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.

Digital Russia Studies: The core projects

The first DRS seminar of the year on the 11th of January started with the presentations by two speakers from Digital Russia Studies core. Postdoctoral Researchers, Andrey Indukaev and Mariëlle Wijermars gave talks about their current projects connected with digitalzation in Russia.

Andrey Indukaev the primary results of his project named “Mapping the political discourse on ‘innovation’ and ‘digitalization’ in Russia”. In his work Andrey focuses on two concepts – innovation and digitalization – taking prominent place in the political discourse in Ruissa. The projects aims to analyse the  shifting political role those had during and after Medvedevs term. The study aims to combining the methods of distributional semantics with other methods of text analysis. The results presented at the seminar consisted mainly of the word2vec model trained on a corpus thematically focused on the innovation and digitalization.

Mariëlle Wijermars launched her project “Strategies of Persuasion: Russian Propaganda in the Algorithmic Age” which in November was has been awarded a University of Helsinki three-year project grant. The detailed description of the project can be found here: At the seminar were vividly discussed the questions about what is propaganda: fake news or something else? The main discussion revolved around the issue of the project expected outcomes and the necessity for new knowledge about propaganda strategies in the age of information and media digitalization.

*Text on the picture: Putin in a bearskin. How the President became enamored with the digital economy

DRS seminar. Critical studies of big data infrastructure. Memory in times of big data.

On December 14th, Digital Russia Studies autumn seminars series were concluded by two presentations that exposed – in their own way – how the abundance of data influences modern societies.

Our Guest PhD Ekaterina Kalinina, Senior Lecturer at the School of Culture and Education of Södertörn University gave a talk about a project she is about to launch. How our way of remembering is influenced by the fact that nowadays artificial intelligence quite often takes care of preserving and organizing the traces our memory relies on. Are we about to lose our capacity – or privilege – of forgetting because of the apparently unlimited capacity to record and save all data?

PhD Julia Velkova, a post-doctoral researcher at the Consumer Society Research Centre at the University of Helsinki, discussed the material infrastructure required to store and process data. In a talk “Geopolitics of Data: Yandex Digital Data Infrastructure in Finland from a Critical Media Infrastructure Perspective” she offered an in-depth analysis of political, economic and environmental dimensions of a project carried out by Yandex, Russian information technology giant, in Mäntsälä, Finland. The project attracted media attention since the heat produced by data center is used by the city and this infrastructure looks like a win-win solution for both city, local energy providers and Yandex. However, the current setting is influenced by the shared belief that the volume of data to be stored and processed will exponentially grow with no interruption. Julia Velkova insists that this belief should be questioned to assess the viability of the Yandex data center project, and of other projects of this kind.

DRS connects with ASEEES Slavic DH group

Last week, DRS researcher Mariëlle Wijermars attended the 50th Annual Convention of the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in Boston. In addition to presenting her own research at the conference, Mariëlle was invited to join the business meeting of the ASEEES group Digital Humanities in the Slavic Field (Slavic DH) and introduce Digital Russia Studies there. ASEEES Slavic DH aims to support the teaching, scholarship, curation, and preservation of digitally-rendered work in Slavic (as well as East European and Eurasian) Studies – objectives that we at DRS fully endorse. Our activities and aims, as well as the exciting projects we have coming up in 2019, were greeted with a lot of enthusiasm by the group and we hope to see some of them at next year’s Aleksanteri Conference in Helsinki, where an entire track will be dedicated to Digital Humanities.