A Final Project Update and Thanks from the ‘Reframing Russia’ Team

As our project has formally wrapped up this summer, we would like to share the details of recent and forthcoming publications. Vera Tolz, Stephen Hutchings, Precious Chatterje-Doody and Rhys Crilley have co-authored and published an article, “Mediatization and Journalistic Agency: Russian Television Coverage of the Skripal Poisoning.” Investigating the case of Russian media coverage of the Skripal affair, the authors argue that even non-democracies must cope with the shaping of global communications by certain pervasive media logics and related market imperatives. In conditions where a range of media actors responded to unfolding events and to each other on multiple digital platforms, no state could assert narrative control over the Skripal incident. The article appears in the special issue of Journalism on Russian newsmaking, edited by Elisabeth Schimpfossl, Marielle Wijermars and Ilya Yablokov.

Additionally, a recently published article by our former Research Associate, Rhys Crilley, provides a new research agenda for studies of popular culture and world politics. You can access the article, published in International Studies Review, here.

Over the coming months, our project team will work on a co-authored manuscript, which will bring together and distil the key findings and arguments of the research the Reframing Russia project conducted since its inception. We hope it will be published in 2022. In addition to the book, a set of academic articles and chapters in edited volumes will be published in the coming months, following the formal conclusion of the project. These publications will include:

  1. Precious Chatterje-Doody and Lucy Birge’s co-authored chapter, “Russian Public Diplomacy: Questioning Certainties in Uncertain Times”. It will appear in a forthcoming Palgrave Macmillan book Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty (2021), edited by Paweł Surowiec and Ilan Manor. Watch the recording of an online panel entitled “Media, politics and influence of Russia and Eurasian states”, where Precious and Lucy discuss the research underpinning their new chapter.
  2. Rhys Crilley and Precious Chatterje-Doody’s chapter, “Government mis/disinformation in war and conflict”, will appear in the forthcoming volume Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. This book, edited by Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord, is due to be published in 2021.
  3. Ilya Yablokov and Precious Chatterje-Doody are co-authoring a book called Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: Politics, People, Power. It will be published later in 2020 as part of the “Conspiracy Theories” Routledge series. Watch a recent talk where Ilya and Precious discuss their research and forthcoming book.

Several articles based on extensive empirical research by the Open University audience and social media research team have been submitted to academic journals and will be published in the coming months. Collaborative research on RT’s Twitter followers bringing into dialogue computational and social scientific methods by Rhys Crilley, Marie Gillespie, Bertie Vidgen and Alistair Willis provides important new insights into their demographic features and argues that exposure to RT does not mean either engagement with or endorsement of its content. Rhys Crilley, Marie Gillespie, Vitaly Kazakov and Alistair Willis co-authored a further article on Russian public diplomacy based on a case study of RT’s coverage of the 2018 World Cup and its international audience reception. The Open University team is currently compiling and analysing a significant corpus of diverse datasets gathered over the last three years (from big data to in-depth qualitative interviews) on RT’s audiences and social media users across different platforms. Additionally, Carolijn van Noort and Precious Chatterje-Doody have also co-authored a paper on Russian-Chinese media collaboration around the Belt and Road initiative. These papers will be published soon.

A Big ‘Thank You!’ from our Team

As our project comes to a formal conclusion, we want to take this opportunity to thank you for following our work over the past years. We are grateful to the long list of research participants and administrative staff at the Manchester and Open Universities, as well as the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who helped to facilitate our work. We are also grateful for the important contributions to and feedback on our research from many academic, media, policymaking and other colleagues, who helped to shape our thinking and outputs over the past three years. Many fruitful collaborations between our team members and external colleagues have resulted in a range of academic and public-facing outputs, as well as conference and media appearances.

