04 May 2012

What’s the Colour of Russian Protest?

Julie Fedor and Galina Nikiporets-Takigawa 

From the outset, the protest movement that began after the announcement of the Putin-Medvedev tandem’s ‘castling move’ in September last year claimed for itself the colour white as its key defining symbol. White was chosen for its traditional associations with purity and honesty (i.e. anti-corruption, anti-fraud), and peace (i.e. commitment to non-violent methods). Critics of the protests, on the other hand, have insisted that this is in fact an ‘orange’ movement, the heir of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. These critics generally use the label ‘orange’ to signify foreign-sponsored conspiratorial actions aimed at orchestrating fake mass street protests with a view to bringing about violent regime change and general mayhem.

As the protest movement gained momentum in December, so did a fierce battle to define the identity of the protest movement. Warring media campaigns were waged over ownership and definition of the symbolic colours white and orange, and the historical baggage they carry. The Memory at War team has been monitoring these events as part of a larger, micro-historical study of the Russian protest movement. Our larger study focuses on the competing ‘memory models’ that the protest movement tested and rejected, such as the Polish Solidarity movement, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and various episodes of Russian anti-imperial protest, e.g. the Decembrist Uprising of 1825. In the current essay, we use colour symbols as indicators of some of these memorial models. We share some preliminary findings on the dynamics of media representations of the protest movement’s identity as ‘white’ or ‘orange’, together with some initial reflections on the related methodological problems, which are abundant at this pioneering stage.

Colour is one of the most basic and powerful symbolic building blocks: vivid, non-verbal, versatile, capable of absorbing and generating multiple associations and connections with the past, flexible and practical – at once the most simple and the most complex of symbolic resources. At the most basic level, the struggle by political movements for self-definition and self-representation has traditionally been played out on this field. The red-white opposition was of course central to Russia’s twentieth-century history, but it can be easy to forget that the ‘whites’ were a creation of the ‘reds’. As David Fel'dman has shown, the white label was not voluntarily adopted by the anti-Bolshevik opposition during the Civil War that followed October 1917; instead, this label was effectively forced upon them by the Bolsheviks. The white label enabled the disparate opposition movements to be lumped together into a single homogeneous group, and hence a more readily imaginable threat. The power of the white label derived from its historical pedigree. Coming from the French revolutionary tradition, usage of these colours to represent republicans and monarchists enabled a clear distinction to be set up. This was an inaccurate and misleading distinction, but a useful one from the Bolshevik perspective. As Fel’dman notes, this was an extraordinarily successful propaganda campaign. It created the deeply entrenched red-white divide that still shapes the cultural memory of the Russian Civil War today.

We were curious to find out whether anything similar was happening in connection with the recent protests in Russian media space. How widespread was the drive to discredit the protest movement by ‘re-branding’ it as orange? We set out to track and analyse this process using Yandex and Integrum, two of the most powerful databases and research tools now available for monitoring and charting Russian media. We used Yandex Pulse of the Blogosphere as our source and instrument for blogs, and Integrum for print, broadcast and online media, excluding blogs. In the interests of brevity, in this article we use ‘blogosphere’ and ‘mainstream media’ (loosely defined) as the shorthand labels for these two datasets. Combining these tools makes it possible to compare developments across different media spheres. Here, we were primarily interested in investigating how the protests were represented in the blogosphere, and whether the blogosphere stood out in any respects, given its nature as a media space that is free from state control and enables the easy and rapid dissemination of user-generated content.

Our study does not cover social networks and microblogs such as Facebook, VKontakte and Twitter because tools for monitoring these services are still in their infancy. Thus, for example, while Yandex now (as of February 2012) enables searches of Twitter, tweets are not yet indexed by Yandex Pulse. This gap in Yandex Pulse’s coverage is especially significant given the important role played by social networks and microblogs in disseminating information about the election fraud, organising the protests, and generally acting as a platform for the rapid mass-scale distribution of all kinds of multimedia that have served to radically undermine the regime’s legitimacy.

But while social networks and microblogs are rapidly gaining in importance in the Russian media space, the blogosphere remains an extremely popular and influential segment of this space, too. The biggest blog hosting service, LiveJournal, is visited by 13.5 million people in Russia each month, and it has provided a crucial platform for leading oppositional figures such as Aleksei Naval’nyi. For the researcher, it also has the advantage of being relatively transparent and easy to monitor, though it is equally, as we shall see, easy to manipulate. Yandex’s coverage of the blogosphere is impressive. Currently (as at 23 April 2012) the Yandex Pulse database indexes several hundred thousand blog posts on a daily basis. For all these reasons, the blogosphere merits our attention.

