Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: From Cold War to ‘Information War’?

Professor Stephen Hutchings, The University of Manchester

‘Liberation – Freedom – Democracy? 1918–1968–2018’, Aleksanteri Institute, Finland, 24-26 October 2018.


The period that our conference is asked to reflect upon traces the extended trajectory of what was the defining event of the late 20th Century: the Cold War. Yet despite the persistence of tensions (and the tropes bred by them) over this time, the period we are considering does not form a closed cycle. Nor, however, is it a trajectory with free speech and democracy as its ultimate destination. Focusing on the most recent point in the trajectory, I argue that the ‘information war’ that Putin’s Kremlin is purportedly waging against the West is conducted under conditions far distant from those of the Cold War. Aside from significant differences between the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian states, technical innovations since the late nineties have  produced a hyper-networked, multi-platform global mediasphere in which propagators of state media narratives struggle to adjust to the proliferation and democratisation of information flows.

The reality of the global mediasphere requires multiple ‘reframings’ of Russian state activities within it: the reframing of conventional, linear propaganda models that emphasise the Kremlin’s agency but ignore structural constraints; the Kremlin’s own struggles to reframe and contextualise both its domestic and its international propaganda operations; the ability of participatory media audiences to reframe state narratives in unexpected ways. I will address four issues derived from these reframings: (i) tensions between the official discourses prevailing in domestic Russian state television news and popular idioms pervading distinctly post-Soviet genres such as the talk-show; (ii) the significant recalibrations that Russia’s domestic state media narratives undergo when adopted by its international broadcasting arm; (iii) the reconfiguring of ‘information war’ battle lines within highly heterogeneous Russophone social media communities; (iv) the dialogic, recursive logic of an information war conducted across the competing narratives facilitated by global media networks. Relying on ‘media event’ theory, I will explore these issues through analyses of three major international incidents: the scandal over Russia’s exclusion from the 2017 Eurovision song contest; repercussions from the innovative project launched by international broadcaster, RT, to mark the centenary of the 1917 revolution; the Salisbury spy poisoning incident in March 2018 and its ongoing aftermath.