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.

‘RT takes libertarian anti-lockdown stance’ | Guest Blog

By Natalie-Anne Hall

This month, as the world has been debating how and when to lift Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ and Boris Johnson set out the UK’s moderate (if confusing) easing of restrictions, RT has published a series of anti-lockdown op-eds. Since 1 May, nine opinion pieces (by six different authors) have been published on RT’s website criticising the UK’s restrictions, compared with just one in support of them (back on 1 May). All of these op-eds have also been posted to the RT UK Facebook page, increasing their visibility. Many of the authors of these pieces, like Damian Wilson, Robert Bridge, Rob Lyons and Norman Lewis, are regular contributors to RT online, writing from politically and economically right-wing standpoints including attacks on climate activism, refugee programmes and ‘PC culture.’

These pieces have a distinct libertarian tone, evidenced in incendiary language like ‘riding roughshod over basic freedoms’. Much of the language used is provocative, with words like ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘socialist experiment’ conjuring images of communist dictatorships. In his piece following the 10 May announcement, Norman Lewis calls Johnson’s policy ‘patronizing and demeaning,’ eluding to a small-government, free-market approach. Mitchell Feierstein in his piece twice likens the government’s furlough scheme to the fiscal irresponsibility of ‘Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic,’ and stokes anxiety with lines like ‘I am frightened by what I have been hearing, and you should be, too’. A third piece published on the same day (13 May) by Damian Wilson compares the UK’s current situation with the poverty and rationing experienced by Cuba in the 1990s, saying ‘the UK has sleep-walked into socialism without a single tank bearing cigar-smoking, khaki-clad revolutionaries rolling up Whitehall’. There are arguably dangers, as well as political benefits, of invoking such alarmist and militaristic analogies.

Some of the pieces also use decidedly Brexit-style language and appeals. The term ‘project fear’ is resurrected with the claim that Britons have been driven to ‘existential angst’ and become ‘petrified of normal life’. Brexit itself is mentioned in a handful of the pieces, for example jibing at the irony of Remainers now ‘embracing public opinion’ over the lockdown. More subtly, the same anti-trust, English nationalist and nostalgic messaging that has been seen in Brexit campaigning both on and offline is present in many of the articles. In his 11 May piece, James Heartfield uses the terms ‘English liberty’ and ‘British liberty’ interchangeably, and stokes nostalgia for a time before the end of the Cold War, when this ‘proud tradition’ suffered a ‘strange death’ and was replaced by fear and snowflake-like vulnerability (as though the Cold War period itself was free of public anxiety and paranoia). In the same piece he bemoans the government’s having ‘caved in to the experts’ and reminisces about the days when Tories like Michael Gove boldly claimed that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’ during the 2016 referendum campaign.

In line with these anti-expert sentiments, the pieces also make claims about the effects of lockdown strategies that are unevidenced and as-yet unverifiable, such as that the proposed necessity of lockdowns to ‘flatten the curve and protect the health service’ has now been exposed as ‘just fearmongering and exaggeration’, or that Sweden’s soft-touch policy has succeeded in the ‘bolstering of immunity among the young and the healthy’. Conversely, one of the most recent pieces entitled ‘London’s Covid-19 R number is well below critical at 0.4, with only 24 new cases a day. NOW why can’t we have our lives back?’ appeals specifically to ‘the science’ in its call to end the lockdown. It does not, however, stop short of employing cultural logic, claiming that as Britons, ‘Social distancing is already a way of life, we are born into it.’ Rob Lyon’s piece also published 15 May calls for the UK to ‘end the lockdown as soon as possible’ and ‘conquer the fear factor’ for the sake of the economy, on the grounds that the most recent figures show ‘hardly any’ recorded deaths by the virus for under-40s.

While most of the pieces constitute direct and obvious criticisms, some, like Damian Wilson’s piece on ‘Professor Lockdown’s career ‘thankfully’ being over, use popular news stories to package their critique. Similarly, Robert Bridge’s 7 May piece began by predicting the unfortunate loss of customs like handshaking, only to move dangerously close to ‘plandemic’ conspiracy theories by pointing to Bill Gates’ financial interest in vaccines. He then uses such logic to proclaim emphatically that being ‘forced to endure endless lockdowns and quarantines behind surgical masks’ is a strategy that ‘cannot last forever’.

