Media framing of internet policy

Mariëlle, you just came back from the #AoIR2018 conference in Montréal. Could you briefly tell us what it was about?


#AoIR2018 is the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers that brings together scholars from across the world who study the internet and information technologies, more broadly, from a wide variety of disciplines. This year, the conference theme was ’Transnational Materialities’ and many papers reflected on the importance of, among others, infrastructures. In addition to parallel panel sessions and two keynote events, the conference included various pre-conference workshops, of which I participated in the workshop on ‘Digital Methods in Internet Research’.

That sounds like an exciting programme! What did you present at the conference?


I presented a paper on how governmental policy concerning the internet is framed in Russian mass media. While there is quite a significant body of research on internet governance in Russia, much less is known about the role of the media in shaping public perceptions about the internet and the extend to which it should be regulated by the state. The question how the Russian government strives to create popular support for governmental regulation in this sphere has received little attention. At the moment, I draw upon my previous experience of researching Russian state television and political communication to shed light on this particular aspect of internet governance. In the paper, I focussed on mass media framing of the decision to block popular messaging app Telegram in April 2018. The attempts by government agency Roskomnadzor to block Telegram were not very successful (indeed, the app is still accessible for many Russians), while it did negatively affect many other online services, even outside of Russia. In response, mass demonstrations took place across Russia to protest against the blocking and restrictions of internet freedom more generally. The paper I presented is part of my current project ’Selling Censorship: Affective Framing and the Legitimation of Internet Control in Russia’ that is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

What are the main findings of your research?


The research project is still at an early stage, therefore I presented some preliminary findings based on my analysis of television coverage on the topic on the main Russian state-funded TV channels, and why it is important to study these discourses. The television coverage I examined emphasised how the encrypted communication option offered by Telegram is used by terrorist groups, for example in the preparations of the 2017 terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. Indeed, Telegram’s refusal to provide access to such private communications to the Russian Federal Security Services, in compliance with an anti-terrorist legislation package known as the Yarovaya Law, is the official reason for its blockage. The fact that encrypted messaging is used not only by terrorists and criminals, but also for legitimate purposes such as by investigative journalists is simply ignored or disregarded, as is Telegram’s increasingly important function as a platform for (independent) news. By, instead, creating a black-and-white opposition between privacy and security, any open debate about citizens’ right to private communications is effectively cut short.

That is very interesting! What are the next steps in this project?


The next step in this research is to compare the framing of internet policy in mass media to how it is discussed and legitimised in political debates, for example in the Russian parliament. In particular, I want to find out whether there are significant differences between the types of argumentation and degree of rationality and emotion used in these different spheres. What role do media play in communicating about internet regulation to the general public, and do they add their own frames or simply repeat those developed in policy circles?

Open Data: From Messy to Neat

The October session aimed to teach Digital Russia Studies enthusiasts how new research resources – such as open government data – can be cleaned and pre-processed in an easy and efficient manner. Ilona Repponen, a research assistant at the Digital Russia Studies research group, held a master-class inspired by the work of Olga Parkhimovich and her project.

In the first part of the workshop, the participants got acquainted with Russian open budget resources and learned how to use their search engines and download the data. According to Open Budget Index, Russia has succeeded in that field. Budget data on public procurement, local government, public services, subsidy agreements is available for free use in the Internet. Repponen emphasized that although published data is more or less correct it is advisable to study it critically because of a human factor behind it. Hence, mistakes can occur.

While publishing open data in mandated by the executive order of the Russian president since 2012, it remains notoriously difficult for researchers to collect and process these data. Luckily, there are tools that can help along the way. The second part of the workshop was devoted to OpenRefine,  an open-source tool suitable for processing messy data that needs to be calculated. The participants tried several functions and facets for clarifying and organizing the data in different steps. Finally, based on her own research experience, Repponen explained what should be taken into consideration when assessing the results of data transformations and checking unclear items manually.

Government and citizens in the digital world

Daria, you just came back from the Internet, Policy and Politics conference in Oxford. Could you briefly tell us what it was about?

Internet, Policy and Politics (IPP) is a conference convened by the Oxford Internet Institute for the OII-edited academic journal Policy and Internet, in collaboration with the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) standing group on Internet and Politics. This year the topic was ‘Long Live Democracy?’, so it was about questioning the theses of democratic renewal – and democratic decay – in a digital world.  Over two days, around 80 research papers were presented by scholars from all over the world, showcasing rigorous and critical investigations on the role of digital technologies in democratic processes and showing many ways in which the internet has affected democracies, both positive and negative.

That is a timely and controversial topic! What did you present at the conference?

I presented the first results from our ongoing project on the uptake of civic technologies in the Russian regions. Together with Andrey Indukaev, last spring we started wondering why, how and to which consequences various civic technologies are being adopted across Russia. It is not very well known, but in Russia many cities and municipalities enter into dialogue with their citizens using online tools. For instance in Moscow there is a blockchain-based platform called Active Citizen, where citizens can cast their votes with regard to various municipal matters, such as local speed limits, bus route design, library services, parks and recreational zones, and where voting is rewarded in the form of points that can be exchanged for services, such as museum tickets. The geography of civic technology is very wide – in Yakutsk it enables online public hearings and participatory budgeting, in Belgorod and Rostov – interactive maps with city problems co-created by the citizens, and so on. In this sense, Russian cities are not so different from their counterparts in Germany and the UK, as we discovered in the IPP conference. It was very exciting to hear that very similar projects are now being realised in, say, Göttingen or Köln. This provoked a good discussion about the democratic potential of civic technology.

Q&A at the IPP2018: How platforms are deployed by the governments in Germany, Russia and China?

What are the main arguments of your research?

We are at the initial stage of this project, so it is too early to say what we will find. However, the IPP2018 was definitely a great place to test our hypothesis. We argue that there is no ‘democracy by design’ and that any civic technology is not deployed in a vacuum. We follow to socio-technical tradition of understanding the life of technology in society and we suggest that ideas surrounding technological development matter. The democratic potential of a civic technology instrument depends first and furthermost on the narratives  that accompany its design and deployment. ‘Democracy in – democracy out’, to make it very simple.

I’d like to know more! What are the next steps in this project?

I think the IPP2018 was a great platform to test our ideas and improve the analytical model. Now we are in the phase of extensive data collection. I am sure there will be many surprises and new questions coming from the data, but we are well-equipped in DRS to handle large databases, so looking forward to discovering the patterns of civic technology adoption in the Russian regions guided by our analytical framework.

Thoughts on Digital Humanities, part II

The workshop ‘(Politics of) Digital Humanities in Eastern European Studies’ was also attended by Felix Herrmann, a research associate IT (Research Centre for East-European Studies, Bremen) and Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya, an associate professor of School of Linguistics (HSE, Moscow).

Herrmann presented Discuss Data Project that aims to facilitate research data management in East-European Studies. In the project, an independent platform will be created for discussion and peer reviewing of datasets with links to literature and many more features. Bonch-Osmolovskaya, in turn, gave a talk on challenges and advantages of big data sources. She showed how to define context and discourse of a certain subject by combining computational linguistic methods, such as finding collocations, frequencies. Both scholars shared their thoughts on Digital Humanities with us.

Felix Herrmann presenting “Discuss Data Project”

What did you expect from the workshop?

Felix Herrmann: Organising these kind of events are necessary steps in forming Digital Humanities methods. In the field of digitalisation, there is still much to do and knowledge to share.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: I am pleased to say that the workshop exceeded my expectations; as a result, we not only enjoyed a good organisation, but also got new contacts and effective results.

What are challenges of Digital Humanities?

Felix Herrmann: In Germany, computer literacy is less supported in school education compare to Finland, for example. Regardless of students’ digital nativity, they lack a deep understanding of things behind digitalisation. And again, talented graduates from Digital Humanities transfer into business life instead of remaining at university.

