case, EastStratCom’s representation of RT Arabic coverage is misleading. As mentioned above, some of RT’s reporting practices are deficient (e.g. the insufficient provision of contextual information; the inclusion of links to hyper-partisan material), but, in the context of the COVID-19 coverage they are undoubtedly superior to EastStartCom’s own methods (see our separate analysis of EastStratCom’s claims above).

Overall, we see no particular reason to refer RT’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic to OFCOM. To have any impact, such referrals should be made in the cases of serious, systematic malpractice. There seems to be little evidence of this in the case of RT’s COVID-19 coverage.


* Please note that this analysis is based solely on RT International’s web content. We have not analysed RT’s television and social media output. On the whole, particularly following OFCOM’s sanctioning of RT for its television output during the period of the Salisbury poisonings crisis, RT International’s broadcasts have been more circumspect than its web content.


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Stephen Hutchings is Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.

 

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

“Emotions and war on YouTube: affective investments in RT’s visual narratives of the conflict in Syria” | New Journal Article Is Out Now

Recent studies in International Relations suggest that the political consequences of narratives and images of war are informed not only by their content and presentation but also their emotional effects. Few researchers, however, investigate how various audiences respond to such images and narratives in practice. A new article, co-authored by Dr Rhys Crilley and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody, makes an important contribution the scholarship on the topic.

Their paper combines discourse analysis of RT ‘breaking news’ YouTube videos of Russian military intervention in Syria with analysis of 750 comments and social media interactions on those videos. The study demonstrates how RT layers moral and legal justifications for Russian intervention in multiple audio-visual formats, within a visual narrative of the conflict that relies on affective representations of key actors and events. The authors find that viewers largely approve of the content, replicate its core narratives and express emotions coherent with RT’s affective representation of the Syrian conflict. Audiences’ responses to these narratives and images of war were shaped by their affective investments in the identities and events portrayed on-screen.

The article contributes to our understanding of the political significance of images of armed conflict. It is available on early view in the journal Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Access the full article here.

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Dr Rhys Crilley, a former Research Associate on our project, will soon be starting his Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Glasgow.

 

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

Open Access Journal Articles and Cultural Diplomacy Blog Post

Professor Stephen Hutchings has recently published a blog post for the “Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community” programme. In the blog, he explores the relationship between cultural diplomacy and language. Read the post, entitled “Cultural Diplomacy, Linguistic Diversity and the Softening of Power: Towards a Progressive Patriotism”, here.

Also, two of our recent articles published in the special section ‘The Cultural Politics of Commemoration: Media and Remembrance of the Russian Revolutions’ of The European Journal of Cultural Studies are now available in open access. Follow the links below to read these article:

Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists: Forging Dialogue Across Divisions

Reframing Russia is a research project that aspires to reach a better understanding of the dynamics of the intensifying ‘information war’ between Russia and much of the “western” world. As part of this ambition, on November 7th, 2019, we organised a dialogue across what are often conceived of as deep set political and media divisions at the Frontline Club in London. The roundtable debate brought together a high-profile RT presenter, a senior RT executive, a columnist for The Independent, journalists from the BBC and from Sweden’s main public broadcaster, SVT, an ABC reporter, a retired senior British diplomat and an academic from the Alan Turing Data Science Institute specialising in researching populist politics and the detection of  extremist discourse online.

‘Populism, Post-Truth and the Challenges for Journalists’ were chosen as topics that could provide common ground. While Russian disinformation, interference and ‘cyberwarfare’ techniques are often invoked in this context, our aim was to forge dialogue across divisions in what has become a very hostile and conflicted space. The discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule.

The dialogue was conducted in a calm atmosphere of mutual respect. There were inevitably several sharp exchanges. Some of these adopted familiar, ‘information war’ tones but there was convergence on a surprising number of issues.

A central point of contention revolved around the assertion by one participant—contested by others—that the loss of public trust in journalism and the very failure of current business models for press journalism might ultimately lead to the ‘death of democracy’. The claim, convincingly illustrated, was that traditional journalistic mechanisms for providing audiences with information of the quality and depth necessary for them to develop informed opinion are being fast eroded. As another speaker argued, the impact of emerging phenomena like ‘deep fakes’ is likely to accelerate this process. Others, however, observed that social media platforms facilitate more meaningful audience engagement and help rebuild trust in journalism; meanwhile access to multiple new open information sources aid news gathering and create space for crowd-sourced and citizen journalism, enhancing the quality and breadth of public knowledge. Moreover, it was suggested, popular concerns over limited political and media literacy resulting in widespread failure to detect misinformation and media bias may well be overstated and reflect condescension towards younger audiences.