We hope you will stay in touch with the members of our team and seek to access the announced publications. Our project website will remain online. Although we will no longer actively update it, you can still access the details of our completed works and past events, as well as a database of resources we compiled over the project’s duration. This catalogue of sources, also available in the Excel format via the link below, features: RT’s own reporting of key ‘media events’; a variety of government and think tank reports on ‘information war’ and ‘hybrid warfare’; academic journal articles; newspaper coverage of RT’s operations; web resources and video recordings. We wish the three PhD students affiliated with our project a successful completion of their dissertations in the coming months, and best of luck with ongoing research and new projects to all our collaborators and past members of our team.

‘“Forcing their dirty fingers into the national wounds”: How Russia Today Targets American Audiences with Content on Police Brutality’ | Guest Blog

By Evgenia Olimpieva, Geneva Cole and Ipek Cinar

With the 2020 Presidential election looming and the United States in disarray due to COVID-19 and sweeping protests around police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, the specter of international interference has fallen from view, but perhaps this should not be the case. Our research, which focused on the content published by RT and RT America channels on YouTube in the period from 2015-2018, suggests that the Russia-funded international broadcaster takes advantage of political moments of unrest, and especially the salient episodes of police brutality. We argue that such events provide opportunities for the broadcaster to build trust with the viewers and influence their political opinions by exposing them to other politically charged content.

Rachel Maddow described Russia’s interference and specifically the activity of Russian trolls in 2016 as “forcing their dirty fingernails into our various national open wounds.” This evocative imagery provides a framework for our research. To achieve its goals, we hypothesize that RT targets national wounds in the relevant media market. In the United States, this national wound is racism. In particular, RT zeroes in on police brutality as the manifestation of this national wound. This is an apt choice: Pew finds that attitudes about police brutality are moderated by race and partisanship.

Research on Russian interference and trolls in the previous presidential elections found that while targeting both political left and right, they specifically focused their activity on Black Americans. We find that while RT America mostly caters to the audiences on the left, there is evidence that Black Americans are particularly targeted by the channel as we discover its exceptionally high and persistent attention to the events related to the issue of police brutality. This comes both in specific advertising targeted at black audiences, and the coverage of specifically racialized police brutality. In particular, our research shows:

First, there is an extremely high prevalence of the videos with content of police in the RT Flagship and RT America channels. We find, for instance, that these channels devote nearly six times as much of their content to the topic of police as CNN and about three times as much as Al Jazeera.

Second, videos on police tend to get more views than videos published by RT on other topics—even elections during the 2016 cycle. In fact, 13 of the 20 most viewed videos on RT America were devoted to the topic of police. For example, the second most watched video on RT America, with 2,366,522 views, is titled “Police bust up filming of rap video to arrest felon with gun.” Our quantitative analysis across the entire sample also confirms this.

Third, videos about police drive viewership of RT America as a whole. We found that the proportion of police videos is a statistically significant predictor of channel viewership for RT Flagship and RT America. This was not the case for our comparison channels, CNN and Al Jazeera.

We also found qualitative differences in the way that RT covers instances of police brutality vis-à-vis its competitors. We analyzed the videos from RT America and CNN that covered the same viral instances of police brutality in April 2015 (Freddie Gray) and July 2016 (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the Dallas police shooting all in a 3-day period). The differences were stark. CNN was much more likely to take an institutional approach, focusing on official reports and the perspectives of police, police families, legislators, and other individuals with institutional power. RT, on the other hand, had a more populist approach, relying on raw footage and the perspectives of activists and the families of victims.

With the recent murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, the wound of police brutality remains open and raw. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden remarked that “the original sin of this country still stains our nation today … we see it plainly that we’re a country with an open wound.” We approach the 2020 election with a gaping national wound and concerns about the potential interference from Russia remains. As our research shows, “populist” coverage of the political wounds and police brutality in particular drives the viewership of the network and exposes more viewers to its content. We worry that it might build trust for RT among viewers despite the labels introduced by YouTube, and expose the trusting viewers to biased content and ads that could influence how they vote in 2020. After all, the 3rd most watched video on RT America following during 2016 presidential election cycle covered the calls to lock up Hillary Clinton.