We carried out proximity searches to track the shifting representations of the protests in connection with particular politically symbolic colours: white (the chosen symbol of the recent protest movement); orange (associated with the Ukrainian Orange Revolution); red (communists); green (environmentalists, and Yabloko); dark-blue (Blue Buckets movement); and light-blue/rainbow (LGBT community). We ran queries in both the blogosphere and mainstream media to trace the frequency of references to the given colours in the context of the protest movement, by searching for instances in which any of these colours were mentioned within a single sentence of ‘protest’ or ‘rally’ (two of the most frequent key-words in the context of Russian protests). We charted the results on graphs, and then carried out cross-spherical analysis, comparing the findings for each of the two media spheres.

One of our initial expectations was that we would be likely to find more ‘white’ in the (generally more oppositional) blogosphere, and more ‘orange’ in the (generally more state-controlled) mainstream media. But our searches produced a picture in which the distribution of the colours across the two spheres was in fact precisely the reverse. According to the Yandex and Integrum statistics, mainstream media were considerably more likely to describe the protests as ‘white’ than the blogosphere was, and the use of the ‘orange’ label for the protests was significantly more common in blogs. Why, then, was this the case? In our attempt to interpret these graphs with a view to answering this question, we came up against three key challenges: identifying meaning; assessing authenticity; and measuring influence.

Identifying Meaning

Figures 1 and 2 introduce the basic dynamics of the frequency with which particular colours were mentioned in connection with the protests, in the Russian blogosphere and mainstream media respectively, from December through to early April. In Part 2 of this article (forthcoming in the June 2012 issue of East European Memory Studies), we examine these dynamics in more detail. Here we give an overview of the general picture before going on to examine individual spikes on the charts during the early stages of the protest movement, as the tension built up after the first (unexpectedly large) rally on 5 December and in anticipation of the (even larger) mass rally on 10 December.

Both these graphs show that orange and white were by far the most dominant colours in the media coverage of the protests in both spheres, and hence we focus on these two colours here. Both graphs show three key waves in frequency of references to white and orange, which reflect the most active stages of Russian protest: December, February, and March. But otherwise, they show strikingly different dynamics.

In order to identify the reasons for these differences, we had to conduct a semantic analysis of the textual material making up the statistical spikes. After we ‘zoomed in’ on the texts forming the individual spikes, it soon became clear that our initial intuitive assumption that media commentary on the protests would divide more or less neatly into white (positive) and orange (negative) was mistaken. Instead, what we found was that the meaning of both labels was fiercely contested, especially in the blogosphere. This contestation included not only the attempted ‘re-branding’ of the white protest movement as orange, but also concerted challenges to the definition of white as a symbol of purity, honesty and peace. Putin’s snide quip comparing the protesters’ White Ribbons to condoms was only the most famous of these challenges, which included other attempts to re-label the White Ribbon the ‘homoribbon’, or the ‘white flag’ of surrender and treachery. By the same token, there were also attempts by protesters to ‘re-appropriate’ the orange label — to embrace it and re-define it in positive terms. Content analysis enabled us to make some progress in untangling some of the different threads here. To track the course of this discursive struggle in more detail, let’s zoom in on the day-by-day results for December, shown in Figures 1.1 and 2.1 below.

These graphs show a vivid contrast in the dynamics of the use of the orange and white labels for the protest movement across the two media spheres. It reconfirms our broader finding that, curiously enough, despite the White Ribbon movement’s origins in and strong association with blogs and social networks, the white label seems to have been applied to the movement much more consistently in the mainstream media.

Let’s take a closer look at these dynamics. Both spheres feature strong white spikes during the period of the first protest rallies of 5 and 10 December, the period which the writer and co-founder of the League of Voters Boris Akunin would later call the ‘romantic and euphoric’ phase of the protest movement, with its ‘white balloons, ribbons and cheery flashmobs’. It was at this time that the main components of the protest movement’s white identity and its key symbol, the white ribbon, were most famously elaborated in a Facebook post by online media technologist and author Arsen Revazov on 7 December, after the first unexpectedly large protest on 5 December and in the lead-up to its reprise on 10 December. As another co-founder of the League of Voters Georgii Vasil’ev put it in a blog post on Ekho Moskvy the same day, ‘THE COLOUR WHITE is a symbol of honesty. THE COLOUR WHITE is a symbol of peace. THE COLOUR WHITE is a pure colour.’ This definition of white rapidly gained popularity, which is reflected in the white spike shown for this period in both media spheres in Figures 1.1 and 2.1, with the mainstream media lagging one day behind the blogosphere.

During this initial period of 5-10 December, references to white strongly outweighed references to orange relatively consistently in both media spheres, but the white-orange ratio was generally considerably higher in the mainstream media. In order to fully ascertain why this is the case, we need to do more detailed content analysis. But we can offer some preliminary findings and hypotheses here.

