Media in Russia after 2012: the structural impossibility of public debate and effervescence of Runet
Fragmentation of society and media
By 2011, Russian society and its media system were deeply fragmented. Toepfl (2011) described four clusters in the Russian media and political divisions between them, with social media being a separate cluster with yet undefined political stance. During the 2011—2012 ‘For fair elections’ protests, public affairs media started to polarise politically, and soon impartiality and balance vanished. Even those media that sought to be impartial were labelled oppositional. A major problem was the absence of outlets that would bridge the worldviews of various populations such as cosmopolitan urban, post-Soviet town, depoliticised rural, and ethnic and immigrant social groups (Zubarevich 2011). The newspaper market largely consisted of business dailies that were hardly of interest to the general readership and post-Soviet (now tabloid) titles loyal to the elite and adhering to the ‘traditional values’ of post-Soviet conservatism, including the traditional family (in which, though, women work but prioritise housekeeping and children) and mistrust of capitalism and democratic rule. National television received 80 percent of the audience and featured public-affairs ‘federal channels’ (state-owned or state-affiliated) and non-political entertainment channels. Journalism experienced generational, political, and deontological divisions (Pasti, Chernysh, Svitich 2012), sometimes to the extent of‘non-handshakeability’between staff of liberal-oppositional and state-owned media (Bodrunova, Litvinenko, Nigmatullina 2020). It lacked legal protection and efficient self-regulation, and societal demand for strong independent journalism was weak.
The structural absence of substantial and inclusive public dialogue in the offline media left space for the internet to fill this gap. However, societal cleavages were mirrored by nationwide echo chambers in media and social networks. Russian Facebook was generally perceived as a liberal-oppositional filter bubble while Twitter was occupied by two opposite nationalistic discourses that diverged on seeing the elite as either those who ‘stole the country’ in the 1990s or those who ‘made Russia rise from the knees’ in the 2000s (Bodrunova et al. 2019). Facebook and ‘alternative-agenda’ media in a ‘parallel’ public sphere helped cultivate the 2011—2012 protest consensus (Bodrunova and Litvinenko 2013; Kiriya 2012). After the Crimea and Donbass conflicts erupted, the choice in online communication was between taking sides or selfsilencing, which led to further divergence and even political battles between the uncritical (pro-government or silent) and leadership-critical online publics (Toepfl 2018). Simultaneously, Runet grew in popularity among younger audiences as their major source of news (Vendil Pallin 2017). A mirror for the still covertly boiling political antagonisms, Runet could not help becoming a focus of attention for pro-governmental forces.
‘Services to the Fatherland’: youth movements and attempts of state expansion online
In January 2012, a Twitter account @op_russia that called itself ‘representatives of Anonymous in Russia’ published a hacked email archive that, allegedly, contained letters by, among others, Vasily Yakemenko and Kristina Potupchik. The former was the chief of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs and ex—federal commissar of the pro-governmental youth movements called ‘Nashi’ (‘Ours’) and ‘Iduschie vineste’ (‘Going together’). The movements were perceived as instruments of contentious politics that could be used against the ‘orange revolution threat’ and protest outbursts (Atwal and Bacon 2012). Potupchik was the press secretary of Nashi. The revealed emails contained information on payments to bloggers for postings on LiveJournal and major news portals. The letters also discussed ‘creating unbearable conditions’ for the national daily Kommersant, including organising DDOS attacks, buying out print copies, blockage of the print facilities, and ‘physical and psychological attacks’ on the staff (Karimova 2012); later, the Kommersant general director Demyan Kudryavtsev publicly blamed Nashi for the DDOS attacks, but no action followed. Neither Yakemenko nor Potupchik dismissed the letters as false. Moreover, in a recent interview, Potupchik debunked the organisational mechanics of troll work organised even before the Olgino trolls appeared onstage (Loshak 2019). In April 2019, Potupchik received a Medal of Order ‘For Services to the Fatherland’, Class I, when he was 33 years old.
After 2012, paid practices quickly spread along Runet. In Potupchik’s opinion, the infestation of LiveJournal by ‘youth activists who struggled in comments with oppositionists and were engaged in spamming’ (Loshak 2019) in favour of various political actors contributed to bloggers’ ‘mass exodus’ from LiveJournal (Bodrunova and Litvinenko 2015: 74). As Potupchik stated, the ‘youth activists’ followed the liberal community to Twitter and Facebook; on Twitter, their work was easy enough, while Facebook algorithmically prevented efficient automatisation of trolling. The strategy of trolling on Twitter differed from that on LiveJournal. Instead of active commenting and persuasion of individual users by ‘small networks’ of co-minded bloggers, interception (‘hijacking’) of popular hashtags and bot-based inflation of popularity were used (Loshak 2019). Bot activity as a crucial distortion in political talk on Russian Twitter was proved by Stukal and colleagues (2017), who detected that, within political topics, ‘the proportion of tweets produced by bots exceedfed] 50%’ (p. 310). While bots discussed politics with other bots on Twitter, the ‘youth activists’ moved further on to YouTube and Telegram (see later in this chapter).
The early days of Nashi’s internet crusade show two developments that have been largely unnoticed by scholars. First, disinformation that targeted domestic populations in Runet started earlier than in other countries. Second, it was more scattered, personal-project-like, and amateur than the orchestrated performance by the federal channels or the alleged actions abroad.
Activities of youth movements were early signs of what later became overwhelming: politicisation, political polarisation, and fakeisation of Runet. Bots and trolls helped heat it up, but they were not solely responsible. Next, I turn to discussing how changes in the legal regime, the blurring ofjournalistic standards, the mutual blaming by political actors, and anonymity shaped the polarised, post-truth atmosphere in Runet. Confrontation among polarised online publics prevailed over the decent core of public debate and the search for consensus.