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Making Sense of the News in a Hybrid Regime: How Young Russians Decode State TV and an Oppositional Blog

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Abstract

The past 2 decades have seen an increasingly intense debate on how the rise of Internet-mediated communication has impacted politics in (semi)authoritarian regimes. Previous works have adopted a wide array of approaches. Yet, to date no major study has investigated how citizens in these regimes are making sense of political messages they encounter online in the new, more fragmented media environments of the Internet age. In an initial attempt to fill this gap, this explorative study juxtaposes how young Russians make sense of a liberal-democratic blog entry and, by contrast, a news broadcast from state-controlled TV. On the basis of the findings from 20 in-depth interviews, the article discusses promising avenues for future audience research in hybrid regimes.
Making Sense of the News in a Hybrid Regime: How Young Russians Decode State TV
and an Oppositional Blog
Dr Florian Toepfl
London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Manuscript of an article published in the Journal of Communication, Volume 62, Issue 2,
pages 244–265, April 2013
The definitive version is available at:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcom.12018/abstract
Please quote as:
Toepfl, F. (2013). Making Sense of the News in a Hybrid Regime: How Young Russians Decode
State TV and an Oppositional Blog. Journal of Communication, 63(2), 244–265.
doi:10.1111/jcom.12018
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Author Note
Florian Toepfl, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Econom-
ics, UK.
This research was supported by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship sponsored with-
in the 7
th
Framework Program of the European Union. Moreover, I owe thanks to the Russian
students who participated in the project, to Natalya Yegorova for typing the interview tran-
scripts, and to Sanja Kapidzic for proof-reading the English manuscript.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Florian Toepfl, London
School of Economics, Department of Media and Communications, Houghton Street, London
WC2A 2AE, UK. Email: florian@toepfl.de
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Making Sense of the News in a Hybrid Regime: How Young Russians Decode State TV
and an Oppositional Blog
Abstract
The past two decades have seen an increasingly intense debate on how the rise of internet-
mediated communication has impacted politics in (semi-)authoritarian regimes. Previous
works have adopted a wide array of approaches. Yet, to date no major study has investigated
how citizens in these regimes are making sense of political messages they encounter online in
the new, more fragmented media environments of the internet age. In an initial attempt to fill
this gap, this explorative study juxtaposes how young Russians make sense of a liberal-
democratic blog entry and, by contrast, a news broadcast from state-controlled TV. Based on
findings from 20 in-depth interviews, the article discusses promising avenues for future audi-
ence research in hybrid regimes.
Keywords: audiences – hybrid regimes – political communication – Russia – decoding – cul-
tural studies – blogs – non-democratic regimes - democratization
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Making Sense of the News in a Hybrid Regime: How Young Russians Decode State TV
and an Oppositional Blog
The past two decades have seen an increasingly intense debate, both in academic jour-
nals and the mass media, on the impact of internet-mediated communication on politics in
non-democratic regimes. Until the late 1990s, it seemed to be short of a “conventional wis-
dom” that “the Internet poses an insurmountable threat to authoritarian rule” (Boas & Kala-
thil, 2003, p. 1). In the early 2000s, with authoritarian regimes all over the globe swiftly
adapting to the “technological challenge”, more skeptical views took hold (Howard, 2001).
Currently, there seems to be wide consensus that more complex and multi-faceted pictures
need to be drawn (Howard & Parks, 2012; Lynch, 2011) and that the internet should neither
be regarded a “technology of liberation” nor one of “control” (Deibert & Rohozinski, 2010).
In contributing to this emerging body of literature, scholars from various disciplines have
adopted a wide array of approaches, including computerized link analysis and hand coding of
thousands of blogs (Etling et al., 2010), comparative studies of how authoritarian regimes fil-
ter and censor online contents (Deibert, Haraszti, Palfrey, Rohozinski, & Zittrain, 2010;
MacKinnon, 2008) and case studies on how politicians, parties, and social movements make
use of internet-mediated communication to pursue their goals (Lynch, 2011; Toepfl, in press).
One area of communication research, however, has received notably little attention in
this academic debate: the role of media audiences. Aside from internet penetration rates, traf-
fic metrics of selected websites, and findings from a series of studies based on survey data
(Norris & Inglehart, 2010; Lei, 2011; Nisbet, Pearce, & Stoycheff, 2012; Norris, 2011), we
know little about how and with what consequences citizens in (semi-)authoritarian states re-
ceive political news in the new, more fragmented media environments of the internet age (for
recent overviews of interpretive approaches to news audiences in western and non-western
contexts, consider Bird, 2011; Michelle, 2007; Morley, 2006). Most notably, no major study
to date has investigated the micro processes by which citizens in non-democratic states make
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sense of political news they encounter online. Yet, in many of these regimes, messages pub-
lished in forums, blogs or oppositional online media are currently presented in interpretive
frameworks that starkly diverge from those continuously reproduced by local mainstream
mass media, respectively from those traditional to these cultures (Etling et al., 2010; Boas &
Kalathil, 2003; Hallin & Mancini, 2011; MacKinnon, 2008). This phenomenon can be ex-
pected to be particularly salient in the media environments of so-called “hybrid regimes” – a
form of rule that combines authoritarian and democratic elements and is seen by political sci-
entists as increasingly common in the contemporary world (Levitsky & Way, 2010; Voltmer,
2011).
