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News

Keeping up with the Kremlin: the reporters tracking Russia's state media

Andrei Arkhangelsky has an unusual hobby. Every day he tunes in to Moscow’s FM radio stations and records the shifts in political language according to the big news stories of the day.

Immediately after multiple terror attacks hit Paris last month, Arkhangelsky noted that pro-Kremlin channels had softened their tone.

“A listener called Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station … and said that Americans are not our enemies,” Arkhangelsky wrote on Facebook, where he documents his findings. Later Putin called the French military “allies” in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

Arkhangelsky, 41, isn’t alone in his research. As the Russian political agenda becomes increasingly tied to a chorus of state-backed TV channels, newspapers and social media commentators, independent journalists are taking it upon themselves to monitor exaggeration and manipulation in the media.

By day he is a culture editor at the prominent Ogoniok weekly magazine but has been following stations such as Ekho Moskvy, Business FM, Vesti, and the Russian News Service in his spare time for more than a year.

FM stations are always first to pick up on trends, he says. “Radio – no matter how strongly pro-Kremlin it is – is about live broadcast. It’s about spontaneous reactions, naturalness, directness, emotions” – allowing for an unfiltered insight into the public’s mood.

“I’m very much interested in the media language. This language … draws a portrait of society,” he explains.

America 1 v America 2

 

The tone of pro-Kremlin radio stations has changed significantly in the past couple years, Arkhangelsky says. Even a year ago, programmes could afford to talk about opposition firebrand Alexei Navalny, for example, but after relations with Ukraine began to crumble the the discussion changed into a simplistic opposition of “good guys” versus “enemies”, he says.

But this year, Arkhangelsky says he charted the first time anti-western rhetoric was replaced with neutral and positive comments – on the eve that Russia launched its first air strikes in Syria in late September.

On 29 September, Arkhangelsky noted a “year’s worth of good and neutral [information about] America” being broadcast the day before the Kremlin began its air campaign in Syria, alongside an international coalition headed by the US.

A week later, Arkhangelsky wrote that state media remained divided between the opposing narratives.

“The official agenda is stuck between ‘America 1’ and ‘America 2’ – between the all-time evil and the insecure partner. It’s a strange, hesitating tone and it’s not clear which [narrative] will dominate. The propaganda is at a crossroads, it is still deciding how to talk about America,” he wrote on 7 October.

The NoodleRemover

Alexei Kovalyov runs a website devoted to exposing inaccuracies in pro-Kremlin reports, and says the production of “false information in Russia” has become “almost an industry”.

Kovalyov, 34, launched NoodleRemover.news in early October. The site’s name originates from a Russian idiom – “to put noodles over one’s ears” – meaning to lie.

But he wasn’t always on the outside of the media system: Kovalyov used to work at a state-owned media outlet, RIA Novosti, but was dismissed along with many others following its liquidation at the end of 2013, when a new version of the agency was launched in its stead under the rule of television host Dmitry Kiselyov and Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today).

In the spring of 2014, as Simonyan’s new team began work in earnest, Kovalyov noticed that the agency’s reporting had changed in tone.

 

According to Kovalyov, RT and RIA Novosti started using similar tactics, such as publishing sensationalist figures based on tiny polls, or citing “experts” whose credentials were unknown.

“For example, there was this expert on fighting terrorism, Scott Bennett, that both RT and Sputnik (RIA Novosti’s project targeting audiences abroad) used. He was saying that Putin was the best thing that had happened to Russia.

“But the only thing the English-language Google knows about [Bennett] is that he spent three years is prison in the United States for pretending to be in the military,” Kovalyov said.

Kovalyov began by posting on Facebook and was regularly receiving 20,000-30,000 hits, but it proved inconvenient for including screenshots and links, so he started a blog on Medium.

“I want people to learn to see these things” – and to teach people to treat state television channels with some scepticism, Kovalyov said.

In the future, NoodleRemover may begin to rely on crowdsourced evidence, allowing people to share fake or apparently manipulated reports with the site. He also has plans to include courses on media literacy as part of the project.

When asked about the channel’s attitude to someone challenging their content on a daily basis, an RT spokesman said they were “happy Alexei Kovalyov has found a new occupation – having a blog about bad people that dismissed him. We will be even happier to find out that he’s being paid for it.”

Trolls

Ilya Klishin, an editor based Moscow, says he can recall the moment when pro-Kremlin trolls began to flood the internet.

After elections to the State Duma prompted widespread disappointment and suspicion, Kilishin, 28, set up a Facebook page to help organise protests. Tens of thousands of people signed to his event calling for people to gather on Bolotnaya Ploshchad, and a first, he says, the people commenting on his site were “real people”.

But when a second rally was organised, things started to change. “[...] We opened a page for the second rally on [Prospect] Sakharova, [and] we found out the Kremlin deployed bots to this page – they had Indian and Pakistani names and wrote [their pro-Kremlin comments] in perfect Russian,” he explains.

Klishin, editor-in-chief of Dozhd television’s website and an expert on social networks, soon became interested in pro-government social media activities, and began exploring and writing about it for various media outlets such as Vedomosti and Slon.

People began reaching out to him, sharing stories and documents as proof that the internet has an entire system of pro-government commentators.

Klishin trawled through 7,000 tweets in 2012, analysing how an artificially promoted hashtag – #tukhlymarsh (rotten march) – referring to an opposition rally in Moscow – gained momentum on Twitter by real people trolling the internet, not automated bots.

 

“It’s not like there are government officials posting comments on Facebook and building up hashtags on Twitter. There are companies with people on [their] payroll that work in shifts and spend days in their offices writing [pro-Kremlin] comments in the internet,” he claims.

When the Kremlin began expanding its internet activities abroad in 2014, Klishin was one of the first to take note.

“It was then when prominent western outlets, including The Guardian and The Huffington Post, raised the alarm about Russian trolls coming. But the panic was premature. Only now, with the topic of Ukraine slowly dying down, the main soft power of the Kremlin can launch in full gear,” Klishin wrote in his column for the Slon news website.

Klishin continues to track and expose Kremlin trolls, but laments that despite numerous investigations the revelations have failed to spark any major scandal or public outrage. “I think society is not ready, it’s too apathetic right now,” he says.

Yet Kovalyov remains optimistic. That a blog maintained by a single citizen provoked such a positive response bodes well for the future, he says. “I was surprised at first, but apparently I’m not the only one who needs all this.”