Markets of tomorrow and “great Russia” politics

Andrey, you just came back from the SASE’s 30th Anniversary Conference at The New School in New York. Could you briefly tell us what it was about?


SASE – Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics – is a large international organization that brings together researchers exploring the economy and society nexus. Its annual conference is the most important venue for this interdisciplinary research domain. This year, the conference theme was “Fathomless Futures: Algorithmic and Imagined”, which spiced the common SASE themes with a focus on digital technology and future oriented activities. This big conference included numerous panels regrouped in 18 networks and 19 mini-conferences – close to 40 tracks in total! I presented a paper at the mini-conference entitled “Futures and Visions of Global Orders” organized by Jenny Andersson, Vincent Cardon, Melissa Fisher, and Olivier Pilmis.

What was your paper about?


The ideational dimension of policy-making is one of my research interests since my doctoral  dissertation, where I analyze how ideas influence the adoption and functioning of market-oriented policy tools in the science, technology and innovation (STI) domain in Russia. This year’s conference focus inspired me to pursue this analysis and to focus on crucial component of ideational context of the policy-making in the STI domain, the images of the future.

What are the main findings of your research?


First, my paper enhances the understanding of the ways of representing the future that widely shared by the country’s political and administrative leadership. I think that the most important result is how country-specific visions of the future, centered on what may be called “great Russia” politics, are intertwined with the investment professionals’ – namely venture capitalists (VCs) – vision of the future, that is spread all over the world. Russian policy in the STI domain has among its objectives serving the “great Russia” politics, that is, reinforcing the country’s standing in international relationships. In this regard, the policy is in line with what the dominant part of political leadership, especially conservative, believe to be the country’s strategic priorities. The corresponding image of the future is the one where Russia struggles for its place in the international relationship system, in particular, through resisting the technology-fueled dominance of the West. In apparent contradiction with this image, the policy tools used in Russia in the STI domain are in line with Western “best practices”, being market-oriented and using venture capital ways of doing as a key reference. My main contribution is to show that there is no great contradiction between the images of the future coming from the venture capital industry and those dominated by the “great Russia” logic. Why is it so? First, the venture capital’s perspective on the future is centered on the revolutionary technologies and products that radically transform – “disrupt” – existing markets and create new ones, thus changing the world. This idea implies that economic actors face the imperative of leading or facing this endless disruption in order not to be whipped out of the markets of tomorrow. Second, the “great Russia” politics nowadays frames the economic sphere as a key battlefield where the country has to consolidate its power. The country’s activities in the STI field framed as a fight for a decent share of the markets of tomorrow (and consequently for its standing in the world) blends the venture capital perspective with the “great Russia” politics.

Putin’s words that the one who will master Artificial Intelligence, will master the Universe made news. But what are the arguments that the president uses to support his claim? In other speeches, the country’s leader referred to the future volume of AI-related market to support his argument about the strategic importance of this technology. My analysis explains how markets and the “mastering of the universe” are intertwined in the images of the future of the Russian political leadership.

What are your plans regarding this line of research?


The next step is to put my analysis in context, since the association between the politics of international competiveness and the STI policy, in particular the mobilization of the venture capital, is not unique to Russia. Just as Russia, China actively uses venture capital to achieve strategic goals, primarily the country’s competiveness in the world economy, blending the future imaginaries of the nation’s rise to power with those of technological development. Similarly, Western democracies justify many State-supported initiatives in the STI domain by mobilizing the catch-up rhetoric, implying that investment in new technologies is key to the country’s standing in the future world order – as it was in the case of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the US. Thus, I am motivated to show that the Russian case I presented at SASE is not exceptional.

Anna Belokur joins DRS to work on her MA thesis

The DRS team has a new member – Anna Belokur who will be working on her master thesis under the supervision of Prof. Daria Gritsenko. Anna has started her MA in Russian Studies (MARS) programme at the University of Helsinki in September 2018 after taking her bachelor’s degree in biology. Anna’s special interest is public health and she hopes to combine natural and social sciences in the examination of public health and disease in Russia. Her master thesis focuses on the digital trail of Russia’s HIV epidemic, using big data methods to examine the ways in which HIV is present in (or absent from) Russian media discourse, and if/how the relative rates of media «awareness» regarding HIV correlate to rates of reported infections and deaths in various regions.