Another challenge in Digital Humanities is a need of transnational funding since most research projects are funded at national level. Yet, it would have been more efficient if funding were transnational with less bureaucracy occurring.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: Digital Humanities is developing very quickly on a certain unprepared base. Projects are sometimes reminiscent of biology laboratories with experts with various backgrounds. Thus, these projects are very difficult to manage and they require certain organisational skills.

What are perspectives of Digital Humanities?

Felix Herrmann: For the future of Digital Humanities methods in compare to traditional ones, they will remain parallel. Choosing methodology indeed depends on research question.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: In my opinion, the boundaries between different disciplines will be blurred. Science will be less descriptive and based on evidence. Thus, generalisation will occur through numbers.

What potential does Digital Humanities posses for students?

Felix Herrmann:  What I have observed among students is that the motivation for DH should come from inside. Digital Humanities courses should not be obligatory since it does not bring much. Generally, acquiring basic coding skills is yet an advantage in working life today.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya: We should promote Digital Humanities courses since students who will not attend them may lose some knowledge and important skills as future experts.

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmalovskaya presenting computational linguistic methods

Thoughts on Digital Humanities, part I

On 10-11 September, together with the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe (Marburg, Germany) a joint workshop was organised at the Aleksanteri Institute. Digital humanities enthusiasts enjoyed two days of discussing Digital Humanities and networking with colleagues. A following workshop will be held in the future.

How did participants find the workshop? What are challenges and possibilities of Digital Humanities when applying them in Eastern European Studies? What potential does Digital Humanities posses for students? What is the future of Digital Humanities? We interviewed workshop’s presenters Dr. Mila Oiva, a postdoctoral researcher of cultural history (University of Turku) and Misha Melnichenko, a historian and the founder of Prozhito Project. Oiva gave a talk on economic and advertising discourse in the Polish newspaper “Žycie Gospodarcze” between 1950 and 1980. By organising data, using topic modelling and studying collocations, she tracked presence of export strategies in the newspaper. Melnichenko, in turn, coordinates Prozhito Project that goals to digitalise diaries and publish them in the Internet.

Dr. Mila Oiva: The initiative to organise the workshop was prominent and warmly welcomed. I got into applying Digital Humanities methods a few years ago and ever since there has been a demand on academic events with focus on Eastern Europe and Digital Humanities.

The challenges I have faced is that availability of digital resources is still limited and memory politics selective. Moreover, Digital Humanities methods seem to be too quick and easy way to conduct research.  Machine does everything on the behalf of human. Meanwhile, there is a need of deep understanding. How is data actually processed and how does that affect research? There is sometimes a lack of digital skills and knowledge of Digital Humanities methods among scholars. In addition, DH projects need continuity and that should be a part of decision-making strategy when funding them. We still need philosophy of research and research methods should be developed to have best practices. Yet, Digital Humanities methods provide great advantages over traditional methods when big data in question.

What will happen in the future? DH will be more linked with society, with no division between traditional and digital methods. Transnational and interdisciplinary cooperation should increase including cooperation between institutes, such as universities, archives. I highly recommend students to attend courses in Digital Humanities because digital literacy, digital source criticism and understanding of data are vital skills in our society. Knowledge of processing and analysing masses of data will be certainly needed in working life. Moreover, it is an exciting field of research for those interested in academic career.

Mila Oiva presenting her research

Misha Melnichenko: I found the workshop great because of opportunity to meet, network and make cooperation agreements with colleagues. Discussion on best practices of digitalisation was also very fruitful. From my point of view, approaches of Prozhito Project are slightly different from traditional research. We position ourselves as opposite to traditional archives. Most archives have certain conditions under which they take materials for storage. Hence, some material will never be stored and disappear by time. I indeed support data’s availability and information’s free distribution. In our project, content’s accuracy and relevance is less important. Our target audience is generally media but also scholars who might get interested in diaries.

To proceed in our aims, we have used advantages of digitalisation. Starting was the hardest part since the amount of work was huge in the beginning. Luckily, we have many volunteers who are eager to support us; most of them with no academic background. They get instructions for their tasks and we proof their job, from time to time. In addition, students from HSE (Moscow) do their traineeships at our project. For them, contributing to the project has been a source of inspiration. They start to see history from a different point of view; thorough glasses of individual stories instead of general facts. In addition, students acquire essential working life skills in editing texts and processing source materials.

We are interested in widening our map and hope to increase cooperation since we have technical solutions for other languages too. Today we cooperate with the Herder Institute in order to support them with digitalisation.

Round table: Digital Archives in Russia with Marianna Muravyeva (University of Helsinki), Sofia Gavrilova (HSE, Moscow) and Misha Melnichenko (Prozhito Project, Moscow)

Continue reading interview with two other participants Felix Herrmann and Dr. Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskayain part II!

Organisers’ view on Digital Humanities: read also interview with Dr. Markku Kangaspuro (Aleksanteri Institute) and Prof. Dr. Peter Haslinger (Herder Institute) in the Russian Media Lab blog.

100 years of ICT

On Friday, 7.9.19, we opened the second season of DRS seminars with two talks that span over 100 years of ICT development in their attempt to answer one question – how can we capture the contingencies of new technologies?

Dr. Brendan Humphreys, a political historian from the University of Helsinki, started his talk by reminding the audience of the fact that as a “boring historian” one has to admit that “nothing is new” – or at least not as new as one may think. “Lenin’s Tweets: the Telegram Seen from the Age of Social Media” is a provocative exploration of the telegram vs the social media, in particular, Twitter. Lenin’s telegrams were short,  quite often aggressive in tone, and they were reported in the mainstream media (newspapers) as a source – not unlike tweets of some politicians today. At the same time, the ‘like and repost’ features enables by the modern technology were not present 100 years ago. Nevertheless, it is useful to think that the politics of short public statements is not peculiar to our digital age. Rather, it has been re-shaped through social media.

The Visiting Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute and a senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography Dr. Wladimir Sgib­nev is interested in production of space, peripheral urban regions, and mobility in the post-Soviet area. His current research focuses on the marshrutkas, private urban mini-buses, as a major and highly contested mobility phenomenon throughout the former Soviet Union, which has barely received any academic attention so far. His talk titled “The Dark Side of Digitalisation. Spatial Justice and Informal Transport in the Age of Uber” investigated the impact of digitalisation on marshrutka drivers’ working environments and passenger travel conditions. Building on ethnographic fieldwork in Central Asia, Dr. Sgibnev demonstrated that while digitalisation may be seen as a positive trend that allows to formalise and order the messiness of marshrutkas – in terms of routes, finances, and governance – it may have unexpected consequences for mobility justice.

Bus stop in Turkmenistan (Wikipedia)

Plagiarism detection algorithms, magazines in digital era and approaches to contexts

On 13 June, we had two speakers from UH, Dr. Mikhail Kopotev and Dr. Saara Ratilainen. Besides, a special guest from St. Petersburg State University, PhD Maria Khokhlova, gave her talk.

Dr. Mikhail Kopotev, a researcher of Russian language, presented Dissernet, a network community of volunteer experts who work against plagiarism in research and educational field with focus on economics, pedagogies, law and history. The community goals at revealing on the one hand politicians, university rectors in dishonesty. On the other hand, academic journals are also their target. According to statistics, dissertations have nowadays less elements of plagiarism than some years ago due to awareness of quick detection.

Defining plagiarism

In his talk, Dr. Kopotev showed linguistic tools for investigating plagiarism. The first tool, ‘disserorubka’ (thesis-grinder), analyses identical chains of symbols and measure distances between them, giving the results of direct copy-paste. Dictionary-based methods are used to detect paraphrasing for example, in terms of nominalization (i.e. changing verbs into nouns). Being pioneer in their field, Dissernet applies a special tool for English, Russian und Ukrainian to find this out if translated plagiarism has occurred. Furthermore, deep revision is indeed carried out to detect plagiarised parts by using distributional semantics, i.e. contexts of words in vectors. There is also a visualizing tool to create a semantic fingerprint for a whole text and fabric networks for visualizing relations between scientists. Dr. Kopotev’s topic generated an interest among us. Legal consequences of plagiarism, impact of community’s work, ways to apply same methods for other purposes were discussed.

