“What RT is doing is not unique” – Interview with Prof. Vera Tolz (University of Manchester) on fake news, propaganda and commemoration campaign of Russia Today

by Teemu Oivo 

Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. Since 2017, Tolz has been a team member of the project ‘Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: From Cold War to “Information War”?’. The project studies Russia’s main state-funded international broadcaster RT’s (formerly Russia Today) strategies to connect with its audiences through its various platforms and language versions, and the impact on the audience reception.

Now visiting Helsinki for this year’s Aleksanteri Conference, Tolz follows her project colleagues Stephen HutchingsPrecious Chatterje-Doody and Rhys Crilley as our latest interviewee, talking about the latest findings from the research on RT’s content, campaigns and their audiences.

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Russian Media Lab Network officially launched now: get-together meeting at Aleksanteri Conference

More than 40 researchers, interested in media and communication studies, gathered on Thursday evening at Aleksanteri Institute’s meeting room despite dense conference program. There were not enough sitting places for everyone, so some people even stayed in the corridor.

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RML Network and media research at the Aleksanteri Conference – 23-25 October 2019, University of Helsinki

As usual, the Annual Aleksanteri Conference hosts wide and diverse media studies’ stream. The 19th Annual Aleksanteri Conference “Technology, Culture, and Society in the Eurasian space” represents many interdisciplinary research at the intersection of media and communication studies and other disciplines.

Further details on media research stream and RML Network’s events can be found below. Please consult the Conference website for the latest version of the programme. We look forward to seeing you there!

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How Russian internet consumption heats Finnish city or Critical approach to data economy and digitalization – Interview with Julia Velkova

Julia Velkova is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Consumer Society Research at the University of Helsinki. Her interests are in digital culture and media. She is currently involved in several projects on the politics and histories of emergent data infrastructures, with specific focus on data centres in the Nordic countries, and the labour, discard and temporalities that underpin their work. Her work has been published in journals such as New Media & Society; Culture Machine; Big Data & Society and International Journal of Cultural Studies, among others.

What is your current research about?

I am interested in the cultures and politics of media infrastructures, and in my current project I engage with the histories, temporalities and thermal politics of data centres that are being built in the Nordic countries. The topic that I have been working most recently on is the ways in which local municipalities and energy companies draw in the platform economy into energy politics, through the use of the thermal discard produced by data centres computing user data – a practice that exists currently in Sweden and Finland.

While we are still debating the implications of algorithms and data aggregation practices, there is a peripheral, and still quite marginal interest from scholars on the relation between digital media and energy. In this context, data centres have been the main target of criticism as they put pressure on local power grids while contributing with more carbon emissions, and at the same time reply on the use of water, which in certain cases is in very fragile ecologies, as Mel Hogan (2015) has written about in the context of Utah’s NSA data centre.

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New issue for EuropeNow journal on Digitization of Memory and Politics in Eastern Europe

In memoriam our dear colleague and friend Eszter Gantner,

who made this special issue possible.

Russian Media Lab Network announces the publication of a special issue for EuropeNow (https://www.europenowjournal.org). This special feature includes research papers, presented at recent workshopPolitics of e-Heritage: Production and regulation of digital memory in Eastern Europe and Russia”, organized by the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe, the Aleksanteri Institute – University of Helsinki and CEES at the University of Glasgow. The issue was guest edited by Eszter Ganter and Olga Dovbysh.

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Media control matters: workshop on media control as source of political power in Central and Eastern Europe

This week Aleksanteri Institute hosted a workshop “Media control as source of political power in Central and Eastern Europe”, co-organized by Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen and Russian Media Lab Network. The workshop brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to present their research and to discuss about media manipulation and pressure in various political regimes of post-Soviet countries. The presentations dealt with for example government control in traditional media, media coverage of protest movements, ways of Internet regulation, agency of local journalists in (semi)authoritarian regimes.

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Russian Media Lab co-organized a workshop on digitalization of memory and politics of e-Heritage

Digital humanities enthusiasts met on 3-4 June at the Herder Institute in Marburg, Germany in the joint workshop “Politics of e-Heritage: Production and regulation of digital memory in Eastern Europe and Russia”. It was the second workshop in the workshop series “Politics of Digital Humanities in Eastern European Studies”, organized by the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe, the Aleksanteri Institute – University of Helsinki and CEES at the  University of Glasgow. Aleksanteri Institute hosted the first workshop in September 2018.

The Workshop in Marburg brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to present their research and to discuss about the digitalization processes in production and regulation of history, heritage and memory in Eastern Europe and Russia. Multidisciplinary background of participants, working at the intersection of history, media studies, cultural studies, internet security studies and other disciplines allowed to highlight various aspects of aforementioned issues.

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Towards the mediatization of religion normative model in Russia – talk by visiting researcher Victor Khroul (Moscow State University), 10 June 2019

Victor Khroul, visiting researcher from the Moscow State University, will give a talk on “(Re)mapping the sacred and the profane in post-communist Russia: towards the mediatization of religion normative model” during a brown bag lunch.

Time: 12:00 on Monday 10 June. The meeting room is booked up till 13:30.
Location: Aleksanteri Institute 2nd floor meeting room, Unioninkatu 33

Format. Brown bag lunch combines learning and eating, takes place over lunchtime and occurs in an informal setting. Participants are to bring their own packed lunch and/or beverages.

Lunch talk abstract:

Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden” (Durkheim 1915: 47). His sacred-profane dichotomy – widely recognized, criticized and developed – has two contextual challenges in Russia: the enforced atheization during the Communist time and, after it, religious revival in the context of secularization. Social processes in the post-communist countries led to the sacralization of the profane (Communist rituals) on one side and to the profanation of the sacred (reconstruction of Churches into dancing halls, burning icons). Some profane objects and social practices have been sacralized, some traditional religious ceremonies and sacred objects have been profanized. The last two decades became a time for continuous remapping the social space with sacred and profane markers and media became the most powerful driver of the process.

Some recent cases make it more clear.

  1. Sacralization ‘from the grassroots’. The recent debate on ‘Matilda’, a film directed by the Russian film-maker Alexei Uchitel, which tells a story of a romance between the future Nicholas II, canonized by the Russian Orthodox church in 2000, and Mathilde Kschessinska, a teenage prima ballerina at the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg, is a good example of the ‘grassroots sacralization’ trend in Russian public sphere. Radical Russian Orthodox movements warned that “cinemas will burn” if Matilda was screened, because the film portrays the “holy tsar” in love scenes. And the largest network of cinemas in Russia in September 2017 has refused to screen it because of safety reasons. In addition, some spontaneous, grassroots public initiatives in Russia (the icons of Stalin painted with the nimbus as a saint, protests against digitalization in order to avoid the “number of devil” in the documents, etc. are not in line neither with Church teaching nor the government intentions, but widely covered by media inspiring the sacralization of Stalin or Ivan IV (Terrible).
  2. Sacralization and profanation by and through media. Every year on the Epiphany (19 January) some Russians are plunged into a blessed section of frozen water three times in remembrance of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan. In 2019, almost 460 thousand people in Moscow took part in it (over 2.4 mln in Russia), and these numbers are growing year by year. Epiphany bathing became a huge media event covered by all the major media in Russia and abroad – covered as religious tradition, as something all Russian Orthodox Christians are called to do, as a ritual blessed by the Church. In fact many Russian Orthodox bishops and priests condemned this ritual, called believers not to take part in it and invited them to attend Epiphany liturgy instead. Bishop Evtikhy of Domodedovo put four reasons for this: (1) ice swimming is danger for the health, it contradicts the Gospel and therefore it is a sin; (2) bathing is a profanation of the sacred – blessed water; (3) bathing is not traditional for the Russian Orthodox Church and (4) it strengthens not faith, but superstitions (Evtikhy 2012). This position is low profiled both by media and state authorities and therefore not heard in the public sphere. The ‘enforced sacralization’ of Epiphany bathing by media and commercial agency is an evident challenge for the theoretical framework called “power of religion in the public sphere” (Butler, Habermas et al. 2011).

These cases make evident two problematic areas: low level of ‘religious literacy’ in media and low level of ‘media literacy’ among faith communities. Both areas could be optimized by certain activity, based on normative principles of mediatization of religion and certain expectations from religions and media professionals.

Speaker bio: Victor Khroul, Ph.D., Dr. habil., an associate professor at the Department of sociology of mass communications, Journalism Faculty, Lomonosov Moscow State University and a co-chair of the Religion, Communication & Culture working group in the International Association for Media & Communication Research.

He has served for five years as a Member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Vatican (1996-2001), was a visiting professor at Central European University (Budapest, Hungary, 2011), Linnaeus University (Kalmar, Sweden, spring 2014) and Rooney International Scholar at Robert Morris University (Pittsburgh, USA, fall 2014).

Author of “Media and Religion in Russia” monograph book and over 90 publications in Russian and English, the founding co-editor of “Discovering Grushin” book series on public opinion and historical commemorations studies (published since 2010) and founding editor of “Media and Religion” book series (published since 2011).

Russian Media Lab at ICA conference

Russian Media Lab researcher Marielle Wijermars will be presenting her research on news aggregators and the perception of algorithms in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine at the International Communication Association conference in Washington (24-28 May).

‘News recommendation and source diversity on Russian news aggregators: Google News as the better alternative?’ M. Wijermars, C. Puschmann & J. Zeng

‘Can echo chambers protect information freedom? Algorithmic news recommenders and the public sphere in Eastern Europe’ M. Makhortykh & M. Wijermars

Saara Ratilainen to co-organize a Master Class Course on gender and media at Tampere University

Russian Media Lab researcher Saara Ratilainen will co-organize Master Class Course: Gender, Media, Leadership: Women in Chinese and Russian Media at Tampere University in Autumn 2019.

The course is aimed at those who are interested in the representation of gender in Chinese and Russian media and the status of women in these cultural industries. Participants will know more about media activism related to gender issues in Russia and China. They will learn from the experiences and expertise of acclaimed media professionals and scholars of gender and Russian and Chinese media.

For more information and the enrollment instructions,
please visit https://research.uta.fi/tarc/masterclass-2019/.