DRS seminar: closing spring series. Social networks in Soviet film industry; Digitalization of education in Russia

The last seminar of the spring series took place on June 7th, featuring presentations by Nelli Piattoeva, Associate Professor at the University of Tampere, and  Joan Neuberger, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The presentation by Nelli Piattoeva entitled “Digitalizing education in Russia: a governance perspective” was focused on an ongoing research project. The digital technology are playing the increasingly important role in the governance of secondary education in the Russian Federation. In particular, more and more information is used for the educational organization monitoring and assessment by the sector’s administration. The resulting changes in how schools function in the new “datified” governance context are being actively investigated by the project’s researchers.

“Social Network Analysis and the Soviet Film Industry” – the presentation by Joan Neuberger – exposed intermediary results of a research project where quantitative methods were used to advance research on the Soviet culture. Joan used open data on Soviet movies* credit scores to analyze the structure and dynamics of the system of collaboration networks in the Soviet cinematographic universe, from its inception to the first post-war decade. The project, led by a specialist in humanities with a cautionary approach towards methodology, exposed the opportunities and limitations of social network analysis in the historical studies of the cultural production. For example, the study of the centrality measures of the collaboration networks revealed an interesting phenomenon: the most “central” characters are not the ones who are the most famous or successful, but those who have the longest track record. That shows that centrality measures should be used with caution when trying to detect prominence within a cultural field, suggesting, at the same time, that social network analysis can reveal actors of great social importance who stayed out of the spotlight.

The closing session of the seminar highlighted the virtues of the Digital Russia Studies seminar, which brings together researchers with different backgrounds wishing to present projects at different stages of advancement, using wide variety of methods, but always sparking interesting and fruitful discussion. Stay tuned for the autumn’s series of the DRS seminar!

Vladimiv Uralskiy (on the left) – the most central actor in the Soviet film industry. Do you know this prolific character actor?

A DH perspective on sub-national governance in Russia

On May 17th, Digital Russia Studies spring seminars series featured two presentations on sub-national governance in Russia – both using digital humanities methods.

DRS co-founder, Daria Gritsenko, introduced the new research project “Algorithmic Governance in Context(s): Civic technology in Russian regions”. This project led by Daria Gritsenko and Andrey Indukaev studies the digitalization of local governance in Russia. The project aims to understand what makes local administrations implement digital tools of civil participation (civic tech) in the Russian regions. The key hypothesis of the project is that there is no single pathway to civic tech uptake, but the reasons vary between the regions: some do it because of the local administration’s interest in digital tools, while others respond to the ‘push from below’ – the needs of the local civil society. The seminar participants discussed the key social and political phenomena that may influence civic tech use, the relevant variables, such as the activity of local media and civil society.

Andrey Starodubtsev presented a his project focusing on the ideational dimension of regional politics in Russia.  The main methodological focus of the project is on the diachronic and synchronic textual analysis of governors speeches and writings. What ideas do regional leaders express in different contexts? In particular, how do they express the desirable status of subnational units? To answer these questions, he aims at analysing the centralist and federalist ideas in governors’ political communication using mixed-method techniques combining text mining and close reading. After the presentation, the discussion turned around the methodological issues of textual analysis, in particular how to approach different types of data and how to deal with unbalanced corpora.

Algorithmic Governance: In search for Context

On 9-10 May 2019, Digital Russia Studies co-founders Dr. Daria Gritsenko and Dr. Mariëlle Wijermars together with the Department of Information Technology at the University of Uppsala organised a multidisciplinary two-day workshop “Algorithms in Context – Towards a Comparative Agenda for Studies of Algorithmic Governance Across Politics, Culture, and Economy.” This workshop was the first in a series of three events scheduled for 2019-2020 and funded by Joint Committee for Nordic research councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NOS-HS).

The participants of the first NOS-HS workshop “Algorithms in Context”

IR: Daria, could you tell us how did you come up with the idea of the workshop series?

DG: It was in late 2014, Matt Wood, one of the workshop’s core participants, and I were both fresh PhD graduates in public policy and were debating what will happen to governance in the next few years. We were somehow fascinated by the idea that governance process is increasingly being outsourced – but not to the markets and networks as it has been happening in the course of neoliberal reforms, but to technology and smart algorithms. A couple of years later we met at one of the large political science conferences and realised that the idea of algorithmic governance has picked up speed. It felt like a good time to look at the emerging phenomenon of algorithmic governance from a multidisciplinary perspective. So when Mariëlle asked me whether I would be interested to explore some idea through a series of Nordic workshops, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus upon. We already had links to the University of Tromsø through Prof. Holger Pötzsch and soon we got acquainted with Prof. Francis Lee and Dr. Mikael Laaksoharju. We had a lot of brainstorms, teleconferences, bouncing ideas, and eventually, a funded workshop proposal.