The seminar was continued by Dr. Saara Ratilainen who has background in philology and media studies. Nowadays, online magazines are described as linked culture, covering digital market and data. In her research, Dr. Ratilainen investigated the transformation of printed media into digital forms from perspective of algorithmic culture. Two case studies were presented: Afisha Daily, a Moscow-based commercial magazine, and Inde, a Kazan-based online magazine funded by Tatarstan. Ratilainen analysed the magazines and interviewed magazine’s directors and editors.

Having new concepts and dynamic approaches, teams behind magazines were inspired by possibilities digitalization has provided. The study also showed that magazines were seeking after cultural impact despite the time pressure in the web world. They were also aware of other challenges in digital era such as fancy for visualization and videos. Still, viewing website as one channel among others and competing for audience, magazines managed to diversify by using social media and creating platforms such a book festival. After the talk, such questions as defining the authority to evaluate culture and distribution of power were arisen.

Since this DRS seminar closed the first bath, we celebrated it with pizza round-table and announced that next seminars will be held in fall 2018 and their programme is already under preparation. The seminar culminated in presentation on collocations by PhD Maria Khokhlova, a computational linguist. Defining collocations as usual context words around particular word, there are different approaches and tools to measure them including dictionaries, statistical methods, linguistic model etc. PhD Khokholova showed different databases and an instrument called Sketch Engine System for investigating collocations. These linguistic methods interested participants in terms of using them in research. At the end of seminar, it was agreed that a workshop on corpus creation and management is indeed required to support researchers.

Collocations for ‘politician’ in CoCoCo

Russian sauna is in fact kitchen and other findings during #DHH18

On 23 May – 1 June 2018, at the UH was organized Helsinki Digital Humanities Hackathon #DHH for the fourth time. By bringing together students and researchers of computer science, humanities and social sciences, the aim is to co-operate and conduct multidisciplinary research. #DHH is a unique chance to invent new research methods and implement them. In addition, students learn to formulate research questions, not to mention the relevance of this experience for working life. The hackathon schedule covered discussing research interests, writing scripts, waiting for server to process them, drinking coffee and tea, analysing the results, preparing for presentations and poster session.

This year, there were altogether five groups participating in the hackathon with more than 50 persons involved, among them guest students from ITMO University (St. Petersburg) sharing their knowledge. One of groups was leaded by Dr. Daria Gritsenko and Andrey Indukaev from DRS research group. Gritsenko’s and Indukaev’s team analysed Russia ⇔ Finland. The idea was to study the image of Finns, Finland and Finnish issues in Russian media and vice versa. In the team were engaged participants with different backgrounds: Computational Science, Cultural History, Data Science, Instrumentation Technologies, Russian Language and Literature, Translation Studies.

The data used for the hackathon research included two corpora. The Russian corpus was based on Integrum with both regional (e.g. Delovoy Peterburg) and federal newspapers (e.g. Kommersant). The Finnish corpus was provided by Yle. Both corpora were filtered by words describing Finnish and Russian affairs. Making more than 120.000 articles altogether, it would have been impossible to scrutinize corpora in a week’s time by using only traditional methodological approaches. Hence, several methods of digital humanities were introduced including processes like data cleanup, lemmatization for both languages, topic modelling, defining locations per topic, creating yearly word clouds, distributed representations.

Work in process at #DHH18

As result, the team discovered that the leading topics in Russian media talking about Finland were sports, culture and economy. In Finnish media sports, politics and economy were agenda during the timeline. The number of cities mentioned has grown and geography has widened in Russian regional newspapers and Yle articles by time. For Russian federal newspapers, Finland remains represented only by the biggest cities.

The team was also interested in defining the neighbourhood by searching words neighbour in Russian and Finnish media and their distributed representations (Word2Vec). In Russian media, contexts linked to neighbourhood remained mostly with positive associations such as ‘ally’. Contexts in Finnish articles were less neutral and positive, words such  ‘tension’, ‘threat’ appearing in texts.