One significant feature of the struggle to define the protest movement during this period was a campaign aimed at challenging the protest movement’s self-definition as non-violent by issuing grim warnings of coming bloodshed. The primary aim here appears to have been to dissuade people from attending the mass rally planned for 10 December, and hence this tendency reached its peak on 7-10 December.

The main platform for this scare campaign, and especially the most extreme manifestations of it, was the blogosphere. A series of key blog posts with lurid titles such as 'The Russian Revolution Needs Corpses', 'Democracy Needs a Corpse', ‘'The First Blood Has Already Been Chosen' and 'Victim-Self-Immolator Urgently Required by "White Bandages Revolution"' and 'White Ribbon Task is to Shed Blood' warned of a plot to provoke bloodshed at the forthcoming rally in order to discredit the regime and usher in the next stage in the ‘orange scenario’.

This scare campaign was another substantial contributor to the two white spikes in the blogosphere during this period. A parallel and overlapping ‘anti-orange’ blogosphere campaign, warning that the protests would bring ‘orange revolution’ and bloody civil war, also accounted for a significant proportion of the orange blogosphere spike appearing on 8 December (on which see below).

We can find some echoes of this scare campaign in the mainstream media, but in much milder form; Russia Today chief editor Margarita Simon'ian, for example, appealed that people stay home on 10 December for their own safety. Generally speaking, the mainstream media coverage of the protests appears to have been couched in more neutral terms than the blogosphere commentary, and this would appear to be one reason why the mainstream media coverage was less ‘orange’.

The ‘white ribbon = red blood’ scare campaign was obviously a line that was more difficult to sustain after the bloodshed failed to eventuate on 10 December. In some cases, posts on this theme were simply rewritten after 10 December with a view to changing the timeline for the imminent violence. For example, large chunks of Kirill Svetitskii's 8 December post, 'Overture to Bloody Sunday', predicting bloodshed on 10 December were later cut and pasted (without attribution) into a post by Anatolii Anishchenko on 11 December, who now warned that while ‘The “bloody Saturday” planned for 10 December this year by the “orange” provocateurs has failed dismally’, they were bound to be back for another attempt soon.

A closer look at the blogosphere results helped us to understand an additional factor that made the picture for blogosphere and mainstream media different in early December. We found that mass and in some cases automatically generated re-postings accounted for a substantial number of the total white and orange posts in the blogosphere.

Consider, for example, the orange spike on the blogs graph on 8 December. This spike is largely comprised of re-posts of a series of articles in which the protest movement is re-defined as ‘orange’. For example, the article entitled 'An Orange Scenario Has Been Prepared for Moscow', which claimed that the West had declared the launch of an Orange Revolution in Russia under the guise of the White Ribbon movement, appeared on 8 December in the online newspaper Dni.ru. The following evening and next day the article was re-posted in 95 different blogs. This is in keeping with Karimova's description of a typical pro-Kremlin paid blogger network campaign, in which a news item is first ‘legalised’ through publication in paper or online news media, and then taken up and re-posted by a network of bloggers. A similar article by prominent pro-Kremlin blogger Fritz Morgen, 'Western Mass Media Have Been Given Command to Finish Russia Off', was re-posted 85 times. These re-postings pushed up the blogosphere orange statistics. By contrast, there is little to no trace of any such orange upsurge in the mainstream media.

Overall, our findings point to the blogosphere as a central arena for the struggle to define the protest movement. In the blogosphere, this struggle generally took on more extreme forms than it did in mainstream media, perhaps partly because it offers a more convenient testing ground for political technologies such as, in this case, those aimed at the discursive creation of the ‘orange’ threat. Certainly, the blogosphere appears to both be a key site for and a key target of ideological clashes between the opposition and the regime. Our findings reflect the importance of online media, but also their vulnerability. The blogosphere offers enhanced opportunities not only for freedom of expression, but also for the orchestrated production of digital discourse through organised networks of bloggers paid to ‘flood the zone’ with a view to shaping the agenda (see Pfister 2011), or by ‘virtual’ robot bloggers activated with a view to artificially increasing the daily ranking of a particular topic, for example.

In the next issue, we turn to analyse the key puzzle that these graphs posed for us: why were the two biggest orange spikes on the blogosphere graph entirely absent from the mainstream media? Our investigation of these spikes meant grappling with the second of our three challenges: assessing the authenticity of online media sources, and of blog posts in particular. How can we distinguish spontaneous genuine bloggers from the Russian blogosphere’s vast networks of digital ‘dead souls’, from the trolls, robots and paid bloggers? We explore these questions in the next instalment.

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