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

Counting propaganda and ethical conduct

The April edition of Digital Russia Studies seminar was opened by Dr. Reeta Kangas, a scholar of art history from the University of Turku. She presented A Quantitative Look at the Pravda Political Cartoons of the Great Patriotic War. A decade ago, Reeta collected all political cartoons published during the Great Patriotic War 1941-45 in the Pravda newspaper, counting 185. Her Master’s thesis based on these materials sought to quantify the use of the different themes during the three periods of war by use of crisp set categorization. Yet, today Dr. Kangas is looking for more advanced ways for quantitative analysis of political cartoons. She explores ways of applying digital humanities methods to compositional interpretation, as well as combining context, caption and code into a larger analysis using quantitative and qualitative methods. This is an exciting work in progress and seminar participants had a few suggestions for Reeta – we are looking forward to learn about the progress of this project!

Kukryniksy, 3 November 1944, Spanish-Portuguese neutrality

The second part of the seminar opened up some of the acute questions of research ethics for scholars working with internet forums. Teemu Oivo, a doctoral candidate from the University of Eastern Finland, has made different experiences during his work on Karelianness in Runet discussions about nationalism. While internet forums seem like ‘easy data’ –  open, free, and abundant – they can best be describes as a semi-private sphere that often turns out problematic in terms of research ethics. While people may share their thoughts on the internet, they usually do not think of these posts as a potential object of someone’s research. Hence, informing the users that they have become ‘informants’ in a research project is crucial, as well as obtaining their consent, even if from a legal perspective the data is ‘open’ and freely accessible. Another issue that Teemu has been wresting with is the use of memes as research objects. Memes are fluid and the attribution of intellectual property rights is often complex – or even impossible. Also, they have a tendency to come and go. Creating and curating own web-archives maybe a good way to preserve the memes and the context in which they were captures by a researcher.

Historical Brotherhoods and Quantified Film Music

The March edition of DRS seminar featured two talks by PhD researchers from the University of Helsinki.

The first presenter, Justyna Pierzynska from Media and Communication Studies at the Department of Social Research, asked in her research why historical brotherhoods are such an effective narrative in East European politics. She uses digital materials to discover how such ‘common history’ is being produced and how it becomes popular social knowledge. Comparative analysis of four ‘historical brotherhoods’ – Polish-Georgian brotherhood, Serbian-Armenian brotherhood (Serbia), Serbian-South Ossetian brotherhood (Serbia), Serbian-South Ossetian brotherhood (Republika Srpska) – show an interesting pattern. Brotherhood ideas do not spread to become „common knowledge“ without the mediating elite element!

”Poles and Georgian cousins be – new national truth”
User-generated image, 2010

In the second half, MA Ira Österberg from Aleksanteri Institute who will be defending her PhD dissertation “What Is That Song? Aleksej Balabanov’s Brother and Rock as Film Music in Russian Cinema” on Wednesday, May 9th, 2018, presented her proposal for postdoctoral research project. The idea is to study musical strategies of Soviet cinema by operationalizing film’s use of music along various dimensions. The aim is to find out how much music is in a given film, what types of music are used, how are the music type and positioning of the music connected. Using digital (semi)automated methods, Ira plans to scale her study to uncover how these features change over time. The ultimate aim of this exciting project is the creation of the overall methodology for quantitative film music analysis!

Arto Mustajoki on how to work with Integrum and why we need CCCP

On 2.2.18, professor Arto Mustajoki has held a presentation on the use of Integrum database for research on Russian language and Russia more broadly. While the public transport was not running in Helsinki and we were only four people in the seminar room, twice as many participants joined online. Very nice to see that Adobe provides us a convenient way of enabling participation not only across our campuses but also across the world.

Integrum is the largest proprietary electronic archive of mass media from Russia and the CIS countries. Currently Integrum comprises more than 15000 databases, including newspapers and journals,   news agency texts,  TV and radio texts, online news publications from central and regional mass media, as well as legal texts, together constituting a corpus with over 50 bn words. Full-text archives of many newspapers and magazines date back to the beginning of the 1990s.

While the company, also called Integrum, is a private provider of the database, scholars at the University of Helsinki and everyone logging in from the University of Helsinki has free access to all its mass media collections.

During a live demo, professor Mustajoki showed different search queries that can be performed on Integrum directly, as well as provided a wealth of real examples on the use of the database stemming from his own research. For example, the advanced search functionality of Integrum allowed to find 2500 of a unique ‘semipassive’ voice; discover why people pretend (not) to understand; investigate attitudes towards ‘fashionable words’; and research the objects of Soviet nostalgia.

Professor Mustajoki emphasized that in advancing digital humanities, we need CCCPcooperation, collaboration, curiosity and passion. While computational linguistics and social statistics have a long history, digital humanities seek to cross-cut these existing practices and add new functionality by leveraging the potential of big data.


Seminar kick-off 5 Jan 2018

On 5 Jan 2018, we held the first Digital Russia Studies seminar in Helsinki. Eighteen participants joined the kick-off event – some came to Aleksanteri Institute, others connected online. In addition to researchers in social sciences, law, languages, and cultural history coming from the University of Helsinki, we welcomed participants from the University of Turku and the University of Eastern Finland, making the session even more exciting and interdisciplinary.

Dr. Mila Oiva from Aalto University presented her ongoing research project that utilizes digital humanities methods in the field of Russian cultural history. Mila’s research investigates the depiction on Yves Montand’s visit to Moscow in 1956-57. During this period, the USSR was opening to the world, declaring the policy of peaceful co-existence. Mila is studying the archival materials devoted to Montand’s visit using, as she says, two sets of glasses. One way of looking at the material is a more conventional close reading. Another set of glasses is that of topic modelling and collocation analysis. Integrating both methods sequentially in her research design, Mila is alternating between ‘close’ and ‘distant’ reading to gain new perspectives upon her research materials.

In the second part of the seminar, Dr. Ekaterina Protassova and Dr. Mikhail Kopotev from the Department of Modern Languages gave an overview of the ongoing research activities in the discipline of Russian language and literature. Among the recent projects, CoCoCo  – Automatic extraction of collocations and colligations, as well as Plagiarism Detection Algorithms for the Russian language, are of interest to the broader research community as they develop technical tools specifically for the Russian language that may be of interest to scholars of various disciplines.

At the end of the seminar, participants had a chance to tell each other a bit more about their current interest in Digital Russia Studies, as well as exchange ideas and tips with each other while having some coffee and pulla, a Finnish sweet bun. After this exciting January kick-off, we are looking forward to the February workshop by Prof. Arto Mustajoki on the versatile opportunities of Integrum database.