Rutube: fun and mimicry

With time, political YouTube became a sort of alternative television for a part of the Russian audience (Litvinenko forthcoming). By 2009, Vasily Yakemenko had realised that it provided wide possibilities for dissemination of viral content. Several projects on early Rutube, like ‘My Duck’s Vision’ and ‘Thank you Eva’, allegedly received funding from the Nashi movement (Loshak 2019). Their content never directly praised the government; instead, it provided ‘pure fun’ while downgrading oppositional leaders or promoting senior authorities (ibid.). A new wave of attention to YouTube came in 2016: a young female vlogger was invited to give a speech to the State Duma, where an initiative to create ‘a council of bloggers’ appeared but quickly vanished.

By 2017, Rutube channels critical of the political establishment, such as Dmitry Ivanov’s kamikazedead, had hundreds of millions of views. While the federal TV channels were biased in favour of ‘system’ voices, YouTube seemed tilted towards oppositional ones, even if Ivanov blamed YouTube for artificial downgrading critical videos and financial preferencing (bbc.com/ russian/news-40674508). As the grassroots critical accounts were growing in power, a certain mimicry in pro-establishment video blogs was noticeable as they tried to look more amateurish to build trust (Litvinenko forthcoming).

Telegram: anonymity as a double-edged sword

After 2015, Telegram Messenger, a mobile application created by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, gave a new flavor to the post-truth atmosphere of mistrust of information in Runet. Pavel Durov, the ‘Russian Mark Zuckerberg’who earlier developed Vkontakte (now VK.com), the largest Russian-speaking social networking site, has struggled for years against surveillance capitalism — both in terms of surveillance and capitalism, like targeted-ad-based business models. However, his cyberlibertarian vision that demanded that the users and authorities trust

Telegram without public scrutiny led to conflicts with both Russian and American authorities. Durov left Russia in 2014, after he was coerced to sell his share ofVK.com.

Initially, Telegram was developed as a part of the Telegram Open Network, a ‘huge distributed. . . “superserver”’ (Durov 2017: 1). The application allows anonymous postings and protects data by distributed key storage, which makes provision of the encryption code keys to the security services technically impossible. The application quickly became widely popular worldwide (with over 400 million accounts by May 2020), especially ‘in Iran . . . and in Russia, where Telegram [was] popular among the urban dissenters’ (Akbari and Gabdulhakov 2019: 223), including professionals and high-income groups (Salikov 2019). In various political contexts, Telegram gained diametrically different political reputations. Thus, external observers saw it as a tool for the liberation of online political talk in non-democracies (Akbari and Gabdulhakov 2019). Perhaps the Russian authorities shared this view, given that they attempted to block Telegram after the company refused to disclose the encryption keys in 2018. It almost failed as the app continued to function. Subsequently, a wave of urban protest ridiculed Roskomnadzor, the federal agency that observes communication. However, some Russian scholars noted that the protective anonymity of Telegram channels made the messenger a substitute for a public sphere for the elite, including politicians, civil servants, journalists, PR practitioners, businessmen, and intellectuals. In Indonesia and Israel, instead, the app gained a reputation of a safe space for ISIS terrorists (Fainberg 2017; Magdy 2016); the Russian police also claimed Telegram was used during the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg in April 2017.

Whatever anti-surveillance idea was behind Telegram, it worked in a twofold way in the Russian public sphere. On the one hand, it filled the niche of protecting anonymity after the amount of legal punishment for online posting grew (Loshak 2019); on the other hand, anonymity significantly boosted the climate of rumours and uncertainty. Also, in 2016, Telegram channels started to be used regularly for leaking political information as, for example, when speculations were rampant for a month on who would be a new chair of the presidential administration.

Since then, the number, popularity, and media impact of anonymous political channels on Telegram rose significantly, blurring the borders between fact and rumour on an unprecedented scale. Moreover, several top channels of political information, like tme_Nezygar’and tme_Medi-atehnolog, raised doubts about their independent nature. Investigations of ownership/authorship linked at least ten of the most popular political channels to the ruling elite (proekt.media/ narrative/telegram-kanaly/). The alleged owners either fiercely denied or made no comments about the accusations. However, the major issue was not even pro-state content but the ultimate impossibility of distinguishing between pro-Kremlin and oppositional bloggers as content was spun well enough to confuse. The role of Telegram in spreading fake news looks substantial, too, although no reliable research data is available. For example, in 2018, Maria Zaharova, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief press officer, officially responded to fake claims by Teresa May published in tme_Nezygar’. Between 2018 and 2020, Telegram channels were often used for so-called vbrosy — targeted leaks or information injections against particular politicians.

 
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