How are citizens in the new media environments of today’s hybrid regimes navigating
these dissonant streams of political news? How much do they “believe” or “trust” in different
sources? What stocks of knowledge do they use to make their judgments? These are questions
that have barely been raised in the academic literature to date. This explorative study attempts
to make a first contribution to fill this gap by juxtaposing how a specific group of Russians
(the young, urban, and educated) construct meaning of two news items: a news broadcast
from state-controlled TV and an entry to an oppositional blog. The project focuses on Russia
as a high-profile example of a hybrid, relatively closed regime that pursues an open internet
policy (Levitsky & Way, 2010; see also Etling et al., 2010; Toepfl, 2011; Vartanova, 2010).
Unlike in China (MacKinnon, 2008), in Russia, internet content is currently not being techni-
cally filtered. The study focuses on the specific group of the young, urban, and educated pri-
marily for two reasons: Firstly, this group can be seen as one of the most fully immersed in
the new media environment in contemporary Russian society: All participants of this study
accessed the internet several times a day. Secondly, as research on “biographical availability”
(McAdam, 1986) in western contexts suggests, members of this group are particularly likely
to participate in political protest and pressure for social change.
To fill the gap in the literature outlined above, I first review extant works on internet
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use and media effects in non-democratic regimes. Subsequently, I introduce Hall’s (1973)
classic encoding/decoding model as the theoretical perspective of this study. I then adopt this
perspective to develop a novel view on the contemporary Russian media landscape. The
method and discussion sections are followed by a paragraph that proposes a number of prom-
ising avenues for future research on audiences in Russia and other hybrid regimes. In the con-
clusion, I relate my argument to the broader “liberation vs. control debate” outlined above.
Internet Use and Media Effects in Non-Democratic Regimes
The majority of studies on internet audiences in non-democratic regimes are based on
survey data collected in structured interviews. These studies typically ask how internet use in
non-democratic regimes (operationalized most often as access vs. non-access) is correlated
with attitudes conducive to democratic development. For instance, these authors conclude that
internet use in non-democratic regimes is associated with higher levels of democratic aspira-
tions (Norris, 2011, p. 174), support for the norms of democracy (Lei, 2011), or commitment
to democratic government (Nisbet et al., 2012). However, depending on the selection of coun-
tries and the conceptualization of variables, some studies find also negative correlations be-
tween internet use and democratic attitudes. Norris and Inglehart (2010), for instance, in a
comparative analysis based on survey data from more than forty countries, conclude that in
countries with a restricted media environment those citizens who regularly follow the news on
the internet (just as those who regularly follow the news on radio or TV) show less support for
democratic principles.
How can these conflicting findings be explained? In designing their studies, these
scholars had to make highly consequential decisions regarding at least two crucial issues.
Firstly, they had to conceptualize a variable that taps the democratic attitudes of citizens. The
main problem here is that democracy and related concepts mean widely different things to dif-
ferent people in different cultures (Bratton, 2010; King, Murray, Salomon, & Tandon, 2004).
To illustrate this with an example, survey respondents in Vietnam – a country that is com-
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monly regarded as one of the most authoritarian regimes in the contemporary world – report
higher satisfaction with the “democratic performance” of their country than respondents in
most Western European countries (Norris, 2011, p. 90). A second problem these researchers
face is the coarse-grained data that is typically available on the dependent variable “media
use”. Norris and Inglehart (2010), Norris (2011), and Lei (2011) base their arguments largely
on data of the World Value Survey. Yet, in the 2005/06 questionnaire of this survey, the only
relevant item that captures media use asks respondents to indicate “for each of the following
sources […] whether you used it last week or did not use it last week to obtain information:
Daily newspaper / News broadcasts on radio or TV / Printed magazines / In depth reports on
radio or TV / Books / Internet, Email / Talk with friends or colleagues” (World Value Survey
2006, p. 17). Each of these seven variables is coded dichotomous. Obviously, this item gener-
ates data that lack information of great interest to audience researchers. Do the respondents,
for instance, use the internet to follow political news or merely to send emails and play
games? What specific news sites and formats are accessed? And what are the respondents’ at-
titudes toward different sources and formats of news?
By contrast, Bailard (2012) bases her study of media audiences in Tanzania not on
survey data but on a field experiment. Her study finds that citizens who had internet access in
the two months before the 2010 presidential elections not only judged the – obviously rigged
– electoral process as less fair but were also less likely to vote. While Bailard (2012) could
avoid some of the typical weaknesses of the survey studies cited above and test causal rela-
tionships, the neglect of media content remained a problem. Her field experiment did not
track which sources of news participants were following on the internet. Against this back-
drop, the present study aims to shift the focus of interest to the – to date largely neglected –
micro processes of interaction between media audiences and internet content in a politically
highly relevant hybrid regime.
Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model
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In western media research, one highly visible approach to explore the micro processes
of interaction between audiences and media content is “audience reception research” in the
tradition of British cultural studies (for recent overviews of this literature, see Michelle, 2007;
Morley, 2006; for a critical résumé, consider Barker, 2006). Drawing on this literature, the
present paper will bring to bear a slightly adapted version of Stuart Hall’s (1973) classic en-
coding/decoding model. In his seminal working paper, Hall (1973) maintained that news on
British TV was “encoded” from a specific ideological perspective. By the term code, Hall un-
derstood “‘maps of meanings’ into which any culture is classified” (Hall, 1973, p. 13).
Hall was mainly interested in how members of the audience would decode the news
discourse as it was presented to them on British TV. He distinguished three positions from
which decodings could be made. In a slight adaption of Hall’s (1973) model, this article oper-
ates with the following three possible positions of decoding: (1) affirmative, (2) negotiated,
and (3) oppositional. Individuals, who decode a message affirmatively, operate within the ref-
erence code in which it was encoded. They take the connoted meaning of the news item “full
and straight” (Hall, 1973, p. 16). The second type of negotiated decodings contains a “mixture
of adaptive and oppositional elements” (Hall, 1973, p. 17). It acknowledges the basic structure
of the interpretive framework in which the message was encoded while, “at a more situated
level, it makes its own ground rules – it operates with exceptions” (Hall, 1973, p. 17). Negoti-
ated decodings are thus likely to be “shot through with contradictions” (Hall, 1973, p. 17).
Thirdly, viewers can make sense of messages from an oppositional position; they can embed
the new pieces of information in a completely different ideological framework, interpreting it
in a “globally contrary way” (Hall, 1973, p. 18).
Hall’s model was adopted prominently in Morley’s (1980) seminal study on how Brit-
ish viewers decoded the current affairs program “Nationwide”. In the 1980 and 1990s, a
“boom” of studies of active audiences followed (Morley, 2006, p. 102). Most recently, how-
ever, Morley (2006, p. 102; cf. Barker, 2006) sensed a backlash of research in the tradition,
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with more and more scholars regarding work of this type as “pointless populism”. This paper
seeks to reinvigorate the debate, adding fresh theoretical thought and empirical data by, for
the first time, exploring how citizens in a non-western, non-democratic regime decode opposi-
tional political messages they encounter in social networks online; and by, for the first time,
simultaneously investigating how individuals make sense of news items encoded in two an-
tipodal ideological codes. The paper can thus be seen as a response to recent calls of leading
scholars to “explore how tried and tested ideas about audiences” can be applied to the new
media ecologies currently emerging with the rise of the internet (Livingstone, 2004, p. 79).
Making Sense of the News in Hybrid Regimes
In Hall’s theoretical perspective, we can conceive of the media landscape of Russia’s
contemporary hybrid regime as differentiated in a number of “spheres”. In each of these
spheres, news (and social reality as such) is encoded in a disparate code. In the specific Rus-
sian case, it may make sense to distinguish the following spheres: (1) a sphere of official me-
dia that transports the ideology of the hybrid regime (consisting of state-controlled TV can-
nels, radio channels, newspapers, internet sites, and politicians’ blogs like that of President
Dmitry Medvedev); (2) a sphere of mainstream commercial media that reports slightly critical
but largely loyal to the regime (for instance, leading yellow press newspapers and internet
news sites owned by businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin); (3) a sphere of liberal-
democratic media (oppositional internet TV channels, radio channels, news sites, and blogs of
political activists); and two smaller clusters of media outlets (newspapers, news sites, and
blogs) that we can think of as (4) nationalist and (5) communist media spheres.
While these five spheres can be seen as characteristic for the media landscape of Rus-
sia’s contemporary hybrid regime, it appears plausible to assume that similar distinctions can
be made in regard to other semi-authoritarian regimes. Even in authoritarian China, for in-
stance, Stockman and Gallagher (2011) distinguish between “official” and “commercial”
segments of the media landscape; they note that, while “individual media sources may not al-
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ways fit neatly into these categories, […] these distinctions refer to general tendencies” and
help citizens “make sense of this complicated environment” (p. 441).
A second feature that appears characteristic for the Russian media landscape – as well
as for those of other contemporary hybrid regimes – is that the “official” media sphere is
clearly dominant in terms of audience reach (Hallin & Mancini, 2011; Oates, 2006; Stockman
& Gallagher, 2011; Vartanova, 2010; Voltmer, 2011). In contemporary Russia, the three
most-watched TV channels belong to this sphere, with 92 percent of Russians saying they rely
mostly on TV to get political news (FOM, 2011). By contrast, the weights are reversed in the
segment of social media. Investigating the Russian blogosphere based on link analysis of mil-
lions of blogs and hand coding of more than thousand blogs, Etling et al. (2010) identified
strong “nationalist” and “democratic opposition” clusters, while pro-government bloggers
were not “especially prominent” (p. 3). With a view to the segment of printed newspapers, in
Russia, publications representing all spheres (with the exception of the nationalist) are widely
sold at newsstands in urban centers. A similar diversity can be found on the radio market (for
detailed information on the contemporary Russian media landscape, consider Becker, 2004;
Koltsova, 2006; Mickiewicz, 2008; Oates, 2006; Toepfl, 2011; Vartanova, 2010).