If this wasn’t enough to convince readers of RT’s position, a standard news article with the innocuous headline ‘PM Johnson says UK hopes to EASE some lockdown measures on Monday’ published on 6 May was accompanied by an image of protesters holding signs that say ‘No more lockdown’, both on RT’s website and the RT UK Facebook page. Like such strategic choices of photographs, the publication of op-eds can be conveniently non-committal. ‘Op-eds’ are just that, opinion pieces by those whose views are allegedly ‘their own,’ to some extent absolving RT of journalistic responsibility around their accuracy. But given what is at stake in a pandemic that has already claimed over 300,000 lives, this one-sided promotion of anti-lockdown viewpoints by the outlet could be a dangerous game.


NAH


Natalie-Anne Hall is PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Manchester. She is currently conducting research for the ‘Reframing Russia’ project on how and why RT’s content appeals to Facebook users.

‘Defence Against Disinformation is a Team Sport’ | Guest Blog

By Keir Giles

A friendly-fire incident between counter-disinformation researchers shows that in defending Western democracies against malign influence, no one team or organisation has all the answers.

Malign influence is a complex and multi-dimensional issue, and adversaries that seek to harm Western societies through information operations select from a wide-ranging and constantly evolving toolkit, adapting and developing their tactics, techniques and procedures as they go. It follows that defences against information attack need to cover a similarly diverse range of approaches, spanning different disciplines, theoretical and applied, and from strategic down to tactical level.

In April 2020, two teams from two of these different disciplines came into direct collision, as academic researchers from Reframing Russia took aim at the methodology of counter-disinformation practitioners from EUvsDisinfo. Despite the fact that both groups are notionally on the same side, the incident highlighted a polarisation of opinion on methods to counter disinformation – but also pointed the way to better cooperation between different organisations with widely differing approaches and priorities.

Background

In a short article on their website, Reframing Russia provided a critical assessment of EUvsDisinfo’s methods in selecting and publicising instances of Russian disinformation for their database and analytical products. Highlighting what they described as problems of omission, distortion and terminology, Reframing Russia’s Professors Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz suggested that through misrepresenting source material, EUvsDisinfo “is in danger of becoming a source for disinformation itself”.

Reactions from across the spectrum of counter-disinformation activity were swift and uncompromising. Reframing Russia itself came under vehement attack, including by activist group GorseFires Collectif seeking to identify the author of a post uncritically promoting RT on the Reframing Russia website, and a tendentious and personalised attack by “The Insider”, insinuating that Reframing Russia are funded not only by the UK but also by “Russian sources”. Meanwhile Reframing Russia’s article was strongly endorsed not only by RT and pro-Russian activists, but also by RUSI, a think-tank in London, which among valid and constructive points inadvertently repeated inaccurate claims about EUvsDisinfo and its operations. Overall, neither side in the conversation emerged with credit. But a closer look at the nature of the disagreement between the two sides in the conversation – and at how little they have in common despite in theory sharing common aims – shows the way toward a far more effective cooperative relationship between the many organisations working on the problem of disinformation and malign influence.

EUvsDisinfo Output

Where Reframing Russia went into specific detail on its criticism of EUvsDisinfo, that criticism appears valid. Reframing Russia’s article highlighted reports which, it claimed, were misrepresented. Referring back to the original media outputs confirmed that their description by EUvsDisinfo was inexplicable; and Reframing Russia assert that these were just a selection from a substantial number of similarly troubling reports in the EUvsDisinfo database. According to Vera Tolz survey of Covid-19 related entries in EUvsDisinfo’s database showed that “80% contained gross misrepresentations”.

Credibility is critical to EUvsDisinfo’s role. Association with the EU gives the project a mantle of authority, reflected in the widespread quoting of its findings. EUvsDisinfo will inevitably be held to a higher standard of proof and probity than the organisations they report on. It would therefore surely be in their best interest to address doubts in their reporting directly, looking again at the source bulletins and responding frankly and honestly if mistakes have been made. If not, they risk precisely the erosion of trust of which Reframing Russia is warning.

In addition, Reframing Russia highlighted EUvsDisinfo’s “pro-Kremlin” formulation to describe the sectors of the Russian information environment whose disinformation it reports. This too seems to point to a valid problem. Each page of the EUvsDisinfo website carries a caveat that its database collects “messages in the international information space that are identified as providing a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality and spread key pro-Kremlin messages. This does not necessarily imply, however, that a given outlet is linked to the Kremlin or editorially pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform”. The explicit equivocation may well be a necessary substitute for an extended essay on the nebulous and sometimes intangible nature of malign influence, but it presents an obvious hostage to precisely this kind of criticism.

