Automation in media and data-driven journalism: A view from Russia

21.9.2021
Data-driven journalism has rapidly changed the production and consumption of news. This change is usually analysed and understood with models that are developed in the context of liberal democracies. However, what kind of impact has the technological development on journalism in such authoritarian countries as Russia?

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 3/2021. Today, computational technologies help newsrooms to collect, analyse and visualise data and facilitate the production and dissemination of media texts. They may increase the production speed, scale and accuracy of news and tailor news feeds to each individual. But they also threaten journalists’ autonomy, especially since online intermediaries, such as social media, increasingly shape news consumption. How do processes of automation in media and data-driven journalism in autocracies differ from those in democracies?

Approaches and concepts that have been developed and used in liberal democracies do not necessarily ‘fit’ autocratic societies

Our research on digital innovation in Russian journalism and the role of Russian ‘Big Tech’ (e.g., Yandex) shows that prevalent approaches and concepts that have been developed and used in liberal democracies do not necessarily ‘fit’ autocratic societies. It is not enough to simply apply the same lenses to understudied regions, including post-Soviet states. Looking at Russia provides us with concrete examples of what gets overlooked.

First, we have to acknowledge the various political constraints that shape the everyday reality of journalism and influence processes of platformisation and datafication. For example, in many post-Soviet countries, journalists encounter more significant challenges related to the accessibility and reliability of data (both government and business) than in liberal democracies. This means they have to negotiate the labour-intensive and complex tasks of collecting, cleaning and verifying data. At the same time, making data (un)available is used as a political agenda-setting tool. In Russia, for example, investigations that have used public data to expose corruption (including those by Aleksei Navalny) have led to a restriction of access to particular databases.

As the boundary between (data) journalism and activism is often blurred, doing visible investigative reporting involves substantial professional and personal risks.

Second, research and professional communities should pay more attention to the precarity and vulnerability of journalists. Data journalism can be an empowering tool in compromised newsrooms, for example, when access to governmental press conferences is denied or the topic of investigation is ‘taboo’ in official discussions (such as corruption among political elites). However, the opposite is equally true: as the boundary between (data) journalism and activism is often blurred, especially in states with limited political and media freedom, doing visible investigative reporting involves substantial professional and personal risks. The recent wave of Russian media outlets and journalists who have been designated ‘foreign agents’ (e.g., Meduza, Proekt.Media) highlights this.

Third, journalism’s dependence on ‘Big Tech’ is widely acknowledged, but some dimensions of the problem have been overlooked, such as the lack of support for ‘small’ languages (that are not necessarily small in a numerical sense) and how this dependency intersects with authoritarian control. Over-reliance on third-party tools and services, often coming from Western markets, instead of solutions developed or maintained by in-house specialists, may impede local skills development, while the centrality of a small number of national tech companies can be (ab)used by autocrats to influence news dissemination on an infrastructural level.

Finally, the audience dimension deserves greater attention. One particularly significant issue is media literacy and its relation to political reporting, for example on the Russian parliamentary elections of September 2021. Textual, visual and audio literacy determine which audiences are able to engage with political coverage and how, thereby impacting how different groups of citizens are informed about the elections and whether they perceive them as fair and legitimate.

Mariëlle Wijermars, Visiting researcher, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Olga Dovbysh, Post-doctoral researcher, Aleksanteri institute, University of Helsinki