A third important feature of the media in hybrid regimes – and less so in more authori-
tarian states – may be that the ideological diversity of news content, somewhat paradoxically,
exceeds that in most developed democratic societies. While media discourse in Western de-
mocracies is based on a consolidated liberal-democratic consensus, the Russian media land-
scape, for instance, features significant clusters of nationalist and communist media outlets.
Moreover, the official and mainstream spheres produce hybrid encodings that break with what
would be considered acceptable in Western democracies. Only in the marginalized liberal-
democratic sphere, social reality is portrayed in a way that most Western observers would de-
code affirmatively. It is this ideological diversity that has led scholars like Becker (2004, p.
156) to observe already ten years ago that the segment of Russian print media is “extremely
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diverse, exceeding that of many liberal democracies.”
With the rise of the internet in the past decade, in Russia, non-official news discourses
have been gaining new audiences (Etling, 2011; Toepfl, 2011). Against this backdrop, the
question arises: How are Russian citizens making sense of the news in the new, more frag-
mented media environment? How are they decoding dissonant news from different spheres?
To address these questions, this project starts out by exploring the interactions of a specific
group of Russians with two news items taken from two different spheres: a news broadcast
from state-controlled TV (representing the powerful, official sphere) and an entry to an oppo-
sitional blog (representing the marginalized, liberal-democratic sphere). The two news items
report on the same topic, a value-laden key issue of contemporary Russian politics: the fair-
ness of political competition in the hybrid regime. Alternatively, also an entry on this topic to
the blog of President Medvedev (representing the official media sphere) and a report of the
radio station Ekho Moskvy (representing the liberal-democratic sphere) could have been used.
Method
The study is based on 20 in-depth interviews of on average 1.5 hours length with Rus-
sian students from leading research universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Sample
When selecting participants, a strategy of purposeful sampling (Lindlof & Taylor,
2011) was employed that would guarantee that all interviewees were students at universities
in Russia’s urban centers St. Petersburg and Moscow (criterion sampling) and that the sample
would include individuals differing widely in terms of their political world-view, age, gender,
and course of study (maximum variation sampling). To recruit participants, an announcement
was posted to two mailings lists, reaching all students of a department of Economics in Mos-
cow and a department of Sociology in St. Petersburg. 22 students replied to the announce-
ments. Further participants were recruited by asking interviewees to pass on the information
to friends (snowball method). This resulted in a pool of over 40 participants. Interviewees
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were offered a moderate compensation of 200 rubles (approximately 5 Euro).
Before scheduling an interview, I asked interested individuals to provide their age,
their course of study, and – literally translated – “their political views or the absence of such”.
Roughly one third of the students stated that their political views were “indeterminate”,
“mixed”, or “peculiar”. Another large group said that they had “no political views”. A third
group declared they were “conservative”. A fourth group said that they advocated “democrat-
ic” or “liberal” views. Interviewees were selected from these four groups approximately in
this proportion. Moreover, I tried to meet with participants that varied in gender, year of
study, and course of study. As outlined above, media discourse featured significant “national-
ist” and “communist” spheres. However, it took me considerable effort to make out students
who self-identified in these ways. In the end, I could recruit one “nationalist” and one “leftist”
participant. I stopped interviewing when each position of decoding had been produced by at
least four individuals and new participants did not bring up significant amounts of new
themes and arguments in their decodings (theoretical saturation, cf. Lindlof & Taylor, 2011).
In selecting interviewees, the Russian cultural context turned out to be challenging for
at least two reasons that are closely related to the problems that the above mentioned survey
studies are struggling with. Firstly, not a single student in a pool of more than forty self-
identified by referring to a political party. This illustrates how poorly the party landscape of
the Russian hybrid regime is currently connected to the political consciousness of young citi-
zens. Secondly, self-identifications provided before the interview turned out to be weak pre-
dictors of the political word-views that participants would then reveal in the in-depth inter-
views. For instance, students who self-identified as “democratic” could be straight-forward
supporters of Putin and Medvedev, as they understood the public self-identification of the par-
ty of power (United Russia) as “democratic” literally. Other students self-identifying as
“democratic” were outspoken opponents of the regime. Similarly, “conservative” could mean
longing for the good all communist times to some – and advocating political stability and
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support for the current regime to (most) others. However, having adopted the strategy of se-
lecting participants described above, it is plausible to assume that the individuals in the inter-
viewed group covered the broad range of political world-views that could be observed at the
time of research amongst Russia’s young, urban, and educated youth.
In the end, the interviewed group consisted of 12 male and 8 female students, varying
in age between 18 and 26 (median: 21). 14 lived in St. Petersburg, 6 in Moscow. Due to the
fact that the initial announcement was posted at two social science faculties, the selection was
biased towards this field: 7 participants studied sociology, 6 economics, 4 political science, 1
psychology, 1 logistics, and 1 land surveying. Before the interview, participants signed an in-
formed consent statement that outlined the background, conditions and purpose of the project.
Interviewees were guaranteed anonymity (all names cited in this article are changed) and re-
minded that they were free to leave the interview at any point of time.