The roots of Reframing Russia’s disquiet about the nature of EUvsDisinfo’s work lies in the latter’s remit. As described by Anneli Ahonen, head of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force that manages EUvsDisinfo, it “is an awareness raising campaign, with a disclaimer stating that this does not reflect official EU position. This provides us with distance and analytical freedom from political level, and results in more credibility.” The campaigning role drives Reframing Russia’s core concern that in the drive to raise awareness, EUvsDisinfo steps beyond objective appraisal of the material they are handling.

Unfortunately, however, in presenting their concerns over EUvsDisinfo, Reframing Russia convinced some of their readers that they had fallen victim to the same problems of methodology that they themselves were criticising. Highlighting individual examples of miscategorisation by EUvsDisinfo gave the impression of cherry-picking material. Concerned that EUvsDisinfo might be “overgeneralising”, Reframing Russia sampled one news bulletin from one Russian channel on one day (Pervyy kanal on 12 March), and then appeared to draw generalised conclusions from it. Their article linked to contentious sources to bolster its arguments, such as repeated references to an attack on EUvsDisinfo by fringe Dutch activist Arjen Nijeboer in 2018. It included the suggestion that “the East StratCom Task Force relies on as many as 400 volunteers to trace Russian disinformation” (a claim later echoed by RUSI to call EUvsDisinfo “amateurish”), despite this not having been the case for over two years at the time of writing.

Reframing Russia later explained that the challenges to its methods were based on misinterpretations, that its “Two Short Reports” on Russian disinformation on Covid-19 were rapid response pieces produced following requests by a UK newspaper journalist and by a parliamentary committee, and that the short notice at which they were produced explained the strictly limited dataset on which its survey of RT coverage was based.

But in part because none of this was made clear, the response to the reports was savage criticism, extending to questioning the integrity and motives of the project leaders. Reframing Russia’s reference to being “asked to comment” on material produced by EUvsDisinfo sparked particular concern, and speculation over whose initiative it might have been to produce an apparent hit piece on the agency. In posting what they believed was a hasty but reasoned critique of another organisation’s methods, Reframing Russia’s project leaders inadvertently stepped out of academic debate and into a hornets’ nest of accusation and recrimination.

Reframing Russia’s Contribution

Reframing Russia’s contribution to counter-disinformation efforts lies at the academic and theoretical end of the spectrum. Primarily examining RT, the project’s remit is to investigate “the processes by which RT not only reconfigures publics and audiences, but also furnishes the very conditions for unprecedented modes of international mistrust, conflict and insecurity”. Academics friendly to Reframing Russia stress that this is a creditable, serious undertaking, and Professor Hutchings points out that “we have had academic articles deriving from our research accepted for publication in prestigious outlets like European Journal of Cultural Studies” – meaningless to most people, but a significant marker of achievement for academics. Vera Tolz adds that “our project is for academics. We are not political campaigners, practitioners or activists. If our work is useful for policy analysts and practitioners, it is great, but we do not pro-actively seek this impact.”

Theoretical study of disinformation and its effects provide a necessary counterpoint to the practical and tactical focus of organisations like EUvsDisinfo. This is especially important when considering whether disinformation is in fact effective. If Reframing Russia does in the end make a contribution to the vital question of how much impact – if any – malign influence campaigns using mechanisms such as RT do in fact deliver, then their work is crucial.

But the difference of opinion between Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo highlights the challenges inherent in crossing the boundaries between theoretical investigation and practical application. As noted above, EUvsDisinfo struggles with the problem of scoping and defining its target material: conversely, a separate attempt by Reframing Russia to deconstruct an individual item of Russian disinformation led to yet another trail of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

At the time of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital with coronavirus in early April, Russian sources reported that he would be put on a ventilator – with the implication both that his condition was more severe than was being made known at the time, and that Russian media had well-placed sources within his health care team. This was widely covered in British media as a prime example of Russian disinformation. Reframing Russia took issue with this characterisation, and set out to prove that it was mistaken. But again, its conclusion that it could find “no evidence of any attempt by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health”, and its means for reaching that conclusion, sparked alarm, concern and fierce criticism.

