King’s College London: Kremlin’s media clampdown risks pushing consumers into space ‘beyond state’s reach’

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime has relied more heavily on “extreme coercion” in its efforts to control the media – a move that could result in more people seeking sources of information that are less attuned to the Kremlin’s narrative.

And, with viewers of state-controlled media declining in Russia, the Putin regime risks pushing consumers of opposition media “beyond the state’s reach”.

The findings were revealed in a study led by Professor Sam Greene: the Informational Dictator’s Dilemma: Citizens Responses to Media Censorship and Control in Russia and Belarus – published in PONARS Eurasia.

Prof Greene, of the King’s Russia Institute, said: “Russia’s pre-2021 approach to media control allowed for many media outlets and perhaps most media consumers to exist in a grey zone, in which oppositional messages could not be entirely excluded but in which few oppositional citizens could be impervious to state messaging.

“Moscow’s current tack risks undoing that, pushing oppositional media consumers into a space beyond the state’s reach, even as audiences for state television continue to decline. As oppositional audiences grow, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to win them back.”

For the study, Prof Greene carried out two surveys in Russia (in 2019 and 2020) and a further two in Belarus (in 2020 and 2021), which is governed by the autocratic regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka and whose independent media has a long history of coercive control and overt repression.

Among other questions, respondents were given lists of major media outlets across the political spectrum in their respective countries and then asked to indicate the frequency with which they turn to each of the outlets for news.

Given recent developments in Russia, the Kremlin may want to take notice of Lukashenka’s struggles in the media sphere
– Professor Sam Greene
In the first Belarusian survey, 50 per cent of respondents preferred independent media, versus 27 per cent who preferred state media. That contrasts with Russia, where 80 per cent of respondents preferred state media, versus 20 per cent who consumed more independent media.

The surveys also showed that while media audiences in Belarus are polarized, Russian media audiences appear much less so. Among those Belarusians who preferred independent media, the median state media outlet was consumed by only seven per cent, and the most popular state outlet by only 15 per cent.

There was much more overlap among Russian respondents, however. The median state-linked media outlet was consumed by 54 per cent of independent-media-minded Russians, and the most popular was consumed by 69 per cent.

Prof Greene said: “The findings strongly suggest that ‘softer’ strategies of media co-optation are more effective than harsher, more coercive approaches to media control. In Russia, where the Kremlin has—until very recently—used a combination of commercial pressure and political influence to push media owners and editors towards co-operation, the result has been a media system in which even those Russians who prefer independent media have broad exposure to the Kremlin’s messaging.

“By contrast, the heavier hand wielded by authorities in Minsk has helped create a highly polarized media system, in which oppositional media—despite massive repression—capture more audience attention than state-linked media, and consumers of independent media have very little exposure to state messaging.

“Given recent developments in Russia, the Kremlin may want to take notice of Lukashenka’s struggles in the media sphere.”

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