In the hype generated by pundits proclaiming the arrival of the “post-truth era” and the emergence of information warfare as a key tool in the arsenal of states and non-state actors, the internal Russian media sphere has also been abuzz with debates about propaganda, media manipulation, and fake news. Despite the fact that a large chunk of mainstream Russian media is either run by or co-opted by the authorities, there is a vibrant minority of independent media, with a high concentration of them online. In the past three years, this segment of the Russian media sphere has seen the rise of a new kind of media outfit: the fact-checkers and the debunkers, based in Russia and elsewhere, but serving the Russian-speaking consumer and focusing largely on the news generated within Russia.
Some examples of this emerging genre of fact-checking, verification, and debunking fakes (found largely online and with a heavy social media presence) include Noodleremover, Conflict Intelligence Team, a section on The Insider website, the Russian-language content on Bellingcat, Radio Liberty and StopFake.org, among others. These operations have gained a modest but loyal audience as they publish investigative pieces, verifying and debunking news and information from Russian officials, Russian state-run media – and sometimes, even foreign media outlets’ coverage of Russia-related events. They view their role as beacons of objective media coverage, shedding light on false information and twisted facts, but increasingly, they also emerge as institutions of media literacy, educating their audience about how to critically consume news and content in the digital era.
The Kremlin and those in the media loyal to its cause have been mostly dismissive of these efforts, branding the media outlets as ‘agents of the West’ and as ‘provocateurs.’ But increasingly, we see dismissals from the state being replaced with more active measures. Kremlin-funded media have begun to offer their own fact-checking stories: these appear in Izvestia newspaper/website, on the NTV TV channel, as well as the social media pages of the English-language RT. The Russian MFA has set up an official section on its website “exposing fake news” in foreign media outlets. And RT has recently said it wants to help Facebook to combat fake news by joining its “reliable sources” lineup (Waterson 2017). These efforts emerge as examples of pro-Kremlin media and information actors purposefully mirroring the genres and activities of existing independent actors in the area of investigations, verification, debunking, and fact-checking.
I argue that pro-government and state-controlled media outlets and online actors in Russia engage in subversive mimicry of existing verification/debunking initiatives and tactical appropriation of their tools, vocabularies, and modes of action in order to both discredit the efforts of independent media and online actors as illegitimate and build up their own legitimacy as representatives of the hegemonic power.
Mimicry is defined as the action or skill of imitating someone or something, especially in order to entertain or ridicule and, in non-verbal communication, can be both positive, when used to build trust and rapport, and negative, when it violates certain social norms (Thompson 2012). In the media context, mimicry can occur through imitating the linguistic choices, design, composition, overall context and feeling of the content and its framing - akin to how social media users may attempt to mimic each other’s behavior, content choices, bio styles or color schemes (De Choudhury et al. 2009).
The tools and genre sensibilities of the fact-checking/verification ‘movement’ in the hybrid media space are mimicked and appropriated by state actors in the context of postmodern (and post-truth) media in order to be mirrored, reinscribed, and pushed out to the public in an hegemonic fashion. Such postmodern juxtaposition also involves fetishizing certain terms - such as ‘fake news’ - to the point of their becoming simulacra or empty signifiers (Baudrillard 1983, Lyotard 1988). Such an approach to appropriation through juxtaposition (Schugart et al. 2001) allows to recontextualize and reinscribe the sensibilities of the fact-checking community in a way that ultimately cements the dominant hegemonic codes and discourses in the Russian media sphere, while eroding the credibility of independent media.
Networked social media is ultimately the space where most of the fact-checking and verification discourse occurs, so this is also the space where subversive mimicry and tactical appropriation by state-connected actors are implemented, negotiated, and contested. Since the goal of the original projects engaged in fact-checking and verifying information is to delegitimize information manipulation and media propaganda, the subversive activities of pro-state actors seek to delegitimize the practices of these actors first, and then to relegitimize themselves. Therefore, the independent media actors are no longer simply fact-checking, debunking or verifying facts or news - they are also engaging in a debate about the meaning (and meaningfulness) of these very media practices - ultimately a battle for legitimacy and delegitimization in the hybrid media system.