Interview context and structure
All interviews were conducted in Russian in person by the researcher. I am a 35-year-
old, male German. The data thus emerged in a social situation that I would say most inter-
viewees perceived as an informal yet civilized conversation with an interviewer (of slightly
greater age and higher social status but easy-going) from a foreign (but generally friendly)
country who showed genuine interest in understanding how young Russians think. In all in-
terviews, rapport was quickly established, understood as a situation in which interviewer and
interviewee show mutual respect for each other’s viewpoints, while not necessarily agreeing
on all issues (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 194). I did not have the impression that participants
(with the exception of the “nationalist” student) intentionally held back any interpretations of
the two news items in fear of consequences of any kind. On the contrary, I felt that most in-
terviewees tried their best to make their trains of thought understood to the foreign interview-
er and produce elaborate and sophisticated decodings.
The conversations were digitally recorded and fully transcribed. The interviews were
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structured as follows: (1) In an introductory section, I asked participants for basic personal da-
ta (age, gender, nationality, course of study, and political world-view). (2) Second, I estab-
lished in detail the availability and the forms of access to different types of media. Did partic-
ipants have access to TV, radio, newspapers, desktop computers, or smart phones? How and
where did they typically use this type of media (TV when visiting their parents, internet on a
mobile phone or on a desktop computer at university)? (3) In a third section, I reconstructed
together with the interviewees their pattern of political media use on a typical week day. Were
they watching TV news when having breakfast – and if so, on what channels? Where they
reading newspapers in the metro – and if so, which? In the evenings, were they regularly
checking specific online news sites or political blogs? (4) In a fourth section, I tried to map
out the political world-views of participants and the stocks of knowledge they had on the Rus-
sian media landscape (to be reported separately). (5) Crucial to the present study are the data
that emerged from the fifth section. At this point, when in all interviews rapport was estab-
lished, I showed the two news items. I started out the discussions with the question “What do
you think about this?” In the emerging conversations, I tried to follow the specific lines of
thoughts on which the interviewees embarked, encouraging them to elaborate on their argu-
ments. Only when interviewees ran out of ideas, I started to bring up alternative concepts, en-
quiring for instance if they deemed the news item “trustworthy”, “independent”, or “objec-
tive”. Towards the end of the discussions, I began suggesting alternative interpretations on
both sides of their own ideological position (for instance, more in favor vs. more critical of
the powers-that-be), using formulas such as “many Russians say” or “others participants told
me”. I started out with showing the state TV report, as the oppositional blog entry portrayed
Russia in a rather negative light, unsettling some participants. Yet, as rapport was firmly es-
tablished at this point, in all interviews, a friendly and positive atmosphere was maintained.
The conversations about each news item lasted typically between 5 and 15 minutes.
Materials
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For matters of illustration, the contents of the two news items will be outlined in the
results section where they can be immediately followed by the decodings of participants.
Results
Making Sense of State TV: Medvedev Opening the Election Campaign
The news item. The first piece of news that the participants viewed was a 3:14
minutes broadcast taken from the 6 pm evening news program Vremya, aired on August 29,
2011 on Russia’s First Channel (Perviy Kanal, 2011). The First Channel is Russia’s most-
watched TV channel, with Vremya being the most-watched news broadcast (Oates, 2006;
Mickiewicz, 2008). In the last week of August 2011, Vremya achieved viewing rates of up to
22 percent of Russians watching TV at that time (TNS, 2011). The original clip and full tran-
script of the broadcast can be viewed online, with English subtitles added by the author (see
online supporting materials). The news item was introduced by the anchor as follows:
Today, Dmitry Medvedev officially opened the election campaign in Russia. The Pres-
ident signed a decree that established the date of elections to the State Duma. The poll-
ing will be held on December 4, as the Head of State announced at a meeting with rep-
resentatives of political parties. (Perviy Kanal, 2011)
The news item then continues with showing the leaders of the Kremlin-loyal, so-called
“systemic” opposition parties waiting for, shaking hands with, and listening to President
Medvedev. In extensive close-up sequences, Medvedev announces that several amendments
to the electoral law were introduced in order to guarantee a maximum of “fair competition”:
As president and guarantor of the constitution, I can say that our country is prepared to
hold elections […] To be sure, an election campaign is always a fight. It always comes
with a splash of emotions, with claims. This is normal, and, as a matter of fact, has to
be that way. Otherwise, this would not be a democracy. […] For us, two things are
equally unacceptable: administrative arbitrariness of officials, who try to tamper with
elections, and unsubstantiated accusations of falsification, which rather frequently arise
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on the side of those who loose. Both, one and the other are manifestations of notorious
law nihilism. One must be able to win honestly, and to loose honestly. That’s how life
is. (Perviy Kanal, 2011)
Vremya-correspondent Alexey Petrov reinforces this statement of the President by add-
ing that to “exclude the possibility of electoral fraud, even hypothetical electoral fraud, the
electoral commission is currently being equipped with new technology”. The leaders of the
systemic opposition parties are extensively shown but are not given a voice. In the following,
I will outline the three types of decoding as they were produced by interviewees.
Affirmative decoders. A first group (8 participants) answered the opening question
by more or less reproducing the narrative of the President and the Vremya journalist. These
participants took the message full and straight. They said that the news broadcast was about
the election campaign being opened, about the law having been improved to guarantee fair
competition, and about political parties that would now fight for power. For the purpose of il-
lustration an interview fragment is presented. The following opening sequence is taken from
the interview with Yulia (18, 2nd year BA Sociology, self-identifying as “apolitical”).