IR: Sounds breath-taking! Can you tell a bit more about the first workshop?

DG: The first workshop  was called ‘Developing a framework for comparative analysis of algorithmic governance’ and it brought together thirteen scholars with background in media, law, politics, area studies and computer sciences from Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK to discuss how algorithms interact with contexts and how that could be studied.

During the first workshop, the intensive brainstorming included dividing into three discussion groups and writing a collaborative review article anonymously. In this review, we focused on such questions as: How do we define data and smartness? What are the challenges of machine learning and automated decision making? How is context created for algorithms?

In addition, we had a chance to visit Social Robotics Lab and see algorithms’ working in practice.  That was very exciting – but also sobering. We are much further from the strong AI than the media and entertainment industry are picturing.

“Academic Anonymous” – an innovative simultaneous collaborative writing workshop

IR: What was participants’ opinion on the workshop?

DG: Generally, their expectations were met. The participants were positively surprised how efficient we were during the workshop and found ways of working well-balanced. Our programme was comprehensive, for some a bit too packed, but we really managed to develop a sense of identity as a group and to come up with a draft of a review article. Pretty neat!

IR: So, what’s next on the agenda?

DG: The next workshops are scheduled for autumn 2019 (Helsinki) and spring 2020 (Tromsø). We are all looking forward to next workshop that will be held at the University of Helsinki to start developing collaborative research focusing on specific cases.

IR: Ilona Repponen, DG: Daria Gritsenko

DRS seminar April edition

In the April edition of DRS seminar, Pihla Toivanen introduced her Master’s thesis “Computational Frame Analysis of Populist Counter Media”. Her research is a part of the project “Information chaos and trust in traditional journalism” project carried out at Tampere University’s COMET Research Center in collaboration with Aalto University.

Pihla uses machine learning to study how Finnish populist media builds trust by referring to external information sources. In particular, populist media actively use news coming from traditional media to produce their own content (see table below). Mainstream media in Finland are trusted, and reusing their stories may help populist media to build credibility. However, populist media do not merely reproduce information from the traditional media, but actively reframe it. Pihla developed a supervised machine-learning algorithm that detects how populist media reframe stories from traditional media. The algorithm and the preliminary results of its application to unlabeled data were presented at the seminar, as well as the researcher’s future plans to develop the classification technique. After the presentation, seminar participants discussed the use of machine learning in media studies and new methodologies of media research.

HSS awards grant for ‘Sustainable Journalism for the Algorithmic Future’

Helsingin Sanomat Foundation has awarded a €130,000 grant to DRS co-founder Mariëlle Wijermars for the project ‘Sustainable Journalism for the Algorithmic Future’ (2020-2022).

The project, that in addition to Mariëlle involves Russian Media Lab researcher Olga Dovbysh, will be launched next January and run for three years (short summary below). If you are interested in getting involved or would like to know more, get in touch!

‘Sustainable Journalism for the Algorithmic Future’ (2020-2022)

The project investigates how data-driven media practices and the increased influence of IT industries on media business affect journalism and its role in the public sphere. Integrating new evidence from a hybrid media system (Russia) into a comparative study, it helps understand the context-specificity of this impact and will formulate a vision on making journalism societally, economically and ethically sustainable for the algorithmic future.

Open gov­ern­ment data in Rus­sia

Providing open data about public administration has become a trend all over the world among government bodies and local authorities. The idea is to increase transparency and to invite individuals and organisations to collaborate with the public services, and build new solutions on that data. In Russia, the executive organs have since 2012 been obliged to make their data public. What does this mean in practice? How has the order been implemented?

read the full interview with Ilona Repponen from DRS.

Persuasion, Conspiracy Thinking and the Securitisation of Information in Russia and Beyond – 4 April 2019

The STRAPPA project is hosting an afternoon seminar on 4 April on ‘Persuasion, conspiracy thinking and the securitisation of information in Russia and beyond’. We are very happy that several of our network partners will join us to share their research (for the full programme and list of speakers, see below).