As protests erupted in response to George Floyd as legitimate expressions of real grief, a small number of “outside agitators” took advantage of the situation to sow chaos and division. We can think of RT’s coverage of police brutality in this same light: while they are providing coverage of newsworthy content and even providing a necessary perspective on police brutality, their ultimate purpose is to behave as an outside agitator.


Evgenia Olipieva, Ipek Cinar, and Geneva Cole are all doctoral students at the University of Chicago. They have presented this work at the UChicago Workshop on International Politics.


Olimpieva
Evgenia Olimpieva (@EvgeniaOlimp) studies comparative politics and quantitative methodology with a focus on authoritarian politics and institutions in post-Soviet context.

 

cole


Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) studies American politics with a focus on the role of political and social identities in shaping political attitudes and behavior.

 

cinar
Ipek Cinar (@ipekcinar_ic) studies comparative politics with a focus on comparative democratization, quantitative & computational methods and their applications to political science research.

“Doing things Differently: Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories” | University of Manchester Webinar

At the end of May, Professor Stephen Hutchings and Professor Vera Tolz took part in an online seminar “Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories”. The discussion explored the sources and spread of conspiracy theories in Russia and the West, assessed their ‘success’ and ways to stem the flow of misinformation. Our University of Manchester colleagues, Professor Peter Knight (English and American Studies), Dr David Schoch (Sociology) and Dr Michael Prentice (Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research), took part in the webinar.

The discussion was part of a new series ‘Doing Things Differently‘, which brings the University of Manchester’s Humanities researchers together to discuss how COVID-19 and lockdown are changing the way we think about society, politics, the environment and everyday life. Watch the recording below.

‘New on the media menu: How the establishment of the Patriot media group reflects a new approach to controlling information on the Runet’ | Guest Blog

By Vera Zvereva

Something interesting happened in autumn 2019 in the sphere of pro-presidential media on the Runet. Several news sites – the Federal News Agency (RIA FAN, Federal’noe Agentstvo Novostei), Politics Today (Politika Segodnia), Nation News (Narodnye Novosti), and Economics Today (Ekonomika Segodnia) – announced the creation of the Patriot media group. Its board of trustees, according to the Patriot website, is chaired by the businessman Evgenii Prigozhin. According to the Bell and the BBC, this is the first time Prigozhin has been mentioned officially in connection with these media, although journalists have long associated his name with these sites and their umbrella media structure which they call the ‘media factory’, and with the Internet Research Agency, a ‘troll factory’ structure in St. Petersburg. The creation of the Patriot media group continues the trend of strengthening the pro-presidential media cluster on the Russian-speaking Internet.

M1

Keeping a grip on digital space

In recent years, Russian state authorities have sought to address a complex challenge. They have tried to increase their control over communications in Russian society and to make the Runet a ‘safer’ and more manageable space, especially in the sense of deterring users’ protest activities. Therefore, they have tightened legislation and introduced restrictive measures to control user data and the dissemination of information online. On the other hand, full control over the Runet is hardly possible in the present day, thanks to the spread of digital communication and the proliferation of information channels. Moreover, overtly authoritarian attempts to bring the internet under state control, following the Chinese model, would undermine the image of ‘Russian democracy’ presented to the outside world.

In this situation, the strengthening of the state authorities’ influence in the digital space is being achieved not by legislation alone. On the Russian Internet a communicative system has been created that aims to manage meanings. In this system, actors willing to support the  state authorities’ stance on current events – pro-Kremlin journalists, bloggers and social media users, paid propagandists and amateur volunteers, trolls and the ‘soldiers’ of information campaigns – have been enabled to fulfil this task by any means necessary. Besides individuals, the system also includes a multitude of ‘patriotic’ web resources, – websites, YouTube channels, communities on VKontakte, and so on, – publishing anti-Ukrainian, anti-EU and anti-American content. Not only official supporters, such as registered online pro-Kremlin movements, but also unofficial ones, including anti-Western communities on social media, sympathisers, semi-criminal ‘fishermen in muddy water’ and those who for any reason are willing to contribute, are invited to participate.

The law in this sphere is applied selectively. Proxies of the Russian state authorities receive tacit permission to attack, rebut or pour insults on communications by the political opposition and other ‘malcontents’. These ‘volunteers’ appear to be expressing their personal points of view. This gives them the freedom to jeer at or discredit their opponents, to overlook minor and sometimes major inaccuracies in their own material, to use derogatory language, and to indulge uninhibitedly in aggression and exaggeration in defense of the authorities (see Zvereva 2020 for an in-depth discussion). Among these volunteering supporters are trolls who, in seeking to provoke such reactions as fear, despair or aggression, or to trick users into accepting fakes as facts, also play an important part in spreading commissioned content. Often, it is the trolls who present themselves as the mouthpieces of internet freedom of expression which is being restricted everywhere (and which on the Runet is constrained, according to their logic, by pro-American ‘liberal’ journalists and bloggers). Trolls justify their upsetting and threatening discourse by reference to their own characterisation of reality as upsetting and threatening.

Ordinary internet users have no way of knowing for certain who is behind this or that claim – whether it is somebody like themselves or a paid author. However, ordinary users are themselves an important part of the system, consuming and spreading the messages in circulation. By doing so, they contribute inadvertently to the maintenance of this system of communication.

Emerging into the mainstream

This system of proxies and supporters developed rapidly after 2012, alongside the first legislative acts known as the ‘laws against the internet’. The most widely cited and investigated group of pro-government actors engaged in disseminating pro-state messages on Runet was the so-called Olgino Trolls. In 2013, the Internet Research Agency in the Olgino suburb of St Petersburg hired staff to work for what was effectively a ‘troll-factory’ – a conveyor belt of pseudo-bloggers to write posts and comments in bulk on prescribed topics: against the opposition, against America and Ukraine and in support of the Russian president. The trolls’ work was intended to increase the circulation of pro-government views on social networks, to counter quickly any criticism of the Russian authorities and their actions and to use aggression to deter opponents of the government from communicating online. According to an investigation published by the Russian media company RBK, the Internet Research Agency and a number of other media resources later absorbed into the informal group of businesses that journalists have labelled the ‘Media Factory’ were allegedly financed by Evgenii Prigozhin. In 2018, Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency among other companies and individuals were indicted by a US grand jury for organizing activities for the purpose of interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The sites RIA FAN and Economics Today, along with several others, were included by the US Treasury Department in the sanctions list drawn up as a consequence.

In 2017-18, Facebook and Twitter removed several hundred accounts presumed to be associated with the Internet Research Agency because of alleged interference in the US elections. Among them were accounts of the Federal News Agency (FAN), the main information resource of the ‘Media Factory’. It is important to note that the FAN has never been clandestine: from the very beginning it has operated openly on the Runet. In 2017, ‘Media Factory’ included at least 16 online information resources, nine of which were registered under the official category ‘mass media’ with Roskomnadzor. According to RBK, its combined monthly audience in 2017 was more than 36 million, which exceeded those of Runet’s largest established media resources. Thus, in Runet these newer media resources have been consolidating their position among established media, despite their delegitimization in the West.

It seems that over the past three years, this field of communication in the Runet has begun to change. Proxy warriors took an active part in the anti-Ukrainian information campaign, the campaigns against the European Union and America because of the imposition of sanctions, information support for Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, and in the fight against the Russian opposition. More recently, however, new laws regulating freedom of expression on the Internet have come into force in Russia, and new means developed for restricting various kinds of digital dissent. At the same time, ordinary Runet users have become more familiar with the activity of internet propagandists and trolls. In this new political and legal reality, the need to maintain a shadow army of trolls has disappeared. Therefore, a substantial part of the FAN media resources on the Runet has begun to operate like ordinary mainstream pro-Kremlin media. The creation of the Patriot media group represents a logical continuation of this process.