Interviewer: What do you think about this? What was this video about?
Yuliya: About elections being held in our country. People will vote for a party, from
which a president will be selected. At least I think so. The parties will compete for who
gets the first place in the state. […]
Interviewer: Do you think this broadcast was well done?
Yuliya: Yes, this was independent information, that’s immediately visible.
Interviewer: Objective information?
Yuliya: Yes. The First Channel is objective. I do not know about the others. But what
is shown on the First Channel, is all objective.
Interviewer: Why do think that this is objective? What tells you that?
Yuliya: Because this is our central channel. If this was not objective information, we
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would not have a democracy. There would not be freedom of opinion.
In a similar way, also the other participants in this group were convinced that the state
TV news broadcast was “truthful”, “objective” and “independent”.
Negotiated decoders. A second group (4 participants) produced negotiated readings
of the news broadcast. Their accounts featured a wide variety of adaptive and oppositional el-
ements, often “shot through with contradictions” (Hall, 1973, p. 17). A typical negotiated
reading is put forward by Iosif (21, 1st year Economics, “probably conservative”). Iosif is ful-
ly aware that, contradictory to what is said in the report, “there will be no major competition”.
Yet, this may not only be due to pressures on the campaign but also due to the fact that most
citizens want to “play it safe and vote for those whom they already know”. Iosif is fully
aware that Russia’s First Channel is “a tool of those in power”, just “like any other media or-
ganization anywhere in the world”. He at least partly approves of this, saying that “probably
not everybody has to know what happens”. However, he then reflects that this attitude of his
might be due to “Russians being used to strong rulers”. And he immediately brings up the
counter-argument that strong rule might also come with “negative consequences” like corrup-
tion. Decodings like Iosif’s, partly repeating elements of the official code and partly including
conflicting frames were characteristic in this group of participants.
Oppositional decoders. A third group (7 interviewees) decoded the newscast from an
explicitly oppositional position. When asked what they think about the clip, these participants
did not bother to repeat what was reported. Rather, they immediately started out to counter the
encoding of the newscast by saying, for instance, that what they saw was “another little spec-
tacle” (Daniil, 22, 1st year MA sociology, “socialist, conservative”), an attempt to “create the
impression of political competition” (Sasha, 23, 3rd year BA Applied Political Science, “un-
determined”), or meant to assure citizens “that the electoral system makes progress” (Tagir,
21, 1st year MA Economics, “tries not to express his opinion, outside any ideology”).
These participants deconstructed the newscast by referring to prior stocks of
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knowledge: Some contended that they do not know “one single person who has voted for
United Russia” (Daniil, Tagir), others had read about or learnt through friends of electoral
fraud (Dmitry, 19, BA Applied Political Science, “nationalist”; Vera, 22, 1st year MA Eco-
nomics, “undetermined”). Two interviewees complained about Medvedev’s poor rhetorical
skills (Tagir, Vera). Most of the participants in this group considered the newscast “typical”
for the First Channel. Masha (18, 2nd year BA Sociology, “undetermined”), for instance, said
that on state TV, the president always says a couple of nice things and then tells off selected
officials for their shortcomings. Some participants were following foreign media and pointed
out structural differences (Tagir, Masha). To sum up, it is characteristic for this group of stu-
dents to fully reject the encoding of social reality presented on state-controlled TV and re-
frame it in a fundamentally disparate ideological framework.
Making Sense of a Liberal-democratic Blog: Yashin’s Arrest
The news item. The second piece of news the participants viewed was an entry to the
blog of Il’ya Yashin (2011), a leader of the liberal-democratic oppositional movement Soli-
darity (Russian: Solidarnost’). In the blog entry posted on 1 June 2011, Yashin reports about
how he was arrested the day before, while speaking at a protest meeting. An amateur video of
his arrest is embedded. A translation of the blog entry and a subtitled version of the clip are
accessible online (see online supporting materials). The 1:14 minute clip shows Yashin cut-
ting his way through a crowd of protesters and journalists on Triumphal Square in Moscow.
In the midst of a group of photographers, Yashin halts and starts out to speak:
Friends! Today we have gathered once again on Triumphal Square to express our pro-
test against the continuous and systematic violation of the constitution of our country.
To attain our right to free assembly, we have met here for more than two years, and we
will meet here until the constitution will be respected in our country. […] All these two
years, they have beaten us, arrested us, chased us away… (Yashin, 2011)
At this point, Yashin is seized from behind by a group of policemen in black helmets
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and dragged into a police van. A girl screeches. A few seconds later all is calm.
The meeting was part of the so-called Strategy 31, a series of protests that had been
held every 31
st
day of a month in Moscow and other Russian cities since 2009. Strategy 31
was supported by a wide variety of political groups, united mostly by the goal to attain the
right to free assembly. Even though this right was formally granted by article 31 of the Rus-
sian constitution, authorities rarely issued permissions for protests in city centers, requesting
protesters to meet in the outskirts. Supporters of Strategy 31 oftentimes disregarded these
bans and met in the centers. The video on the blog shows an unsanctioned meeting on May
31, 2011 in Triumphal Square in Moscow with approximately 100 participants. The protest
was dispersed. 26 individuals, mostly political leaders were arrested but released a few hours
later. Prior protest meetings of Strategy 31 had ended similarly in the two years before.
