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Four things you need to know about Russian media manipulation strategies

The crisis embroiling the West and Russia over the apparent use of chemical weapons in the English cathedral town of Salisbury can tell us a lot about how the Putin administration is becoming more and more adept at manipulating media coverage of events to gain advantage, both at home and abroad.

The furious accusations levelled against Moscow by the UK government in recent weeks appear to be helping boost Vladimir Putin’s position at home. Cycles of hyperbole and mistrust tend to play well for Putin at home. The “categorical” statements by members of the British government which, so far at least, have not been supported by the public release of hard evidence, have provided further ammunition to the Kremlin’s narrative.

And despite having a low regular viewership, Russia’s international media operations are discussing the “anti-Russian hysteria” in detail, hoping to generate support among particular sections of the public in the West.

Read more: Sergei Skripal attack: Russian Embassy is fuelling tensions with some very undiplomatic tweets

Contemporary liberal democracies remain largely in the dark about the complexities of Russia’s media operations – and this leaves them ill-prepared to respond to the media manipulation strategies of what is now a growing number of neo-authoritarian regimes worldwide. In a globalised media context marked by declining trust in “legacy” media and increased multi-platform media competition, such regimes are devising intricate ways to use state-funded media to bolster their own legitimacy. Here are four things you need to know about Russian media manipulation.

1. This is not a neo-Soviet propaganda

Prominent American media scholar Sarah Oates has described Russia’s media system as “neo-Soviet”, influenced more by the legacy of Soviet-style propaganda than contemporary political and communication trends. But this is a significant simplification which underestimates the Russian media’s capabilities.

The Russian leadership felt the need to cultivate a new media strategy following mass protests against Putin’s regime in 2011-12. Limited censorship of the internet in Russia has meant that audiences have access to alternative sources of information and viewpoints – which the state-controlled media are obliged to acknowledge in some way.

Politically sensitive issues and criticism of the regime are increasingly being permitted to be articulated within the lesser-watched domestic “soft news” genre, such as the range of interviews and debates broadcast during Russia’s recent presidential election campaign.

Of course, international audiences and regulators expect free speech – but domestic audiences also see it as an indicator of trustworthiness and legitimacy. Russian state-controlled television channels remain the main news source for Russian citizens – and despite a significant drop in viewers’ trust following biased coverage of the Ukraine crisis, around half of domestic viewers still regard television as a reliable source of information.

2. Politicised content reborn as entertainment

My research – as yet unpublished – suggests that since Putin’s third presidential election in 2012, there has been a dramatic increase in political messaging on state-controlled Russian television. Specifically, “soft news” programming has significantly increased. This global media format includes talk shows and televised debates – and is known for its ability to engage politically inattentive audiences by producing output with strong emotional tags.

Viewers may not remember the exact details of what they saw and heard, but they remember how they felt about it. These programmes provide a relatively safe format to stage manage the plurality of opinion that audiences expect.

Playing Moscow’s game? UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. EPA-EFE/Olivier Hoslet

These tactics were clearly on display during Russia’s recent presidential election campaign. The main domestic television news programmes were dominated by positive coverage of Putin. By contrast, talk shows and televised debates included sharp criticism of his regime – as well as explicit discussions of electoral fraud which had been circulating on the internet and social media.

But the stage-management of these debates actually had the effect of neutralising criticism of Putin. Because debate formats tended to encourage conflict and they quickly degenerated into swearing, interruptions and even physical abuse. Participants looked bad – discrediting themselves and each other. Only Putin, who did not participate, came out unscathed. Similarly, when the state-owned Russian international television network RT (formerly Russia Today) aired an uncut English-language interview with liberal opposition candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, her combative manner undermined her credibility. This diluted the impact of her outspoken attack on Putin’s regime.

3. Conspiracy is king

Global media consumers show great interest in disruptive or dramatic events and in topics that generate significant public concern, such as migration and terrorism. Many are also drawn to conspiracy theories, which seem to impose order upon the chaos of reality.

Reporting of the Skripals’ poisoning provides a good illustration of how Russia’s media frames political coverage to meet these demands. Far from censoring the UK government position, state-funded media have skilfully deflected (indeed, reflected back) the circumstantial evidence used by the British to incriminate Russia.

Domestic television and RT have offered viewers gripping conspiracy theories about the poisoning. For example, the decision to reinvestigate the suspicious deaths of 14 former Russian citizens in the UK for possible Russian involvement was reported on in Russia. The coverage included lengthy discussions of possible involvement by the UK intelligence services.

4. Grist to Russia’s mill

Dubious statements made by UK foreign and defence secretaries have given the Russian media a useful tool to discredit the UK’s position. RT extensively covered the negative reactions from other UK politicians’ and social media users to these statements, while Russia’s domestic media referred to them as an example of the West’s unrestrained hostility.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Russia’s neo-authoritarian regime puts global media trends to its own uses and adopts these trends on its own terms. How effective the Russian state-controlled media are in shaping public perceptions domestically and abroad requires further study. But it is already clear that conventional approaches to analysing censorship and propaganda cannot help us understand the Kremlin’s media strategy – the reality is much more complex.

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