Reframing Russia pointed out that the original Russian report said Johnson was to be put on a ventilator whereas English translations reported that he already had been, which was true; but then implied that this difference between future and past tense invalidated the charge of disinformation. Vera Tolz’s argument that the Russian phrase for putting someone on a ventilator could also mean simply giving them an oxygen mask was received sceptically by other native Russian speakers. Most strikingly of all, Reframing Russia argued that the Boris Johnson ventilator story could not be called disinformation because it was so easily deniable, and “such blatant falsehoods would seem to serve little purpose anyway”.

This would seem to indicate a gulf between academic and practical approaches to Russian disinformation, since suggesting that Russian disinformation efforts do not include blatant falsehoods runs counter to years of detailed practical research on their methods. (Again, Reframing Russia later clarified that their comment should not be taken at face value, and explained that: “We have never suggested that Russian disinformation does not include blatant falsehoods. Of course, there are numerous examples of those… But in relation to issues where Russia is not directly implicated, the Russian media still can use poor practices, but they are much less likely to disseminate direct, pointless fabrications”).

This gulf between the two approaches to countering disinformation stems not only from mutual incomprehension but also from mutual unawareness. Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo were only dimly aware of each other’s existence before colliding, let alone having a clear understanding of each other’s methodology. Reframing Russia could have raised their concerns over EUvsDisinfo output privately before launching a public critique: the EU’s Q&A page explaining what East StratCom Task Force is also explains how to contact it about mistakes spotted in its output. But Reframing Russia felt that the problems they identified were so systematic and significant that this approach was not appropriate; furthermore “there are no specific names on the East StratCom site suggesting who exactly is in charge of the operation, with their personal email addresses”. Therefore, in Reframing Russia’s view, a public commentary was the preferred solution.

Reframing Russia contrasts EUvsDisinfo’s awareness-raising campaign with its own research, which it says aims to be dispassionate and objective, including when this leads to uncomfortable conclusions. Stephen Hutchings suggests that “some of RT’s reporting practices are deficient… but, in the context of the Covid-19 coverage they are undoubtedly superior to EastStartCom’s [sic] own methods”. Vera Tolz adds that “We do, however, believe that EUvsDisinfo’s data on Covid-19 is an exact equivalence [to RT]. In its factual inaccuracy it is considerably worse than what RT International produced. Their database entries include systematic misrepresentations. They can be legitimately called falsifications.”

This, naturally, means Reframing Russia is faced with the need to rebut accusations of drawing false equivalence between Russian malign influence campaigns and those who seek to counter them. A statement that the Institute for Statecraft in London and the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg follow not dissimilar tactics was, Reframing Russia explained, no more than a reference to outsourcing policies by governments. Professor Hutchings adds that “none of us would dream of drawing an equivalence between RT and BBC, there is none. However it seems to us perfectly legitimate to point out instances where the practices are equivalent.”

While EUvsDisinfo may lean too far in flagging content as disinformation, Reframing Russia may risk similar criticism in the opposite direction through presenting research conclusions on RT which inadvertently resemble making excuses for it – particularly when those conclusions echo the talking points of outright apologists. Reframing Russia stresses that “much of RT’s output is purely factual”, which critics say plays down the remainder that is distorted or manipulative.

Where the facts are in question, Reframing Russia is at risk of appearing to give RT the benefit of the doubt. This extends to falling victim to a classic confusion of balance with objectivity. Because the project’s various correspondents unanimously disapprove of RT, in order to address this perceived imbalance the project’s leaders decided to host (and later delete) an article promoting RT on their website, once again generating fierce criticism and deep, yet unfounded, suspicion of their motives.

(Mis-)Communication

The manner in which these two organisations work to fundamentally different principles is reflected even in how they present themselves to the world. The purpose of EUvsDisinfo’s public presence is specifically to raise awareness. By contrast, the part of Reframing Russia’s work which it considers most significant is largely hidden from view.

Reframing Russia’s team members have written a number of academic studies, some of which are available for public consumption despite the majority being confined to academic journals. The project has made a significant contribution to understanding of RT’s programming, content, and audiences in multiple languages, as part of its goal “to situate RT in the international media ecology”. But it has also been criticised specifically for this close focus on RT, forming as it does only part – and a relatively insignificant part – of a much wider effort of malign influence using levers way beyond traditional or social media. Practitioners argue that close focus on RT while neglecting the broader disinformation ecosystem – for example social media – means missing essential context, in particular other instruments of subversion or destabilisation like agents of influence, useful idiots, and others who consciously or unconsciously promote and disseminate Russian talking points.

