20 years under Putin: a timeline

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on in Russia, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office reported that the amount of false information online has increased tenfold. At the same time, according to human rights activists, the government’s efforts to fight fakes undermine freedom of speech. Indeed, recent studies show that fake news has become one of the Kremlin’s latest tools of population control and domination in the online space.

 

Coronafake.ru, an online projected dedicated to refuting myths, fakes, and conspiracies about coronavirus, was launched by Alexander Malkevich of Russia’s Civic Chamber. However, the project approach to the problem presumes distrust of other people and information in general, while its content remains beyond users’ control. Photo: screenshot of Coronafake.ru’s home page.

 

Coronavirus and “infodemic” of fakes

In June, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office reported a “more than tenfold spike in identifiable fakes on the Internet during the coronavirus pandemic,” adding that as part of the state’s fight against inaccurate information, actions were being taken “to restrict access to 180 Internet resources.” Among the popular fake stories, Russian authorities name those that allege “concealment of the real extent of the infection spread and [the number of] victims,” ​​as well as information about the government’s possible plans to take coercive measures and severely restrict citizens’ rights.

A few days later, the international human rights group Agora released a report entitled “Fake Epidemic: The fight against coronavirus as a threat to freedom of speech,” which underscores that criminalization of the spread of fake news “has become a convenient tool for reprisal against the authorities’ critics,” including activists, journalists, bloggers, and politicians. According to the report’s authors, “the state has openly proclaimed its monopoly on the truth.”

The problem of false information in a crisis situation is not exclusively Russian. The reproduction index (known as R), which determines the “contagiousness” of a piece of information, is much higher than the infection rate of coronavirus, especially since rumors and conspiracy theories spread better than reliable information. At the same time, there is no vaccine against informational “contagion,” and “immunity” in this case is also a problem. For example, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute found that politicians, celebrities, and other public figures are sources of 20 percent of false claims and generators of 69 percent of total engagement. The “infodemic” phenomenon is now officially recognized by the World Health Organization.

Russian social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, who collected and classified waves of fake news and network rumors, notes that people tend to disseminate false information because, faced with crisis or uncertainty, it is only human to try to “take control over what is happening by not complicating, but simplifying reality.” Thus, under increased anxiety and stress, the “share” button gives people “the illusion of control and resolution of the problem.” According to Arkhipova, the psychological nature of misinformation indicates that the only reliable method of dealing with it is not criminal and administrative sanctions, but “honesty on the part of the authorities, who have [accurate] information,” and the need to show it systematically. But the authorities have their own motives for spreading fakes, including, inter alia, the need to boost approval ratings. Such motives can hardly be countered by a greater degree of openness.

The problem of fake news cannot be boiled down to the technical transfer of false data or psychological motives for their dissemination. Fake news is not just news that deviates from the truth, but also a category of thinking, a crisis management concept, an instrument and technology that governments use to achieve political goals. Application of these tools varies in different social, political, and cultural contexts. Russia’s specifics are determined by its tradition of crisis communications and relationships between government institutions and society, in particular, by the structure of their mutual trust. 

 

Fake news and crisis communications

The context of crisis communications is crucial for understanding the role of false messages. On the one hand, crisis communications are aimed at minimizing threats and warning people about possible risks. On the other hand, they often come down to power institutions trying to avoid responsibility or imitate social and political stability during crisis.

In the Soviet and, later, Russian tradition of crisis response, informing people and warning about possible risks often hold secondary value, while control over their behavior becomes a priority. In other words, manageability amid growing uncertainty is more important than people’s safety. With this approach, crisis communications are essentially reduced to constructing an informational picture of the crisis, which may include the denial of the crisis itself or minimization of its scale. The message that the situation is under the full control of the authorities becomes an indispensable element of communication. 

Invisible dangers, such as radiation or viruses, create wide opportunities for manipulations. Researcher Olga Kuchinskaya, who wrote a book about the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, calls this phenomenon the “politics of invisibility.” Agora’s report, too, recalls the Soviet experience of hiding information during epidemics, for example, in the outbreak of anthrax in Yekaterinburg in 1979. 

The role of fakes in the context of “invisible” crises is ambivalent. On the one hand, “invisibility” creates a large space for rumors and conspiracies. False information can cause widespread panic, pushing people to act in wrong and dangerous ways. It also significantly reduces the authorities’ ability to control the situation. On the other hand, “invisibility” simplifies the task of denying, concealing, or minimizing the scale of the crisis. In addition, the lack of tangible facts makes it possible to declare any information that differs from the official line as fake. 

There are several elements of crisis construction. First is the scale of the crisis, where the number of victims is the key parameter. During the 2010 wildfires in Russia, fundamental discrepancies as to the number of victims could be seen in the data from official sources and independent bloggers. Rumors about the real—higher—number of casualties in the 2018 Kemerovo shopping center fire became central to covering the tragedy. Agora experts note that the Kemerovo events served as the formal reason for the government to introduce the first set of laws on the fight against fake news in Russia. It comes as no surprise that coronavirus statistics have become a highly controversial aspect of the pandemic coverage.

Different social and political systems have developed their own culture of informing the public about victims in times of crises. In Israel, for example, information about almost any citizen who died in a tragic situation gets media coverage, whereas in Russia it is often anonymized. For instance, information about peacetime military casualties is now recognized as a state secret. Russian tradition of concealing data on victims creates a favorable environment for various forms of misinformation—either to understate or exaggerate the numbers. 

Fakes facilitate the switch from “distrust of the vertical” to “distrust of the horizontal.”

