A plague on both your houses: the rise of political Runet in the posttruth age
Tightening the screws in Runet regulation
If not for two factors, the political polarisation of Runet that brought along the growth of political debate could have been a sign of démocratisation and growing online freedom.
First, the tightening of the internet legal regime created obstacles for open criticism of authorities and security services as criticism could be now interpreted as ‘extremism’. Before 2012, Runet was relatively unregulated compared to offline media (Vendil Pallin 2017). Since 2012, the regulatory activity has grown dramatically in both quantity and toughness. From 2016 to 2019, there were 355 law initiatives, including the non-yet-implemented Yarovaya package and the so-called law on sovereign internet, and 143 cases of imprisonment for online activities (2019.runet.report/assets/files/lnternet_Freedom%202019_The_Fortress.pdf). Regulatory control supported the practice of governmental ‘gardening’ of the leadership-critical segments of the public (Litvinenko and Toepfl 2019). This expression refers to, among other things, silencing radicals and cultivating moderate critics of the federal authorities. By regulating online expression, the authorities seemed to respond to popular demand: in 2014, a Levada Center poll found that 54 percent of the respondents believed internet censorship was necessary (Vendil Pallin 2017: 20). For Western observers, this would be incomprehensible or troubling. However, it is necessary to realise that a plea for censorship did not necessarily mean support for oppression but rather for clear and comprehensive rules (Bodrunova, Litvinenko, Nigmatullina 2020).
As Vendil Pallin (2017) discusses, another form of increased control was through direct ownership of technical facilities by the government and loyalty by domestic internet business. In dealing with global companies, though, this resulted in a change of legislation and blockage of platforms because they refused to store data in Russia. (The biggest victim of this policy was, ridiculously, apolitical Linkedln.) The policy was framed as ‘measures to increase national security and safeguard the individual security of Russian citizens’ (ibid.: 29). However, amid low trust in public institutions, it has been impossible to distinguish between protection against malicious content or foreign attacks and politically motivated surveillance.
The second obstacle to démocratisation was a rapidly growing atmosphere of fakes, debunking fakes, and mutual blaming by pro-establishment and oppositional/independent media. Projects like Lapschesnimalochnaya (‘Wool-oft-eyes-service’) or the ‘Fake news’ programme on TV channel Dozhd’ debunked misinformation (or, allegedly, purposeful disinformation) on federal TV and RT. Oppositional actors also provided repeated chances to be attacked, like Alexey Navalny’s staff, who put a fake ‘United Russia’ manifesto party online and then denied the fake, giving birth to a meme: ‘don’t discuss, just spread and make them repulse’. Dozens of minor fake revelations from both sides have been a poor substitute for substantial political debate. The law package against fake news did not help and was soon used in ambiguous ways. It was introduced on 18 March 2019, the same day the law that prohibited offending civil servants was passed. It immediately prompted a political joke: ‘don’t speak of civil servants — criticizing them enacts the law on their offense while praising them enacts the one on fake news’.
The blurred meaning of independence: online media as ‘state projects’ and ‘foreign agents’
Simultaneous to growing control, distrust of online sources increased for several reasons. Together with the trolling and botisation described earlier, news sources like FAN, Ridus, Pravda.ru, and Tsargrad were revealed as state affiliated. Also, in the early 2010s, several major media experienced editorial reshuffles, allegedly due to pressure on editors and owners. The reshuffles were perceived as ‘units of one bloody chain’ (Morev and Byhovskaya 2012) and led to changes in editorial positions. New online media were established by sacked editors, but the changes in several outlets that had gained trust across the political spectrum, like Lenta.ru or the state-owned but editorially independent RIA Novosti, were felt as a significant loss.
Also, as mentioned earlier, online audiences enjoyed the rise of ‘alternative agenda’ media, like online-only Openspace.ru or hybrid Bolshoy gorod (‘Big city’) during the 2000s. These media developed ‘in parallel’ to openly oppositional Novaya gazeta, or Echo of Moscow, and pursued alternative news topics such as urban life, public health, and high culture. Instead of direct political criticism, they employed social critique and described millennial mindsets and lifestyles, blending the Russian tradition of publizistika with Western values and philosophy. After the ‘bloody chain’, newly created media like Meduza by Galina Timchenko (ex-Lenta. ru) have made the ‘alternative-agenda’ media segment more distinctly anti-regime. However, although it is hard to disprove their revelations, the fact that outlets like Meduza or Proekt by Roman Badanin didn’t disclose their funders made them vulnerable to legitimate criticism. In January 2019, RT published an investigation of the money behind these media, linking them to American and European funders such as the National Endowment for Democracy (US) and the European Endowment for Democracy, as well as to the exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky (russian.rt.com/world/article/593261-hodorkovskii-tsar-rassledovanie). While the investigation by RT was not impeccable, it supported the widely popularised claim that all activities of the Russian opposition were financed from abroad in order to weaken Russia’s international standing. Also, it is important to acknowledge that the way Meduza or Proekt (do not) report on their sponsors blurs the understanding of independent journalism as one based on publicly scrutinised commercial income free from undisclosed donors, including foreign ones. If investigative media outlets in the US or Europe revealed they received financial aid from
Russian (or other foreign) NGOs or government agencies, this would immediately undermine their credibility as independent outlets; one needs to find a clear answer why similar opinions should not be legitimate in Russia.
Another group of new outlets blended information service with activism in a new approach to journalistic standards. Part of the foundation ‘Help needed’, Takie dela (‘So it goes’) successfully combined ‘person-centered’ reporting with fundraising. Mediazona merged reporting with protection of prisoners’ rights. The ‘No-drug city’ foundation became the media project Esli chestno (‘Frankly speaking’). Since 2014, Baten’ka, da vy transformer (‘Dearest, you are a transformer, aren’t you’) has insistently employed personal gatekeeping by particular journalists, calling it samizdat. Meduza united investigations with ‘ Chapiteau , a rubric of fun and quizzes, to attract younger audience.
Given the polarised media market of lost trust described earlier, intentions to create ‘new journalism’ linked to advocacy for disadvantaged social groups and the struggle for human rights were indisputably humanist. The growing popularity of such projects only supported this claim. However, substantial professional discussion was missing on why the standards of objective journalism should be mixed with subjectivity and activism and whether the lack of domestic financing for independent investigative media meant a lack of social demand. The scarcity of debate on how healthy journalism should look like has left the experimental and investigative media unprotected from accusations that it represents undisclosed interests; this ultimately added to mistrust in Runet.