But Reframing Russia points out once again that the impression that its work is limited to RT is a misinterpretation, and further that the project’s apparent emphasis on instances of direct falsification, as opposed to the broader picture of narratives and intent, is also misleading – as is the suggestion that the project does not examine social media. In each case, Vera Tolz points out, visitors to the project’s website have been misguided by the assumption that what is presented there is representative of the project. Instead, she points out, “blog posts” there are “not representative of any research we do”, and in fact “from what is currently on the website it is not easy to get an impression of what project is about”. Instead, Reframing Russia’s primary output is intended to be academic journal articles and contributions to compiled volumes, culminating in a book to be published long after the project ends in August 2020.

The contrast with EUvsDisinfo, whose aim is rapid campaigning on current issues using the website and associated database as a key communication medium, could hardly be greater. But the key point that unites both projects is a need to pre-empt or mitigate censure and denunciation on mistaken grounds by more clearly communicating their aims and objectives, and in particular the principles to which they work, not only with each other but with audiences in general.

Next Steps

The Covid-19 pandemic provides the ideal environment for malign influence to thrive as it fills a vacuum of authoritative information. The perceived lack of reliable data about the virus provides fertile ground for information and disinformation campaigns, especially feeding on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Russian sources, unsurprisingly, are making the most of the opportunities provided by coronavirus to reinforce their long-running narratives. Vigilance against these campaigns, and successful identification of where they do (and do not) have the potential to cause real damage, is essential. But the divergence in approach between Reframing Russia and EUvsDisinfo reflects the fine balance between over-reaction to Russian disinformation campaigns and failing to react at all.

One answer lies in successful collaboration, cooperation or at the very least communication between different groups. For example, flaws in EUvsDisinfo reporting or deeper problems with methodology, when pointed out constructively, should be welcomed and acted on. Meanwhile Reframing Russia could be assisted with the broad context within which their important work sits. The same principles apply to many of the disparate groups, entities and even individuals now active in the counter-disinformation industry.

The organisations working in this space are many and varied, but not all are able to share the results of their endeavours. Professor Tolz, drawing on her substantial experience of monitoring traditional media for Radio Liberty during the 1980s and early 1990s, suggests that “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.” This may well be true even following BBC Monitoring’s evisceration and repurposing by the BBC in its disapproval of “doing government work”, but at the time of writing BBCM’s contract to provide services to East StratCom has not been renewed, and much of its counter-disinformation work remains accessible by subscription only. Similarly, other centres of expertise appear constitutionally or organisationally constrained from pooling and sharing their knowledge and analysis. The US Global Engagement Center, for example, reports that it has established international partnerships to facilitate information sharing and response coordination, but declines to publicise its methodology on the grounds that this would reveal “tradecraft”.

But in the absence of a broader dialogue across all sectors of the expert community, counter-disinformation efforts will remain hostage to well-intentioned but misguided efforts, such as the detailed and widely-quoted New York Times explainer from mid-April that was roundly condemned by disinformation researchers for being deeply misleading. Those at both extremes of the conversation will continue to argue from entrenched positions rather than considering issues, instances or nuances. In addition some of the most prolific writers on Russia can at times adopt a condescending tone, suggesting that all those who disagree with them do so only because they do not understand Russia as well or are incapable of evidence-based discussion and analysis; and too often this approach is used to attempt to win an argument rather than actually arrive at a sensible conclusion.

That sensible conclusion lies in the middle ground. It is not true that counter-disinformation teams don’t get it wrong and can’t be criticised because they are the good guys. Where they slip up or make mistakes, or even where their core principles of operation may be flawed, this should be highlighted to make their output better and more useful and relevant. But it is also not true that when counter-disinformation teams do get it wrong, that makes them just as bad as the malign influence they are working against. This is a false and damaging equivalence, since aims, transparency, accountability and much more set them poles apart. It is further not true that established academics should not be criticised from outside the profession, or their remit questioned, on the grounds that this constrains free enquiry. There is no reason why universities should not be held to the same standards of relevance and recognition of the real-life impact of their utterances as any other organisations. Mutual support is overdue: by seeking a cooperative, rather than adversarial approach between players on the same side, defenders against malign influence can help mitigate the effects of propaganda outlets rather than providing them with material.


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Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow with the
Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

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.

“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:

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.

 

 

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