In the run-up to the parliamentary elections 2011, a number of members of Solidarity,
including Yashin, joined the larger coalition People's Freedom Party – For Russia without
Lawlessness and Corruption (PARNAS). PARNAS attempted to officially register as a party
and participate in the elections. However, the Russian Ministry of Justice denied PARNAS
registration, claiming that the submitted member lists of the party included fake names of
non-existing individuals. In the interviews, I asked students to read the first two paragraphs of
the blog entry and then watch the 1:19 minute video that was embedded at this point. I started
out the discussion asking “What do you think about this?”
Affirmative decoders. A first group (7 participants) produced affirmative readings of
the blog. Thus, what these students saw was a young man standing up for his rights to free
speech and free assembly, guaranteed by the Russian constitution. They saw the police acting
“brutally” or “violently” to suppress dissent, on the orders of the powers-that-be. A typical
decoding was produced by Vladimir (21, 5th year diploma Psychology, “undetermined”). Ac-
cording to him, the clip showed a peaceful man who did nothing wrong but merely “expressed
his opinion”. The police “dispersed the meeting brutally”.
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Vladimir: This shows that we do not have a democracy at all. These people came to
defend the constitution, the most important document, guaranteeing rights and freedom
to individuals. And what follows is, of course, arbitrariness. This must not be that way.
Negotiated decoders. This group (7 students) produced negotiated readings of the
blog entry, adopting a mix of affirmative and oppositional codes. Most of these interviewees
saw police “violence”. They disapproved of that violence and of the regime suppressing op-
positional thought. However, they also disapproved of the protesters’ decision to take to the
street and, equally, of their goals of setting up a liberal-democratic state. Some interviewees
stated that the protesters’ behavior was “useless” or “financed by the West to take everything
apart” (Aleksandr, 19, 3rd year BA Political Science, „undetermined“). Most participants in
this group were skeptical of liberal-democratic values. Some also showed tendencies towards
alternative non-democratic ideologies, i.e. communist or nationalist ideas.
Sasha (23, 3rd year BA Political Science, “undetermined”), for instance, strongly dis-
approves of the behavior of the police, complaining that Russia is a “police state”. He has ex-
tensive background knowledge on Strategy 31 but has come to the conclusion “that these
meetings are always very loud, but not very much comes from it”. Yet, this clip is a proof that
complete freedom of opinion does not exist in Russia. And, ”of course, some of the people,
who speak out for full freedom in our country, work for some Western organizations, but
that’s already something that you can never get rid of”. Similarly, “leftist” Anatoliy sees “vio-
lent” behavior of the police, which reminds him of protests he has participated in when he was
a member of the communist youth. However, he says that, recently, he has come to the con-
clusion that it is better to “actually do something”, i.e. become a doctor or work for govern-
ment, than to simply “cry out something in the streets”.
Oppositional decoders. This group (6 participants) produced explicitly oppositional
readings of the blog entry. In the clip, these students see a young man breaking the law. They
do not speak of protesters but of “rioters”, oftentimes making comparisons to recent youth ri-
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ots in England and France. Some interviewees stress that the reaction of the police was clearly
“adequate”. Others even conjecture that the arrest might have been staged by Yashin for pub-
licity reasons. All agree that, if these unrests were not suppressed, “chaos” would be the con-
sequence. There would be economic decline, maybe even a collapse of the state – things that
happened after the October revolution in 1917 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
One of the most sophisticated and fully elaborated oppositional readings is produced
by Kyrill (22, MA in Economics, “close to liberal views, but not very sure”). Being well in-
formed about Strategy 31, Kyrill starts out with arguing that this event, from a juridical point
of view, was illegal. Consequently, the police had the right to proceed as they did. Yashin’s
speech was “only for show”, he is a professional politician. Kyrill says he does not understand
why the police arrested Yashin exactly at this symbolic point of his speech and suspects that
Yashin might have paid a policeman for this. Yashin profits from the fact that he is exactly ar-
rested in this very moment. Moreover, at the meeting “there were more journalists than peo-
ple”. Kyrill does not regard the people on the square as a “real opposition“: While Yashin
works to “cultivate a specific image of his”, a real opposition would aspire to change some-
thing. By contrast, Yashin behaves like “a film star who invites paparazzi to take pictures of
him”, so people would later buy his discs. These people can give nice speeches in front of
cameras, claiming that they are victims. But, if they break the law, how can they call upon the
government not to break the law? In the USA, Kyrill knows, even bigger protests were dis-
persed on Wall Street – even though people there did not even aim to topple the government.
Patterns of Decoding
As the previous two subsections exposed, with regard to both news items, each of the
three positions of decoding were taken by substantial numbers of students. In decoding the
state TV news broadcast, 8 students operated fully within the code of the semi-authoritarian
regime; 4 produced negotiated, and 7 oppositional readings. In the discussions of the liberal-
democratic blog entry, 7 affirmative, 7 negotiated, and 6 oppositional decodings emerged.
