On navigating the Russian information environment

Roosa Rytkönen

Understandably there is currently a of lot bewilderment over Russian public opinion about the war. Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), a state owned polling institution, published a poll on the 28 February, according to which 68% of the population supports the “special military operation” in Ukraine, while 22% don’t support and 10% remain indecisive. There are good reasons to doubt the trustworthiness of such wartime statistics carried out by a state-institution but, nevertheless, it seems quite clear that currently the Russian public is divided in their perceptions of the war. In a way, the difficulty of obtaining trustworthy information on how people perceive the events reflects the main point I’m hoping to make: the difficulty of discerning truth in a context where the society is highly fragmented and statistical information, alongside many other kinds of knowledge, is viewed as susceptible to political manipulation. In this short piece, based on my fieldwork with natural scientists and environmental activists in Western Siberia, I’m hoping to argue that in contrast to some popular understandings, the information environment is highly complex and challenging to navigate.

In journalistic accounts about Russia, discussions on the topic are often focused on government control of media and blatant examples of propaganda. Perhaps the most archetypical “victim” is imagined as an elderly person, who doesn’t use the internet but absorbs messages aggressively promoted in the federal channels. While it is true that television remains the main news source for the majority of Russians, such an image is based on an idea of passive audiences and caricatures those supportive of Russian leadership. It also presents a highly simplified idea of the information environment in Russia, where internet – until recently – hasn’t been under strict government control, in contrast to countries such as China. Further, the idea of passive audiences fails to capture the epistemological underpinnings of Russian propaganda. As Peter Pomerantsev (2019) and others have noted, contemporary Russian propaganda drives not “through insisting on a single truth” but the idea of “truth as unknowable”, relying on volume, seeking to confuse and distract (Pomerantsev 2019, Roudakova 2017). It promotes an understanding of knowledge as instrumental and partial, calling into question the very idea of objectivity itself, actively mobilizing the idea of “information war”. The idea of passive audiences also comes with a simplistic solution – that the situation could be fixed with providing the “right” kind of information – which neither captures the nature of the problem nor does justice to the real complexities of discerning truth people are faced with.

I did my PhD fieldwork in 2019–2020 in Tomsk, a regional capital in Western Siberia with a population of around half a million. Tomsk is also a historical intellectual center, which houses Siberia’s first universities and is currently striving to refashion itself as a global university town. My PhD study examines how my interlocutors navigate the information environment: how they evaluate various truth claims, try to establish grounds for knowledge and search for meaningful spaces for action in a context where there were obvious limitations to their agency. During my fieldwork, I was engaged with two groups, scientists and activists, whose self-understandings were in direct opposition to an idea of passive consumers of knowledge. Especially the scientists prided themselves for their critical capacities in contrast to the general public, which they considered susceptible to sensationalist news accounts and panics. They exhibited skepticism and doubt across various social domains, underlined by a sense of the mediated nature of various knowledge claims, which were seen as vulnerable to distortions due to political and economic interests. During my fieldwork I was surprised to discover, firstly, the extremely diverse ways in which my interlocutors questioned and interrogated knowledge claims and, secondly, how this translated into a highly fragmented and contested perception of various issues, even among the same group of practice. It is important to note that such fragmentation and contestation did not only concern my interlocutors’ political positionalities and voting behaviours but also, for example, various other issues, such as their reactions to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Another good example are my interlocutors’ attitudes towards the theory of anthropogenic climate change, which varied within the same research collective from ardent support to fervent dismissal. Such a diversity points to the limitations of any essentializing account and calls for the need to seriously engage with the ways in which people establish truth.

A closer examination of my interlocutors’ practices of doubt and skepticism helps to add more nuance to the polarized understandings of the effects of Russian propaganda. Critical approach to – or dismissal of – the state media didn’t mean that some of the messages it promoted would not resonate, leaving my interlocutors ambivalent. Among such ideas were the hostility of the West towards Russia, the danger of destructive political developments within Russia, and the fear of NATO. The possibility of discerning truth was also related to questions of scale. For example, the environmental activists were going into serious troubles trying to establish whether a newly chosen company in charge of organizing regional waste management actually recycled the sorted-out waste it collected. While establishing certainty was challenging even in the case of such a relatively local matter, in questions of “high level politics” doubts could translate into a sense of the unknowability of truth. For example, one of the activists, critical of the Russian government, was also vary of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny: she considered it was impossible to know whether he was an accomplice of the West – there was no way of checking. I would also like to emphasize that while such uncertainties were highly extenuated in my field context, they also reflect a condition more generally definitive of our time: the mediated nature of all authoritative knowledge claims.

I would like to finish with a few words about my interlocutors’ reactions to the war. In contrast to the times of my fieldwork, when many people were eager to engage in lively debates around various topics, the atmosphere in Tomsk currently seems to be one of anxious, anticipatory silence. As one contact expressed: “For those who don’t wish to fight, better not to talk. Better not to think”. There is a feeling that discussions won’t lead anywhere except emotional damage and destruction of personal relationships. Further, at least those against the war, advised against reading too many news as this was considered too distressing, only emphasizing one’s feelings of helplessness. Such an approach is underlined by the feeling that at this moment, except for solitary pickets, meaningful avenues for protests have been closed by the threat of severe punishments. While there have been some attempts at larger protests, those have been quickly broken down by police, including arrests. It is notable that the situation contrasts with that in January 2021, when over 2000 people gathered in unsanctioned protests in Tomsk. For now, what people are left with is trying to get on with their everyday lives, adapting to “yet another crisis somewhere far away”, as one contact expressed, trying to guarantee the economic survival of themselves and their families in the already challenging situation.

 

About the author: Roosa Rytkönen is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. Her PhD in Social Anthropology studies politics of knowledge in Western Siberia through the experiences of natural scientists and environmental activists.

This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine