Informing without information: Russia in the age of Twitter
In order to understand the wide-reaching implications of post-truth, one should first look at its sources. Alternative facts and post-truth have been used by governments, such as that of Russia, in the strategic shaping of national identity. In the initial hours and days after unexpected events, elite-level individuals play a decisive role in framing the mainstream interpretations despite the utter lack of concrete information. Even after further information comes out, the wider public will perceive it in the context of previously constructed narratives. In terms of social media, Twitter acts as ground zero for shaping interpretations due to its immediacy and the limited size of its posts.
The Russian political elite use Twitter extensively to interact with their populace and to frame narratives through the usage of their own alternative facts. In three crucial situations – the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the Su-24 downing by Turkey, and the Tu-154 crash over the Black Sea – the Kremlin, the Duma, and the state-controlled media all came out in full force to construct these events in their own light, even when no information surrounding the event existed at the time.
Murder in Moscow
The assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February 2015 represents the first in a plethora of such events. Considering the fact that Nemtsov was one of the most important political opponents of the Russian regime, and an organiser of opposition groups, preliminary conspiracy theories on his death from both inside and outside of Russia would implicate the Kremlin in his murder. Of course, the Russian political elite had to circumvent this allegation and in the end co-opted his death by constructing narratives in social media that Nemtsov’s killing actually had been planned by certain agents who were looking to embarrass the Russian state by murdering its chief political opponent just metres away from the Kremlin.
The Kremlin used its platform mainly to present an impersonal and informational account of the Nemtsov’s murder. The presidential Twitter account and Putin’s personal account bothoffered condolences to Dina Yakolevena Eidman, mother of Boris Nemtsov – these tweets were near carbon copies of each other in syntax and message. The accounts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of Dmitry Rogozin did not comment on the murder at all, even indirectly. The most striking exception in the pattern of impersonality and impartiality from the side of the Kremlin comes from Dmitry Medvedev, who stated that Nemtsov had had a “bright personality” and was a “principled man,” and in this way, he would be in “our memory.”
Many Duma deputies reacted to Nemtsov’s death in an emotional way, although the specific emotions differed greatly. Alexey Pushkov commented on how Nemtsov was an acquaintance from the television show Postscriptum in the 1990s and offered “sincere condolences to his family and friends.” Pushkov also posted details about Nemtsov in two other tweets, but these were purely informative. Vitaly Milonov, on the other hand, lambasted Nemtsov in his tweets. In his first, he speculated that Nemtsov “sent his Ukrainian prostitute to get an abortion” and that “Putin … did not need Nemtsov.”
The media, inversely, both speculated and informed about Nemtsov’s murder. On his account, Vladimir Soloviev, a television personality and journalist for Channel One, mixed both rhetorical strategies, using his earliest tweets to give information on television specials about Nemtsov but then switching to speculating about the outcome, saying that “today will be a very complicated day”. Later, on March 1st, he even went on to declare that “they [the people] have already forgotten about him.” Vladimir Pozner, another long-standing journalist on Channel One, followed in the same fashion, first with an informative tweet, a quote about Boris Nemtsov. His next and last tweet on the topic switched over to “the speculations on the death of Boris Nemtsov.” Through this shift from information to speculation, the media works to construct initial assumptions about the event but then moves to confuse the informational landscape with widespread speculation.
In the case of Boris Nemtsov, none of the accounts from any level mention the Kremlin – even indirectly. By ignoring the fact that Boris Nemtsov was murdered in direct view of the Kremlin walls, on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, each of the accounts commenting on the case passively distanced any involvement from the side of the government. In addition, the fact that Nemtsov was an opposition politician, who was pushing forward anti-government narratives in regards to the conflict in Ukraine, was also left out of the discourse by every single account examined in the study. This sort of omission strives to construct the most apolitical situational narrative possible.
The Su-24 downing by Turkey in November 2015, represents another completely unpredicted incident for Russian elite discourse. Once information on this event started to leak out, the Russian government – and later the Russian public – came to put the blame solely on Turkey. This placement of blame occurred despite the fact that this jet either had entered or was going to enter Turkish airspace, having been warned previously by the Turkish pilot. From the very first moment, the downing of this Russian military jet acted as a catalyst for crystallising the narrative of involvement in Syria as a morally justified patriotic project.
The downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey starkly stood out from the other two cases discussed here by the fact that it garnered a much larger response, especially from the Kremlin. Twitter accounts from the Kremlin, Duma, and the state media responded in larger orders of magnitude. As such, this event provides a larger body of text for analysis which shows its relative importance in the construction of the overarching national narrative in comparison to Nemtsov’s murder and the Defence Ministry plane crash.
The Kremlin primarily used Twitter to present information about how it would retaliate in response to the downing of the jet. The Office of the President, Putin, Medvedev and the MID tweeted about laws, decrees, and statements that had been issued in response to the event, and as they learned more information. Each of these statements was impersonal and formal. The only Kremlin account to not follow this trend was Rogozin, who used his platform to talk about how arms deals with Turkey would end and, more strikingly, to imply that those who downed the jet in Syria were the same people who profited from the “stolen oil” from Syria – the Islamic State. In this same way, in some tweets the MID mentioned that by downing the jet, Turkey put itself “on the side of the Islamic State.”
The narrative produced in regards to the downing of the Su-24 suggested direct links between Turkey and the Islamic State. Such insinuations appeared several times in the tweets of the Duma members and in the media. Soloviev went so far as to mention specific people in his replies by calling them “miserable agents of the Islamic State” for presenting alternative explanations for the event. While not making these claims as directly as the media and the Duma, the MID quoted Maria Zakharova, director of the MID Information and Press Department, as saying that the Islamic State purchased some weapons from Ukraine and used Turkey as a transit country. Vitaly Milonov goes on to call Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan the “flayer of the Islamic State’s bloody oil”.
Nonetheless, the Islamic State was not the only entity discursively linked to Turkey as an enemy. The Kremlin, the Duma, and the state media all tied Turkey’s membership in NATO to the downing of the Su-24 as well. These links ranged from strong condemnation to mild annoyance – Alexey Pushkov stated that NATO’s support was “predictable” and “the reaction to the [Russian] military operation in Syria” and “a pillar of the Western Alliance in the Middle East,” while the MID called this NATO support of Turkey “fully unacceptable.” In another tweet, the MID used the hashtag #Zakharova to show that, in its “solidarity,” the Alliance defended “illegal actions” from the side of Turkey. This Western support from NATO was also linked to the United States, wherein Puskov says that “the United States would never allow Turkey to be excluded from NATO.” By linking support for Turkey by NATO to alleged Turkish support of the Islamic State, the Russian elite discourse creates a transitive chain of equivalence between the West and the Islamic State. This played into the wider discussion of other conspiratorial discourses that had already expounded upon this connection in the sphere of fake news.
However, in their reaction to the downing of the jet, the Russian elite did not just identify enemies, but also named friends and possible allies. Several countries and institutions were singled out for their condolences in complete contrast with NATO and the United States. The MID referenced the Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Greece, and the Presidential account showed that King Abdullah II of Jordan all were on the side of Russia in the case of Turkey downing this jet. At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also directly tweeted at EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, marking condolences she offered following the event. Interestingly, the West is not presented as some sort of prolific significant other but is instead split between a friendly West of the EU and an oppositional West in the form of NATO.
For Milonov, history influenced his presentation of Turkey on his Twitter account much more than other Duma members, partially representing his more conservative constituent base. Multiple times Milonov automatically referred to Turkey as “fascists” or “Turkofascists,” harkening back to the Second World War. At the same time he was discursively tying a possible war with Turkey to the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, wherein the Russian elite has presented the post-Maidan government in Kyiv as fascists. Moreover, Milonov also made a striking parallel through using a historical reference, stating that “Constantinople is ours!” which in turn mirrored the popular phrase after the annexation of Crimea – “Crimea is ours!”
Through the omission of any negative references toward Russia by any of the accounts, the blame in this crisis laid solely with Turkey within elite discourse, even from the very beginning. Within some accounts, such as that of Pushkov, the narrative that was presented at the beginning shifted from the Turkish pilot not giving any warning, as this event had been planned, to the now recognised narrative that the pilot did give at least ten seconds of warning. From the very beginning – across all accounts – the possibility of the plane being within Turkish airspace was never mentioned at all. In fact, most of the rebukes coming from the side of Soloviev and Rodnina were in response to individuals challenging the narrative of an innocent Russia.
As an overall pattern, the Kremlin-level accounts – other than that of Dmitry Rogozin and several of the personalised tweets from the MID (through the usage of hashtags) – used their platform simply to inform. The presidential account, and the personal accounts of Putin and Medvedev, just produced content that impersonally presented the facts about what Russia’s response as a whole was in terms of statements and the cancellation of certain agreements, as well as offering information about what exactly happened with the jet. At the same time, most of the MID tweets served more or less the same purpose, as 14 of their 24 tweets acted to inform and only one offered speculation. Rogozin stood out in that his account used more personal language and informal register in regards to the entire event, making his communication strategies here closer to those of the Duma and media.
