The Russian Media Ecosystem and the Arab Spring

It is no secret that the Arab Spring has shaken authoritarian governments not just in the Middle East, but around the world. China has engaged in a severe crackdown on dissent, including imprisoning well-known artist Ai Weiwei, and has also gone so far as to prohibit the sale of Jasmine. But what about Russia, which has left its Internet mostly open but is more similar to China in its repression of offline political action?

As I noted in my last post, the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia provide a great example of the appearance of an agenda item in the Russian blogosphere that is almost completely absent from official Russian government information channels. The Russian government, it seems, didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.

The polar map above shows the similarity of Russian popular blogs, Russian top 25 most popular media, Russian TV, and the Russian Government feeds that use the terms ‘Egypt,’ ‘Tunisia’ or ‘Protest’ from December 25, 2010 to February 21, 2011 (Mubarak officially stepped down on February 11). The center node on this map (black) is our list of Top 25 Russian mainstream or popular media. The further a given source is from this center node, the more dissimilar it is to the collective content of the mainstream media. (I would have preferred to use the government as the center node, but the lack of data from the government on this specific query made that impossible. So what we really are looking at in the above polar map is the comparison of mainstream media to blogs, and the absence of the Russian government.)

It is clear in the above polar map that there is a large difference between the terms used by the majority of popular blogs compared to more traditional Russian media when discussing Egypt and the protests. Most popular mainstream media and TV channels are found near the center of the map along with a handful of popular blogs. The majority of popular blogs are pushed even further to the edge of the chart, and with a more clearly delineated white space between mainstream media and the outer ring of blogs than in the examples in my previous Media Cloud post.

The content clusters (the color of a given node on the map and related cluster title) are also revealing. A selection of sentences from the different sources highlights how different the discussion actually is between blogs and other more traditional media. The mainstream media talk primarily about tourists. A quick reading of the first thousand sentences in this query that use the word tourists show that a clear majority of this discussion is indeed about Russian tourists trying to get out of Tunisia and Egypt, official government statements about the safety of tourists and the need to help them evacuate, and additional flights that were added to help Russian tourists return home. For example, this is a sentence from the mainstream media found in the tourist cluster:

Rosturizm [the Federal Agency for Tourism] is looking after the fate of the Russian tourists vacationing in Tunisia. A decision about the necessity of their return home, in the context of massive riots and the hasty departure of the President of Tunisia from the country, will be made on Saturday.

Traditional media such as TV Channel 5 and Izvestiya (as well as a few blogs) also use the term for riots instead of protests, which might reflect a more negative framing of events. Here are examples of MSM sentences from that cluster:

During the mass protests and ensuing riots in Egypt, 365 people have been killed and more than five thousand have been injured.

Egypt has descended into chaos and is preparing for new mass riots.

Most popular blogs are located far from the center of the map, and clustered around the terms Libya, Tunisia and sports, and also discussed the impact of the Internet on the protests. Below are illustrative sentences pulled from blogs:

I do not believe that the Russian authorities, the “tandem and company,” will take away the necessary lesson from the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

It [the Internet] is more often not used just as an information platform, but as a coordinator of this or that mass action…The revolutions in Egypt proved: social networks may be used as political instruments, and as long as access isn’t shut off, no censorship of the press will insulate authoritarian governments from mass action protests – the collective organizers of which today are Facebook and Twitter, and what is going to fill that arsenal tomorrow, it is even hard to imagine.

In light of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, even a complete idiot can understand the repression against activists in Triumph Square, the Strategy-31 activists, which has gone on for nearly two years, and also understand the intrigue surrounding Strategy-31. [Russian Federal] authorities, similar in spirit to their fellow authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, are scared to death of the possibilities that freedom of peaceful assembly will open for Russian citizens.

The Russian government, on the other hand, barely uses the word Egypt at all (not frequently enough to even generate a word cloud or to appear on the polar map). The government’s near silence on the political aspects of the Middle East protests ended with this televised statement by Medvedev on the 22nd of February, “These states are difficult, and it is quite probable that hard times are ahead, including the arrival at power of fanatics. This will mean fires for decades and the spread of extremism.”

Comparison to the US

A comparison of how Egypt was discussed in the US media ecosystem (including blogs) shows how different the Russian media space is to that in the United States for this topic. The US polar map is drawn with the White House as the central node and plots the content of popular blogs, political blogs, Top 25 mainstream media, and the White House over the same December to February time period as the Russia polar map. In the US, blogs are much more similar in their content to the White House than blogs in Russia are to the Kremlin, or even top 25 MSM. The content of the US blogs and mainstream media cluster primarily around the terms American and Mubarak. At first blush, this map seems to support media theories that argue the White House is the most important player in setting the media agenda, particularly in foreign affairs debates. However, it is interesting to note that there are some outliers in this map that are found further from the center. These include blog content clusters that use the terms Palin, War, Internet and Google. Below is a zoom in on the US polar map and the word cloud from the cluster of sources that most frequently use the term Palin relative to others.


Word Cloud: Palin Content Cluster

In conclusion, these first tests of Russian Media Cloud indicate that Russian popular blogs and opposition political blogs are the least similar to the Russian government when compared to Russian TV and popular mainstream media. Russian mainstream media are more similar to Russian TV and the Russian government than one might expect. If it is true that cosine similarity is a good automated method for identifying agendas in the different media sources we are tracking, then the similarity we observe seems to suggest that the Russian government has a significant influence on the agenda of traditional media, including Web-native media, and that blogs might provide an alternative agenda. For certain topics, such as the recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa, the difference between blog content and Russian government information channels is even more stark; the government is nearly silent on the protests, the MSM seems to have adopted the government frame of discussing ‘tourists’ and ‘riots’ more than protests, and a qualitative read of the sentences used by bloggers reinforces just how differently bloggers frame the Arab Spring compared to traditional media and the government.

Cross posted on the Internet & Democracy Blog.

About Bruce Etling

Director of the Internet & Democracy Project at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society
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3 Responses to The Russian Media Ecosystem and the Arab Spring

  1. inna says:

    Not to be too critical (interesting topic, very worthy of scholarly attention, interesting method, etc.), but if you know historical and political conditions of Russia, you know that silence and ignoring the topic and pushing it to the margins (kitchens or blogs) have been successfully used as tools of control. Do your data support the claim that the Russian government didn’t know what to say?

    Also, your point that bloggers frame events differently from traditional media and the government – does it mean much? Perhaps, they’re allowed to do so because they have no influence on political discourse and action. Will you be able to dig a bit deeper and find something more complex and nuanced in your data?

    • Bruce Etling says:

      Thanks for you comments, Inna. I’d say you probably framed it correctly, the Russian government seems to not want to say anything on this one. You are also right that Media Cloud doesn’t provide evidence of any motivation, simply the data they have used to describe (or be silent) on a given topic, and we can only infer the meaning behind it.

      As we’ve said repeatedly these are first outputs and experiments using the tool, not final findings, so yes, we plan to keep digging deeper and finding more interesting and useful results, and blogging our findings as we go through the process.

  2. Matt D. says:

    I would have to agree with Inna in part, and disagree in part. Yes, the data doesn’t seem to support the conclusion that blogs or the online media sphere is used as an avenue for uncensored expression for the Russian peoples. At the same time, however, the amount of data, as stated by Mr. Etling, is far from being complete. I do think that blogging and social media outlets have transformed the way people across the globe express themselves. The ease and accessibility of blogging has allowed people across the globe to express themselves through the most trustworthy media-source…themselves. Great project, please keep us updated (via email?).

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