In particular, a discursive rapprochement is taking place between these dubious (from the Western point of view) resources and the mainstream media. The boundaries between them are becoming difficult to define. Many of the websites associated with the former ‘Media Factory’ had a similar agenda to RIA Novosti, RT Russia, and others, and simply reiterated their news, opinions, and interpretations on the Internet, keeping users inside the discursive space and the circle of resources that they sought to manage, but without reciprocation from the established media. Now, however, RIA Novosti and RT Russia are sharing the links and banners of Patriot group news sites. A network structure allows the same interpretation of events to be quickly propagated from site to site. At the same time, the language circulating in this environment is becoming more similar, whether it is used by high officials or by ordinary users, partly because the language of ‘patriotic’ web-resources often mimics that of the political establishment, and partly because the political language of Russian officials in the media has itself become so rich in street language, non-diplomatic idioms and elements of trolling that what officials say is no longer clearly distinguishable from the speeches of less respectable media actors.

The landing page of the Federal News Agency thus looks quite respectable. It displays photos of the president of the Russian Federation, ministers, and deputies of the State Duma. It offers a similar selection of news stories to what appears on the RIA Novosti and RT websites. In terms of style and language, as well as in its promotional and persuasive techniques, FAN differs little from the mainstream media that present news ‘patriotically’. Political news is discussed in the same way on the FAN and other sites of the Patriot media group as has been practised for years on Russian news and current affairs television programmes and talk-shows.

Politics Today, Economy Today, and Nation News also present themselves as respectable resources. However, the partner materials on these sites often link to teaser networks like Lentainfo, Infox.sg and 24smi, which frequently publish clickbait and content which is inaccurate or misleading. According to investigations by journalists of Lenizdat into the promotional system of the site Nation News, in 2018 this material was  promoted not only with search engine queries dealing with content linked to  the current news agenda, such as ‘the war in Syria’, but also ‘movies for adults’, ‘watch video 18’, ‘’Serebro’ [pop group] naked’, and so on. Clicking on links from these websites very quickly leads to scandal sites that promise sensation, true crime horror, trash photos and adult content.

For example, on 13 April 2020 the ‘News from our partners’ rubric on the Nation News website included clickbait links such as: ‘It’s all happening on 30th April. Golikova [Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy, Labour, Health and Pension Provision] reveals the truth’ and ‘Mishustin allowed to shoot down civilian aircraft: the details’. Clicking these links leads to the page of the teaser network site Infox.sg, which in turn encourages readers to access a text entitled ‘Kirkorov’s [Russian celebrity musician] perversions revealed’, linking in turn to the dubious News-fast.com site promoting ‘50 naughty beach shots’ as well as an article published on Rossaprimavera.ru (‘Krasnaja vesna’) entitled ‘UN expert believes that coronavirus was created in the USA in 2015’. Thus, the mainstream political discourse promoted by these websites is just a click away from Internet resources offering the discourse of scandal, ‘fake news’ and debased language.

Promoting good news and fighting ‘anti-Russian’ media

According to Patriot’s own website, the media group was created in order to disseminate information about events happening in Russia ‘to create a favourable information space aimed at developing the country.’ The group’s websites try to present ‘positive’ stories. Thus, on the FAN website under the tag ‘good news from Russia’, FAN holds a regular contest for good news stories to encourage regional journalists promoting a positive agenda. For example, on February 25, 2020, it is reported that readers voted the first prize (30,000 roubles, about £350) to a journalist of TASS Chechnya for her report ‘Chechnya has patented technology for manufacturing healthy lemonade with fern extract’; and 20,000 roubles second prize to a journalist from the Chelyabinsk Argumenty i Fakty newspaper for the story ‘My eyes and ears: Lekha the cat saved his owner from a fire in Chelyabinsk’.

These publications are reminiscent of a well-known feature of Soviet journalism of the Brezhnev period: reports of positive news such as ‘an increase in the milk yield’ were used as a pretext for discussing those whom the media presented as ‘anti-Soviet’. Indeed, on Patriot sites still more energy is invested in creating another kind of text familiar from the Soviet press – texts about the ‘detection of the enemy’.

