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Mediating Semi-Authoritarianism: The Power of the Internet in Russia

Final Report Summary - MESAPORUS (Mediating Semi-Authoritarianism: The Power of the Internet in Russia)

The overarching goal of the Marie Curie project “Mediating (Semi-)Authoritarianism: The Power of the Internet in Russia” (MESAPORUS, for more information, see www.mesaporus.eu) was to contribute to the currently ongoing, intense academic debate on the question whether the new technology “internet”, in the context of non-democratic regimes, is to be seen rather as a “technology of liberation” or as a “technology of control”. While speculation on – and essayistic treatment of – this question has been pervasive in the media recently (for instance, in the context of the coverage of the so-called “Arab Spring”), a strong body of academic research on this topic is currently only in the emerging. The MESAPORUS project aimed at producing valuable and inspiring contributions to this topical academic debate, (1) by drawing conclusions on the basis of sound empirical evidence from contemporary Russia and (2) by simultaneously examining a range of different aspects of political life.

At the most abstract level, the MESAPORUS project achieved four case studies that explored four key aspects of political communication: (1) the critical capacities of citizens in interpreting political news (critical news literacy); (2) the critical commenting of political events in the comment sections of news websites (commenting); (3) news types of internet-based voting to create representative bodies (political representation); (4) the discourses about the relationship of new media and politics disseminated by Russia’s ruling elites in the official media sphere (official discourses on the media and politics).

With regard to the first key theoretical concept of critical news literacy, a case study was conducted based on 20 in-depth interviews with students in St. Petersburg and Moscow. As a key result, the study suggested four important areas in which young Russians needed knowledge in order to self-consciously and critically access, analyse and evaluate political news – and thus to become aware of why they see certain messages and not others. These four areas of knowledge were labelled ‘facets of critical news literacy’ and seen as comprising knowledge of (1) the segmentation of the news environment, (2) the news production processes, (3) the constructedness of political messages and (4) the role of media in Russian society. The study also illustrated how different stocks of knowledge about these four facets crucially affected the ways in which participants navigated and made sense of political news.

A second case study was dedicated to a new form of citizen participation on online news websites: that of commenting on news stories. Extant research scrutinizing political talk online had been developed largely against the backdrop of deliberative discursive norms and considered political talk without a systematic analysis of surrounding mass-mediated discourses. By contrast, this study operationalized counterpublic theory as an alternative theoretical perspective and analysed comments on news websites as a reaction to hegemonic mainstream public spheres. While the primary goal of this study was to delineate an analytical framework, a more extensive process of data collection – that will compare citizen commenting on news websites in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia – is currently under way, being conducted in the five-year successor project headed by the Marie Curie Fellow (cf. www.mediating-authoritarianism.net).

A third case study was dedicated to new types of political representation via representative bodies created through internet votes. In the recently vibrant academic debate on rethinking representation, western scholars have proclaimed novel forms of nonelectoral representation as a new frontier for theoretical thought. The third case study of the MESAPORUS project aimed to advance this debate by unraveling two case studies from Russia, a polity that lacks fair elections as a strong source of legitimacy for classic representative institutions. It is argued that, in this context, globally unique instances of hybrid claims have emerged that blur the classic analytical divide between electoral and non-electoral representation. Within Russia’s hybrid regime, both oppositional groups and ruling elites have recently created powerful presentative bodies backed by nationwide internet votes. The study juxtaposes two such cases, tracing the framing contests fought over the claims in the mass media. It finds that Russia’s ruling elites are presently not only able to defuse oppositional claims, but also to deftly marshal internet votes to accomplish well-defined goals in a complex power game.

In case study 4, the MESAPORUS project scrutinized discourses about the relationship of new media and politics disseminated by Russia’s ruling elites in the official media sphere (official discourses on the media and politics). Following scathing criticisms of the classic Four Theories of the Press, little effort had been dedicated in the past decade to the comparative study of distinct “theories” or “philosophies” of the press. Recently, however, leading scholars have increasingly lamented this lack of attention to questions of meaning and ideology. To address the gap, this study revisited the currently marginalized tradition of the Four Theories. It moved forward not by comparing “theories,” but by juxtaposing “discourses” on media and politics as these prevail in distinct communicative spaces. The study argued that this subtle – yet highly consequential – shift of theoretical perspective helps sidestepping the central criticisms levelled against the classic approach, including that of Western-centrism. The new approach is illustrated with a case study on the discourse about new media and politics in contemporary Russia.

In terms of project publication output to date, case study 1 was published in the European Journal of Communication. Case study two has been conditionally accepted in the leading journal of the discipline of communications, the Journal of Communication (a major revision is currently under peer-review). Case studies 3 and 4 were already accepted for peer-review at two leading journals (the American Political Science review, respectively Communication Theory) – but were eventually rejected. These two case studies are currently again under peer-review at alternative venues. All papers were presented to the academic community at a range of international conferences, including the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), the Annual Conference of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), and the European Congress of the International Council for Central and East European Studies (ICCEES).

In terms of training activities, the Marie Curie fellow participated in a wide spectrum of courses offered to researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science, including a media training and a book proposal workshop. The Marie Curie fellow also had the opportunity to discuss his project extensively with the principal investigator Professor Rantanen and the adviser of the project, Professor Sonia Livingstone. Both have extensive experience in the area of research of the fellow, and both provide extensive one-on-one training, advice, feed-back, and transfer of knowledge.

The project also engaged in manifold dissemination activities. A project website was set up at the address www.mesaporus.eu. On this website, a blog was established that disseminated key news about the project to an interested public. In addition, the Marie Curie Fellow gave interviews to leading German media outlets. Quotes by the Marie Curie Fellow were included in an article on the website of the leading German public television channel (ARD, at www.tagesschau.de) and on the website of the official German TV channel directed at foreign audiences (Deutsche Welle, at www.dw.de). The Marie Curie Fellow appeared also in the program Geofaktor broadcast by the German public TV channel Deutsche Welle. Last but not least, the fellow participated also in a public roundtable discussion in St. Petersburg on 19 April 2013, titled “New Media and Politics in Russia and Germany”.
In terms of socio-economic impact, Dr. Toepfl’s research was widely perceived by NGOs and activists in the field. For instance, Dr. Toepfl has recently been invited to act as an advisor to Bosch Foundation, one of Germany’s largest foundations, which conducts a wide range of journalism trainings in Russia (cf. www.bosch-stiftung.de). Similarly, Dr. Toepfl is currently an advisor to the Institute for Media, Democracy and Cultural Exchange (www.idem-institute.org). IDEM is a NGO that currently co-operates with the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in restructuring and supporting the Ukrainian Public Television broadcaster.

The Marie Curie Fellow Dr. Florian Toepfl is currently heading a successor research group on “The Power of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Space” at the Free University of Berlin (for more information, consider www.mediating-authoritarianism.net). He can be contacted at f.toepfl@fu-berlin.de.