While exploring other concepts in their distributional representations, word ‘sauna’ was also checked in corpora. It showed that kitchen has the identical meaning for Russians as sauna has for Finns. The same open relaxed atmosphere.

#DHH18 poster: Rus­sia ⇔ Fin­land


Finding ways to study digital politics

On 11 May, at the Department of Political Governance (St. Petersburg State University) was held a research workshop and a master-class ‘Digital Politics and Post-Network Society’ in which the members of DRS research group participated.

The workshop was started by Dr. Daria Gritsenko,  the founder of Digital Russia Studies from UH, who introduced DRS and presented her view on the process of datafication in Russia in digital era governance and on methodological issues. She is into the questions how to capture a digital governance empirically and what indeed happens when the governance is transforming in digital era. Meeting a great response among the participants, the topics of presentation were largely discussed in the workshop with ideas to collaborate later.

The second speaker was Dr. Elena Tropinova, associate professor from St. Petersburg State University. The object of her research is the government’s ambition to become platform-based. According to Tropinova, government can be compared with a vending machine. The government is visible and meets the need of its citizens. The citizens become data miners and watchers and live in self-regulated IT-ecosystem that is managed both horizontal and vertical. Hence, priorities for the governance are to create strategic management approach. In Tropinova’s view, the challenge is rather lack of digital mentality than digitalization itself.

After Tropinova’s presentation, Dr. Leonid Tomin, associate professor from Saint Petersburg State University, gave a talk on governance in the age of platform capitalism. The ownership of data nowadays reminds colonial conditions while the platform enterprises are moving towards monopoly and the data consumption is growing accelerating. Using the same algorithms as the platform enterprises, how should governance interact in the era of platform capitalism?

The research workshop was continued by Dr. Aleksandr Sherstobitov, associate professor from Saint Petersburg State University. His research is based on policy networks and game theory. In his presentation, a concept of post-networks was introduced. By post-network is understood the new era of networks when networks are no longer ‘flat’ and have a tendency to become rather multidimensional due to lack of stable ties and presence of several actors and nodes.

Discussing modeling cluster

The fifth speaker was Andrey Indukaev from UH, a research group member of Digital Russia Studies and a postdoctoral researcher. His presentation opened up questions of ways to study data economy. In his view, digitalization has the same three dimensions as markets do, digital technologies effects do share similarity with market effects. He is interested in researching what Russian Skolkovo, Rusnano et al. actually are from a perspective of market instruments.

The research workshop was closed by Olga Parhimovich from ITMO University and ‘Informational Culture‘, a Russian NGO with focus on open data and open contents Open data is a machine-readable primary data that is licensed for use and published in the Internet with open access and free availability. In the last years, Russia has improved its placement in the open budget data ranking by providing open data. Parhimovich showed during her master-class how to organize and analyze Russian open budget data via tool called Openrefine.

Russia’s news aggregators reacting to regulation

In the May edition of DRS seminar Dr. Mariëlle Wijermars, a postdoctoral researcher from UH and a DRS research group member, presented her study. She explored the ways to measure the impact of Russia’s news aggregator regulation that entered force in the beginning of 2017.  The aim of regulation was to hold news aggregators liable for the veracity of the news they share. Links to news items that originate from registered media outlets are, however, exempt from liability.  As a result, news aggregators, such as Yandex News, were quick to adept their algorithms to avoid legal claims. Adopted under the pretense of combating the dissemination of fake news, the law thus effectively enables the Russian state to influence the dissemination of news online through already existing media regulation structures. Wijermars analysed to what extent the law creates a mechanism for censoring online news coverage of significant political events. In the talk, an overview of the Russian online news and social media landscape and research on patterns of news consumption among different generations of Russians was also given. Wijermars assessed the measure’s potential impact on online news consumption on the short term, e.g., by narrowing the number of alternative views offered and consumed, as well as the long term implications for the Russian online news landscape.

Screenshot from Yandex News with several media outlets