The Patriot website declares: ‘Amid the development of modern technologies and the Internet, there is a growing number of media outlets, anti-Russian ones among them, that promote negative information and don’t notice the good things happening in the country’. Most of the attention of these resources is devoted to combatting those media, voices, and interpretations that express points of view that challenge the positions of the Russian authorities. Declaring such sources of information and interpretation as ‘anti-Russian’, the publications of the Patriot group overtly articulate sharper assessments than would appear in the official state media – RIA Novosti or RT.

On the FAN website there are thematic sections devoted to the fight against the ‘anti-Russian’ media: for example, the section ‘Bought by Khodorkovsky’ or ‘Rating of anti-Russian media’. In the FAN project ‘Media Classifier’, media are categorised as follows: Foreign, Anti-Russian, State, Patriotic, Socio-political, and Ukrainian. In the Foreign section one can read, for example, the following: ‘The BBC Russian Service: [this] media regularly publishes materials representing corrupt opposition figures as martyrs and victims of the regime, and also welcomes in its publications the anti-Russian sanctions of the West’. Or ‘Medusa: [this] media promotes homosexuality, incites hatred between nations, publishes custom-made materials advertising fraudulent Internet services, and discredits charities.’ FAN also strategically makes counter-allegations about the USA spreading anti-Russian fake news, investigates the activities of ‘Russophobic media’ and exposes foreign agents in Russia. Thus, FAN tries to seize the initiative by asking who should investigate whom?

An important task for the publications of the Patriot group is to re-interpret ‘inconvenient’ news. For example, in early April this year, news spread in the media that the Novgorod regional police had stopped a convoy of the Alliance of Doctors union and detained activists who were bringing personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, protective suits, goggles, and disinfectant – to doctors in Novgorod hospitals. When detaining the head of the Alliance of Doctors, Anastasia Vasilyeva, police officers had used physical force and then brought charges against her for disobeying the police and violating the self-isolation regime. In response to the ensuing public outrage on the Internet, the Patriot websites posted a number of articles, all repeating the claim, with slight variations that recall the guidelines for writing texts for troll factory employees, that the detention of the activists was justified because they had violated the quarantine regime; that Vasilyeva was associated with Alexei  Navalny; that the actions of the Alliance of Doctors and Vasilyeva were not humanitarian aid, but caused harm; and that Russian hospitals have been provided with everything necessary to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Here are a few quotes. FAN: ‘The Alliance of Doctors trade union is disguising itself with good intentions for the sake of flouting the self-isolation regime. The leader of the union, created by the odious blogger Alexei Navalny, was detained on 3 April on the M-11 highway in the Novgorod region. … At the same time, local medical institutions had no need of support – everything they needed was already available. … The Association of Health Managers has already issued a statement stressing that Vasilieva is trying to sabotage the work of hospitals and is putting the lives of doctors and patients in danger.’

Politics Today: ‘The raids of the Alliance of Doctors in the Moscow regions are aimed at discrediting Russian doctors. Anastasia Vasilieva and her Alliance of Doctors union have staged several provocative actions in Russian hospitals. She … is herself a project of the infamous blogger Alexei Navalny.’

Nation News: ‘The Alliance of Doctors has violated three decrees to comply with the self-isolation rules. The actions of the head of the Alliance of Doctors trade union, Anastasia Vasilyeva, who travelled to the regions, may constitute evidence of a violation of the high alert regime in Moscow. Alexei Navalny’s attending physician herself thinks differently …’

The Patriot group sites have become an important part of the information system with its ‘control points’ in different communication nodes, from official information agencies to informal social media groups and everywhere in between. At these control points, a concept may be taken and have its meaning adjusted in accordance with the line given at the top.

While their reporting objectives vary with current events, the Patriot news sites appear to follow two strategies consistently. They seek to gain greater legitimacy as news media, while continuing to carry out those tasks from which official state media refrain.