In contrast, the Duma spoke more personally on these issues, relying more on emotion and a mixture of information and speculation. Duma accounts – other than the institutional account of the Duma itself – use a wider range of emotional personal language, especially in the cases of Milonov and Pushkov. Rodnina, in the same way, uses speculation in response to counter-discourse, simply asking, “By what source?” In comparison, the institutional account of the Duma acts much more like the Kremlin account in its tweeting habits, trending toward impersonality and formality in a wider strategy of only informing, pointing out the government’s course of action and presenting events as they are.
Inversely, the media, while also using such personal, emotional and informal language, leans much more to the side of speculation. In the case of Soloviev, six of his 14 tweets speculate about what the exact future course of Russia should be, using self-identifying language in questions such as “what is our adequate response?” and asking if the plane was “ours or Syrian?” At the same time, he speculates about all of the courses of action that the Russian people and the government – the Kremlin and the Duma – could take, such as no longer relaxing in Turkey, the economic projects that would end and recalling the Ambassador. Surprisingly, Vladimir Pozner did not make a single comment about the downing of the jet at all.
Touching now on a mix of the international and domestic, the crash of the Defence Ministry Tu-154 represents one of the worse calamities for Russia both in a civilian and cultural sense. From this, the expectation would be that the event would receive widespread publicity and mourning in the public sphere, from both the government and private individuals. However, in reality, this did not happen.
The Kremlin wrote only one single tweet regarding this tragedy, from the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Using the Zakharova hashtag, the MID offered “condolences to all” in connection with the plane crash. Remarkably, the accounts of Putin, Medvedev, Rogozin and the Office of the Presidency did not mention this catastrophe.
The majority of reactions to this disaster came from the Duma itself and these tweets worked principally to inform about events tied to the plane crash. The institutional account of the Duma tweeted three separate times about the creation of a “government commission… in connection with the catastrophe”, making up more than a majority of the tweets on this matter. In regard to individuals, Irina Rodnina was the only member of the Duma to comment on the event, calling it a “horrible tragedy.” Other than this, no one else mentioned the crash even in passing or implication.
Inversely to the past two case events, Vladimir Pozner is the only journalist to comment on this event, although the pattern of response follows the strategies of the media in the other two situations by speculating and informing. The first tweet by Pozner speculated that “without her, Russia has become worse off” in regards to the loss of Dr. Liza. The second tweet commented on the “insulting remarks about the dead in the aviation catastrophe” and provided a link to more in-depth commentaries. While extremely vocal in regard to the murder of Boris Nemtsov and the downing of the Su-24, Vladimir Soloviev does not make a single tweet on the subject of Tu-154 crash.
As in the previous case, the act of narrative construction by the Russian elite comes as much from what aspects of narrative they omit rather than what they directly infuse into the discourse. Each level of analysis – Kremlin, Duma, and media – leaves out any possibility that this event – the worst aviation catastrophe in recent Russian memory – was due to any sort of terrorist activities. In terms of crisis communication, this follows the other trends of denial and distancing from such negative events that could either implicate the Russian state or make it look weaker as a whole. As such, the crash of the Tu-154 is solely presented as an unexpected tragedy and then swiftly removed from any discourse – especially from that of the Kremlin.
The overall pattern of an impersonal informative Kremlin, a personalising informing/speculating Duma, and a personal and speculating media follows throughout the analysis. In this way, the Kremlin presented itself impersonally in all cases and removed itself from being directly involved in any of these crises. All that it offered was practical information on each of the events. The Duma presented itself emotionally and personally, which then served to politically frame the events in an emotional context for the domestic audience. Finally, the media, by acting as a speculator in every situation while remaining personalised and engaged with its audience, primed the discourse for different pathways in the future.
As a pattern, this research shows a horizontal comradeship from the imagined community of the nation for the Kremlin, the Duma, and the state media, which in turn view themselves as representatives of the nation in their discourse, as patterns in presenting narrative construction stay the same for each. One pattern consistent through all of these case events has come in the phenomenon of cascading formality. As the accounts get closer to the masses – namely those from the media and the Duma – the styles of mass-personal communication arrive at a more personal and informal register of speech. At the same time, in terms of formality and narrative, each of the accounts from the Kremlin, Duma, and state media remained united, barring several noted exceptions.
Perhaps a division between individuals and institutions is necessary in further studies of social media, as the patterns of formality, impersonality, informing, and speculation continue. Nonetheless, by following this division, the personal account of Vladimir Putin acts and tweets unlike any of the other accounts for individuals and instead produces narratives and content exactly like an institution would in response to a crisis. In this way, Vladimir Putin as an individual is as critical to Russia as any of the other governmental institutions are, if not more.
George Spencer Terry and Volha Damarad are students at Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia.