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Talking Policy: Mariëlle Wijermars on Russian Media

In April, Vladimir Putin was elected to a fourth term as president of Russia. The vote took place amid global debate around technology platforms, hate speech, and media freedom. These conversations about freedom of speech are not new to Russia. With Freedom House’s 2017 report scoring Russia’s internet freedom at 66 and freedom of press at 83 on a scale of 0 to 100, 0 being most free and 100 least free, the country has been known to restrict access and censor information. World Policy Journal spoke with Mariëlle Wijermars, postdoctoral researcher with the Russian Media Lab project at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, and visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research at the University of Hamburg, about the regulation of media in Russia.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: The 2018 Russian presidential election unsurprisingly resulted in Vladimir Putin being re-elected to a fourth term. What role did media play leading up to the election?

MARIËLLE WIJERMARS: As is the case elsewhere in the world, these elections were a highly mediatized event. In the broad sense of the development of the media landscape, Russia follows the global trend of media becoming ever more important in politics. We saw this in the campaign. Even though the question was not so much who would be elected, media played an important role ensuring there would be sufficient turnout to legitimize the victory. This year had a series of TV debates with most presidential candidates taking part, though Putin did not participate. They were quite spectacular, in a negative sense, since they featured heated confrontations between opposition candidates. In the end, it did not necessarily support the position of the candidates—more to the contrary.

The controversial aspect this year was that the main opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, was not allowed to run. Most of his campaigning took place online, most notably through Youtube clips showing investigations into corrupt practices by individuals connected to the regime. It was also quite striking this year that there was an incident involving mainstream media. It is generally expected that state-aligned TV networks are largely controlled during the campaign period and automatically support Putin as the favorite candidate. But one of the channels was actually called back by the Central Elections Commission when it aired a rerun of Oliver Stone’s “The Putin Interviews,” and they had to postpone the broadcast of the final part of the documentary until after the election.

Additionally, there were some clips on Youtube that appeared to align with Putin’s campaign and went viral on social media. They were professionally produced, but with no author named. They appeared out of nowhere, cautioning voters about what would happen if they do not go vote. In one example, which plays on fears based on homophobia, a man says, “Oh no, I won’t go voting. I will just stay in bed.” Then he wakes up the following morning to find his country turned into a place he does not like. These were viral campaigns aligned with and interpreted as being somehow connected to the Kremlin, but it’s very difficult to substantiate a link.

WPJ: Your work at the Algorithmed Public Spheres (APS) postdoctoral research network looks at the regulation of news aggregators during the lead-up to the election. Can you tell me more about that?

MW: My project has been looking into how the Russian government is trying to gain control over news aggregators. Internationally, Google News is most well known, but in Russia, Yandex News is the biggest one, and there are several more. There’s evidence that the Russian government has, for several years, been trying to gain knowledge of how these aggregators work in order to try to control what news is featured. A new piece of legislation, which came into force in January 2017, is the first attempt to regulate news aggregators, including the biggest ones. It was sold as being an anti-fake news move, but is used in a way that is very useful for the regime. Under the new law, the news aggregators, such as Yandex News, would have to pay a fine if they publish an item on their front pages that turns out to be incorrect. But if a false item is shown that was written by a registered media outlet (the Russian government controls this registry), then the law will not be enforced. For an independent online media outlet that publishes in Russian, it can be very difficult or even impossible to obtain this registration. So this law creates a financial incentive for news aggregators to exclude non-registered media outlets.

We saw this in action in March of last year during the nationwide protests in response to Alexei Navalny’s investigation about corruption practices linked to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Internet users started noticing that the story about the protests was not featured on the front page of Yandex News, so they started accusing Yandex of censoring the news. Yandex responded, saying, “No, we are not censoring because our page is fully automated. We do not have editors who are taking this out, it’s actually a result of this new legislation.” That sparked my interest in seeing how this actually works. Together with my APS colleagues Jing Zeng and Cornelius Puschmann, we are now doing research collecting data from news aggregators’ front pages and seeing which sources they use. It appears that this legislation has been quite effective in pushing out these non-registered news platforms and creating a filter bubble, shifting the balance of which types of sources are prioritized on news aggregators. For many people, news aggregators are their first stop for accessing news, and this regulation then acts like a hidden control measure. An average user would not be aware of this, would not have heard about this law, and they would not necessarily notice that certain sources have disappeared from the selection. It means that users do not feel controlled or limited, which is very important when you want to make sure that public opinion does not turn against you.

WPJ: Keeping in mind the idea of fake news, how reliable are the registered news providers to begin with?

MW: The fake news question is a difficult one, as we’ve seen in debates everywhere. Defining what is and is not a fake news item is problematic. Oftentimes what gets referred to as fake news is not actually incorrect. In the Russian case, what becomes increasingly problematic is who determines what is fact. If you place this in the hands of a government agency within a regime that does not value freedom of speech and media freedom, then this can very easily end up restricting media freedom. But I have to emphasize that even within the large number of registered media, there is wide variety. Some of them you would categorize as loyal to the Kremlin, while others are quite independent and critical. So even within this very large set of online media, there’s diversity, and that’s something we’re also trying to find out in our research—whether there’s a difference in which of these media outlets the aggregators prioritize. It could be that one news aggregator prioritizes sources that are much more loyal to the Kremlin than another.

WPJ: Why did you choose to focus your study on this election, this point in time?

MW: Our assumption was that if there are certain control mechanisms in place, then they would feature most strongly around the presidential elections. The way that this study is structured, it’s also an attempt to see whether the 2017 law had any effect and, if it did, how strong that effect is. The Russian-language version of Google News is not regulated, so we can compare that to Yandex News and see whether there is evidence indicating this law has any effect. The presidential elections provide a good case study in terms of timeframe to see how these differences between news aggregators play out.

WPJ: You said that the legislation was passed in January 2017, not long ago. Why are we seeing these changes in more recent years?

MW: It’s in line with the shift away from just blocking websites—something that has been possible in Russia since 2012. After the protest movements in 2011 and 2012, in which online and social media played an important role, and Putin’s return to the presidency in March 2012, there was a big backlash against internet freedom. Before then the internet was still relatively free, but afterward the government started to implement legislation limiting internet freedom and blocking websites. Now we see there’s a shift toward trying to control the flow of information online. It’s actually quite difficult to block content. You can block a certain website, but then very quickly it is hosted on a different domain or the content itself has long been shared through social media. So the government’s focus is also on how to control these information flows and the role that news aggregators play in this. It might be a much more effective strategy to use these algorithmic structures of content distribution to their advantage by moving people away from content they would not like them to see, and toward information they would like them to consume.

WPJ: How effective has the strategy been so far? Are there ways that people have circumvented this?

MW: This is difficult to substantiate. If we take Yandex News’ official statistics, there is not an apparent drop in page views. Part of the issue is that users don’t notice the change. The algorithms that create the news page, to some extent, are seen as a neutral gatherer of news headlines. If it’s not immediately noticeable that something is wrong, then there’s also no need to try to circumvent this obstacle. But with news aggregators, there are different types of consumers. Those who want easy access tend to use a landing page connected to the email service they use. Then there are more critical users who try to go to multiple websites and compare sources. Social media is also becoming increasingly important for news consumption, especially among the younger generation. In Russia, Telegram channels have become more significant over the past few years. Telegram is a messaging app, but it also hosts news and politics channels you can follow. These channels have become very important, but Telegram was banned on April 13, although the actual enforcement of the ban has proved to be difficult. This alternative platform that was gaining prominence is now blocked, not just as a messaging app that allows for encrypted communications, but I suspect also because of these news channels. Some of the channels are anonymous and provide insider knowledge from political circles. They were cited in mainstream media, and special briefings on Telegram channels were even added to media reports for Kremlin officials.

WPJ: How do you think media trends in Russia compare to developments in Europe and around the world?

MW: The Russian government is adept at taking debates that occur at the global level and using them for their own purposes, especially when they develop legislation and try to “sell” it to their domestic audience. Hate speech and the need to protect minors from harmful content are very important issues that should be addressed. Within Europe and in the U.S., similar debates are being held and legislation is being developed. In Germany, they’ve passed legislation to regulate activities of social media, to create certain terms by which flagged content should be reviewed and then removed, if needed. Similar legislation is being developed in France. There are ongoing investigations in the U.S. concerning Facebook. It comes down to defining the responsibility of the platform for its role in distributing information. Are they responsible for this content? More and more people are now suggesting that they do have some responsibility; that they should ensure that their users are safe from harmful content and that illegal content is not being shared. In Russia, similar debates become more problematic because there are already so many limitations on freedom of speech and media freedom in place. Most of the legislation affecting internet freedom that was developed in recent years is not very sophisticated, which means that it can be applied quite flexibly. These “soft spots” in legislation, such as where terms like extremism are not properly defined, can be used to target, for example, activists for something that they’ve shared on social media. The global debates are valid, but when it comes into Russian context, there are particular difficulties that come into play.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

[Interview conducted by Helena Ong]

[Photo courtesy of Christiane Matzen]

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