Attendance is free, but registration in advance is required. Please register by 29 March by clicking here.

Persuasion, Conspiracy Thinking and the Securitisation of Information in Russia and Beyond

4 April 2019, 13:15-16:30 – Aleksanteri Institute, 2nd floor meeting room

13:15-13:45 – Introduction

Strategies of Persuasion – Russian Propaganda in the Algorithmic Age

Mariëlle Wijermars, University of Helsinki

13:45-14:45 – Session 1

Curation, legitimation and populist communication: the packaging of global politics on RT (Russia Today)

Precious Chatterje-Doody, University of Manchester

In recent years, Russia’s state-funded international broadcaster RT (Russia Today) has become the focus of significant international scrutiny: British MPs have debated a ban; France has denied accreditation to RT France journalists; and the network was forced to register as a foreign agent in the USA. Even the network’s former Head of Social recognises the “toxic” nature of the brand. In the face of such challenges, how does RT package its outputs in ways intended to resonate with target audiences? This paper introduces 3 core tactics in RT’s playbook: curation of topics and expertise; (de)legitimation of key players’ actions; and use of populist communication logics.

The world according to the truthseekers: Conspiracy and the everyday on RT

Ilya Yablokov, University of Leeds

What is the US government involved in to conspire against its citizens and other good-willing people in the world? What happened on 9/11? Why the US is interested in spreading LGBT propaganda in Russia? How does the world look like according to the famous conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura? This paper is dedicated to RT’s most overtly conspiratorial output: the shows ‘The Truthseeker’ and ‘The World According to Jesse Ventura’. These shows explicitly designed to seek out facts that established institutions and power structures have allegedly sought to cover up. The two programmes under investigation date from the network’s inception, and its present-day programming respectively. My analysis reveals an evolution over time in the representational strategies used to convey conspiracy theories on RT. I provide the framework to understand how conspiracy theories operate over time since 2010, when RT launched its broadcasting in the US, and I explore how these theories are being applied to seek support of various subnational communities inside the US.

14:45-15:00 – Coffee break

15:00-16:00 – Session 2

Persuasion, mockery, and ambiguity: Recent changes in pro-state discourse on Runet

Vera Zvereva, University of Jyväskylä

This paper focuses on the discursive convergence of the pro-state mainstream media, social media as used by Russian state officials, and the more dubious resources associated with the Federal News Agency (FAN) and with pro-Kremlin trolls. It aims to demonstrate that the boundaries between them are becoming harder to define. Thus, the ambiguity of messages has become more central to the language of political communication in Russian digital media. On the one hand, part of the FAN media shares the agenda of RIA Novosti, RT, and others, and multiplies and refracts their news, opinions, and interpretations on the Internet, keeping readers within the circle of resources and the discursive space that they try to manage. On the other hand, the media discourse of Russian officials themselves has become so rich in street parlance, undiplomatic language, and features of trolling that what they say no longer stands out against the background of speech by less respectable media agents.

Information-psychological warfare in Russian security strategy

Katri Pynnöniemi, University of Helsinki and National Defence University

Information-psychological warfare comes in many disguises. This paper analyses assumptions underlying the contemporary Russian debate on information warfare. The focus is on research literature and other writings that can be thought of contributing to the formation of Russian security strategy.

16:00-16:30 Concluding remarks

Innovation and Digitalisation in Russia

The monthly seminar on February 1 featured two presentations by Aleksanteri Institute researchers. Both presentations focused on issues related to the new technologies and economic development in Russia.

Anna Lowry, Postdoctoral Researcher, presented her analysis of Russian state program “The Digital Economy of the Russian Federation”. The program is an important element of the Russian Government policy aiming the country’s technological and economic development. Anna showed that the program’s focus on the provision of new ICT services is potentially detrimental to its performance, given that the country has a limited capacity to manufacture electronic components and high-technology products. At the same time, the program is an important milestone in shaping the policies that seek to promote Russia economic development, argues Anna Lowry.

The second presenter, Sari Autio-Sarasamo, University Lecturer, Aleksanteri Institute’s vice-director, presented a research project Innovative Economy in Russia, where she is the Principal Investigator. The research project ambition is to study the influence of new technology on the country’s political economy through the analysis on multiple levels. The project methodological challenge is to collect firm-level data and to build on that empirical ground the understanding of the dynamics of modern Russia’s economic development.