P.S. On 17 April 2020, FAN reported that Google had blocked its media account and its associated YouTube account. Representatives of the Patriot media group have claimed that these actions violated its right to free speech. According to TASS, ‘The Kremlin considers Google’s blocking of Russian media accounts unacceptable and expects that such decisions will be reviewed. This was reported to journalists by the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Peskov.’


VZ

 

Vera Zvereva is a Senior lecturer in Russian language and culture at the University of Jyväskylä

 

 

Lost in Mistranslation: What the Russian Media Actually Said about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Hospitalisation?

By Vera Tolz and Stephen Hutchings

The latest controversy surrounding Russian malfeasance relates to a RIA Novosti report of 6 April 2020 about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation. It has been claimed that this report states that Johnson ‘had been put on a ventilator’ leading the Prime Minister’s spokesman to ‘dismiss the report as “disinformation’. Titles of articles in UK newspapers covering the story include: ‘Boris Johnson’s Spokesman Accuses Russia of Spreading ‘Disinformation’ after Russian State Media Claims the Prime Minister Is on a Coronavirus Ventilator’; ‘Downing Street Slams Russian Reports Saying Boris Johnson is on a Ventilator’.


A simple inspection of the original RIA Novosti article reveals that this representation of the Russian news agency report results from a mistranslation. RIA Novosti indeed reported Johnson’s hospitalisation. Any reference to the treatment he might receive is made with the use of the future tense, rather than reporting something that had been given already. Furthermore, the Russian report does not claim that the treatment will involve a ‘ventilator’. The report is entitled – ‘A Source Says: Johnson Will Be Put on an Artificial Breathing Apparatus’. A further quote attributed to an unnamed source which is embedded in the text states: ‘An artificial ventilation of the lungs will be administered to him’. Again, a basic check of any Russian dictionary will tell you that in the Russian language the medical umbrella term ‘iskusstvennoe ventilirovanie’ (artificial ventilation) applies to both invasive treatment with a ventilator and the non-invasive use of an oxygen mask, which, it appears, Johnson has indeed been receiving. RIA Novosti’s short report clarifies neither the kind of ‘ventilation of the lungs’ Johnson will receive to assist his breathing, nor the specific apparatus via which it will be delivered. In fact, RIA Novosti is one of Russia’s more cautious state media outlets and its coverage actually fits the pattern.

Overall, the Russian media, with the exception of RT UK which targets a UK audience, has understandably and predictably exhibited little interest in Johnson’s hospitalisation. Most of RT’s coverage has been factual but some articles on its web-site question the extent to which statements made about Johnson’s state of health by representatives of the government are consistent and believable. Russia’s main domestic broadcasters covered Johnson’s hospitalisation only very briefly and towards the end of their news bulletins, most of which are devoted to the situation inside Russia. One report on the main domestic TV channel that mentioned the hospitalisation briefly notes speculation in the UK press, particularly the tabloids, that Johnson ‘is likely to be put on an artificial breathing apparatus’. Again, the nature of the apparatus is not specified. The UK tabloids referred to here have, by comparison, been less careful, specifically mentioning the likelihood that the Prime Minister will need a ventilator. The title of a Daily Express article actually declares: ‘Boris Johnson on Ventilator’.

In sum, there is no evidence of any attempt by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health. Given that it was bound to elicit an instant and entirely credible denial, such blatant falsehoods would seem to serve little purpose anyway. The febrile environment in which Russian disinformation, even of the crassest and most pointless kind, is anticipated at every step, and in which rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are therefore sidestepped, generates a mis-rendering of a future-tense verb as past tense, and a misrepresentation of what appears to be a very vague use of medical terminology by the Russian report. This in turn spawns a misleading news story in the Western media requiring an unwarranted rebuttal from a UK government with enough on its hands already. It is in no way the aim of the Reframing Russia project to defend Russian state media, let alone the Kremlin, but the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive and provides the Kremlin with an open target.

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.

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.

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.