The second element of crisis construction is the efficiency of the authorities. During any crisis, especially one covered in the media, officials strive to show that the situation is under control. In Russia, attempts to release alternative information are fraught with punishment. For example, this May, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, an administrative case (dissemination of false information) was initiated against a paramedic in the Ivanovo region for publishing a video in which he had complained about the lack of protective equipment.

The efficiency problem is directly related to the government’s attempts to channel public anger and placing the blame. Under these conditions, fake news can become a crisis management tool, allowing authorities to shift responsibility toward those who spread fakes. This approach is consistent with the spirit of Russia’s Information Security Doctrine (the first version was signed by Putin back in 2000), which considers information processes primarily as a potential tool for social and political destabilization.

Other countries also face the challenge of fighting fakes and misinformation amid crises. During the 2011 floods in Queensland, Australia’s emergency services used the #mythbuster hashtag on Twitter, refuting rumors through its official account and engaging other users in the process. However, in the case of Russia, this fight is a priori politicized, as authorities tend to present fakes as an act of aggression from abroad. This March, commenting on the coronavirus situation, Vladimir Putin said: “The purpose of such [information dumps] is clear—to sow panic among the population.”

If Russia accuses the EU and the US of spreading fakes, these countries, in turn, speak out against disinformation campaigns coming from Russia. Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute point out that, along with China, Iran, and Turkey, Russian state-owned media have actively disseminated inaccurate information that criticized the West’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Institute’s director, Professor Philip Howard, “some states are using this crisis to suggest democratic states have been corrupt and incompetent in handling this global pandemic, while acting as cheerleaders for the efforts of their own authoritarian regimes.”

It is also noteworthy that discussions about fakes are often placated so as to designate the Internet as a problematic source of information, which helps Russian authorities discredit independent online publications. The “problem of crisis” is thus substituted by the “problem of technology,” which is blamed for creating a negative agenda.

 

Fake news and social mobilization during crisis

Fake news’ impact on society in crisis situations is crucial, and it is manifested in three different ways: social mobilization, polarization, and disintegration of horizontal social structures, as well as the shaping of public attitudes to crises. In all three cases, fakes serve as a model-building mechanism for the relationship between society and the crisis, within which model the formats of social participation and behavior are controlled by the state. 

If the goal is social mobilization, fakes essentially replace the natural public response to a crisis or public scrutiny of the state’s efficiency. Projects such as Coronafake.ru—an online platform created by Alexander Malkevich, chairman of the Russian Civic Chamber’s commission on mass media—propose that users “suggest a fake” to refute. This approach presumes distrust of information and other people. Since channels of digital mobilization are administered by the site owners, information that is ultimately identified as fake remains beyond users’ control. Such an instrument is unlikely to help with critical thinking. Instead, it capitalizes on the appearance of popular participation in order to strengthen the legitimacy of defining certain information as fake. Additionally, the emphasis on distrust leads to digital vigilantism, resulting in the Internet’s horizontal structures being used, in times of crisis, for mutual surveillance, as opposed to mutual assistance. In other words, fakes facilitate the switch from “distrust of the vertical” to “distrust of the horizontal.”

Fakes contribute to not only social polarization, but also demobilization and weakening of horizontal structures. 

As a technology that contributes to the breakdown of horizontal social structures, fakes also destroy the online public sphere. This happens because news feeds in social networks are deeply integrated into the stream of personal communications. Disagreements over what to consider fake lead to fierce debates online. Researchers describe the phenomenon of “heterogeneity explosion,” whereby users discover in their friends’ news feeds people who hold fundamentally different opinions. As a rule, debates result in friends’ removal and blocking. Thus, friends on social networks become a sort of lightning rod that redirects public attention from the authorities’ actions to immediate conflicts in the digital environment. Fakes contribute to not only social polarization, but also demobilization and weakening of horizontal structures. 

As emotions run high on social networks, fakes can have another consequence—they trigger general apathy and so-called “digital escapism,” or the desire to leave social networks. All this furthers demobilization and strengthening of the vertical monopolies of official information channels. 

In terms of its policy, fake news as a crisis management tool allows the Kremlin to compensate for the traditional distrust of the authorities with distrust of other people and independent sources of information. To this end, fakes can be launched by “anonymous sources” in order to subsequently discredit those who dispute official information. Exposure of fakes then serves as an artificial indicator of the government’s efficiency, replacing the efficiency of the actual mitigation of the crisis.

 

Fakes as an instrument of crisis sovereignization

In the new information environment, the problem of control has become crucial for Russian government institutions rooted in the tradition of “invisibility politics.” Over the past ten years, the experience of independent public mobilization based on digital technologies has shown that Russian authorities are incapable of dealing effectively with crises, as well as successfully constructing information pictures of crises for the public mind. During the 2010 wildfires, a natural disaster turned into a crisis of political governability. The Kremlin realized that to regain control over the population—by constructing an effective picture of the crisis and mobilizing society—it needed political innovations. Fakes became one of the solutions to this problem. 

Paradoxically, it was not the oft-criticized law on “sovereign Runet” but the practice of disseminating fakes that helped strengthen the authorities’ grip on the online space. Fake has become an instrument of sovereignty. However, it might be a pyrrhic victory. Social polarization, the collapse of horizontal structures, and growing apathy reduce social stability in crisis situations. While solving immediate political problems, fakes ultimately undermine Russian society’s immunity against crises.

 

Dr. Gregory Asmolov is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at King’s College London. His academic research focuses on the way that information technologies mediate the relationship between the state and individuals in crisis situations. 

Russia under Putin

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