The debate took a new direction following an intervention highlighting the alleged degeneration of the traditional media sphere into ‘a self-perpetuating echo chamber that has lost touch with its audience’. This bold inversion of the conventional wisdom that ‘echo chambers’ are the by-product of new, online media led the same speaker to claim that the digital revolution into which RT was born has equipped members of the public with an unprecedented choice to ‘mix and match’ the outlets they follow, and to consume hitherto unavailable stories and alternative narratives which are sometimes unjustifiably vilified.

Inevitably, attitudes to fact-based journalism loomed large in the debate. One participant lamented that in the current political climate, ‘we need to present facts and not speculations; but when we present facts, the audience does not care’.  Others cautioned against over-fetishizing facts and the fact that very different versions of the truth circulate. Nonetheless, pressure on journalists and media organisations to deliver news in entertaining ways to capture audiences, both in terms of substance and format, were recognised as intense – often militating against the straight presentations of facts. An important point of convergence was that the vital contextual knowledge needed to make sense of the complexity of international affairs, not least those involving Russia, was often missing. Russophobic and anti-Western narratives, which are equally toxic, circulate with too little question in both Russia and elsewhere.

The latter point was among several which elicited broad consensus, including the following:

  • The tendency to single out Russia as acting in a unique or exceptional way renders representations of Russia in Western public discourse unbalanced, merely fuelling its claims of double-standards and hypocrisy (e.g. not subjecting the likes of Saudi Arabia or China to the same scrutiny in relation to human rights). This was noted by a respected western journalist who did not specialise in Russian affairs.
  • Focusing on ‘Russian meddling’ unduly narrows and distorts analysis of the reasons for the wider decline of trust in mainstream media and elected politicians. Commercial pressures, decreased funding for quality journalism and UK press partisanship offer better explanations for such phenomena. Participants with very different political views including those highly critical of Russia and RT concurred on this point.
  • UK-Russia relations should be viewed in a longer perspective. Negative images of Russia are historically entrenched in the UK where they are more prevalent than in other European countries. British policymakers, journalists and analysts should broaden their view, avoiding ingrained stereotypes which hamper the analysis of specific situations and the development of appropriate policy responses.
  • The idea that ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ are an entirely recent phenomenon is unhelpful. Misinformation, skewed interpretations and the dissemination of complete fabrications have a long history from which lessons can be drawn in order to identify which aspects of these phenomena are genuinely new (those attributable to the reconfiguration of the public sphere by social media, for example).
  • Most facts are open to all manner of contestation, selection, manipulation and reframing. Journalism in Russia as in the UK is a mix of fact-gathering and fact-curation and debate should focus on the appropriate relationship between these principles.
  • In this context, notions of ‘due impartiality’ should not be confused with ‘objectivity’; the BBC definition of this axiom is admirably nuanced, but it leaves too much latitude for individual journalists’ judgement. But we need to be cautious, lest we undermine the criteria by which we consider journalistic practices in contexts where the hand of state control is more apparent.

Nonetheless, relativistic claims of complete equivalence between media outlets which operate in very different political environments are misplaced. Examples of BBC management standing by its journalists when under severe attack by UK governments are not universally replicable. Dialogue of the sort represented by the discussion at the Frontline Club does not require participants to compromise on points of fundamental principle, to be forced into general accord in the interests of diplomacy, or to lose face; on many points a respectful ‘agreement to disagree’ remained the order of the day.

Indeed, perhaps the key take-away from the event was that, precisely because UK-Russia state relations are stuck at such a stubborn impasse, policy makers and those in the position to influence their thinking on both sides should encourage further initiatives involving actors at the sub-state and non-state levels. Such trust-building exercises could serve as a means of kick-starting the much-needed process of resetting diplomatic relations, if not from the bottom up, then at least from outside conventional channels. There is a valuable role here for discussions under Chatham House rules in which influential figures from opposing positions can come together in open debate, working towards establishing a common agenda, or a common language in which to disagree.

A particularly important place in these forums should be reserved for journalists and newsmakers since they play such a critical role in influencing popular attitudes on both sides, and because mutual accusations of malign interference in the two respective public spheres are driving the diplomatic crisis. That crisis is liable to intensify with Brexit, which may reinforce Russia’s perceptions of British weakness and isolation, whether those perceptions are justified or not. Now, therefore, is the time to act.


See the event photo gallery here.

SABC news appearance – Ukraine-Russia deal | Why the U.S. needs a seat at the negotiations table

Professor Stephen Hutchings from The University of Manchester was interviewed via Skype on ‘The Globe’, the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s global affairs programme, on the 14th December. The topic of discussion was the recent face-to-face talks between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine, which have yielded modest progress, with tentative agreements on prisoner exchanges and a total ceasefire, but no political breakthrough to the five-year old conflict in south-east Ukraine. The two failed to reach an agreement on the status of the Donbass during the recent Normandy summit in Paris. The news programme drew on Professor Hutchings’ expertise and asked him to comment on the ongoing situation. Watch the full interview here.

South African Broadcasting Corporation

“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.