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The data thus clearly evidence a yawning “interpretive divide” that ran through the inter-
viewed group. Moreover, 3 participants produced affirmative decodings of both items. These
participants, when carefully pointed to the logical contradictions that were inherent to their
readings, started feeling uncomfortable and tried to cut off further discussions. Finally, 4 in-
terviewees produced negotiated readings of both news items; one participant decoded both
items from an oppositional position.
Predictors of Positions of Decoding
An intriguing question is now whether, in the group interviewed for this study, we can
identify factors that predicted how an individual would decode the two news items. Personal
characteristics like “gender”, “age” or “course of study” did not appear to be associated with
any specific pattern of decoding. Establishing a meaningful variable reflecting the “political
views” of participants turned out to be unfeasible. While “party identification” or “support for
ideologies” designated with specific labels (for instance “liberal”, “conservative”, or “social-
democratic”) may provide useful clues in Western contexts, no comparable fixed ideological
anchors seemed to be present in the consciousness of the interviewed group. Even basic
agreement on the meaning of key terms like “democratic”, “nationalist” or “conservative” was
widely lacking. Navigating the ideologically strongly fragmented media environment of the
Russian hybrid regime, many interviewees had developed highly individualistic understand-
ings of certain concepts and views on political reality. This seems in line with claims of Rus-
sian researchers that only about one third of adult Russian citizens are currently able to “char-
acterize their political leanings more or less definitely” (Kolocharova, 2011, p. 10).
However, in the interviewed group, one strong predictor for the code in which an indi-
vidual operated could be identified: his or her regular pattern of media use. In the third section
of the interview (see methods), I mapped out the daily practices of media use of each partici-
pant in detail. In the end, however, an excellent dummy variable for a highly relevant pattern
of media use turned out to be the simple fact if a participant had heard of Strategy 31 before
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the interview (yes or no). At the time of research, protests under the label Strategy 31 had
been taking place in Russia every other month for more than two years. The protest actions
were regularly covered in all spheres of the Russian hybrid media landscape – except in the
official sphere. Consequently, if individuals had not heard of Strategy 31, they were obviously
either solely relying on official media to receive political information or they were not follow-
ing political news at all. By contrast, to know about Strategy 31 required at least an occasional
checking of the news discourse in other spheres. In this study, the dummy variable
“knowledge about Strategy 31” (0/1) can thus be used to divide the interviewed group in two
clusters: A cluster 0 of politically narrowly informed students that relied exclusively on offi-
cial media or did not follow the news at all; and a cluster 1 of broader informed students that
regularly checked media beyond the official sphere. 13 of 20 participants had heard of Strate-
gy 31 before the interview (cluster 1). Seven had not (cluster 0).
Patterns of media use and decodings of the state TV report. It is now interesting to
see that all seven students of cluster 0 produced affirmative readings of the state TV broad-
cast. As this finding suggests, relying exclusively on official media or not following political
news at all seemed to be short of a necessary precondition for making sense of state TV in a
purely affirmative way. By contrast, students in the broader informed cluster 1 produced –
without exception – either oppositional or negotiated decodings of the state TV report.
Patterns of media use and decodings of the liberal-democratic blog entry. In the
case of the liberal-democratic blog entry, none of the three positions of decoding seemed to be
similarly linked to one of the two clusters of students. While three of the seven narrowly-
informed individuals produced affirmative decodings, others were able to create oppositional
(2 interviewees) or negotiated decodings (2). Nonetheless, students in cluster 0 were obvious-
ly the ones more startled and emotionally touched by receiving the video of Yashin’s arrest.
The information shown in the clip was new to these students, and many clearly struggled to
bring the dissonant message in agreement with their previously held beliefs. By contrast, stu-
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dents of cluster 1 knew that oppositional protests were regularly dispersed by the Russian po-
lice. The impact of the oppositional blog entry appeared thus strongest on narrowly informed
individuals with low levels of political interest. However, in the context of the Russian hybrid
regime, these individuals were also the least likely to receive such oppositional messages in
their everyday lives, as they were not following political discourses beyond the sphere of offi-
cial media.
Discussion: Making Sense of the News in Hybrid Regimes
What tentative conclusions can we draw from the findings of this explorative study in
regard to media audiences in contemporary Russia and in other hybrid regimes? And what do
these conclusions suggest for future research on audiences in hybrid regimes?
The Young Russian Audience
If we accept the interviewed group as at least roughly representative of Russia’s urban
and educated youth, the conclusion is that, at the time of research, a yawning “interpretive di-
vide” was separating the young, urban, and educated audience of Russia‘s fragmented media
landscape. While a large proportion of this group made sense of official TV exactly in the
way intended by Russia’s ruling elites (affirmative decoders), at the other end of the spec-
trum, we can assume another large group that explicitly rejected the official discourse (oppo-
sitional decoders). In regard to the liberal-democratic media sphere, we can suspect a roughly
reversed pattern of media reception. These findings, to a certain degree, can be seen as chal-
lenging previous focus group research on Russian audiences that arrived at the rather optimis-
tic conclusion that Russian viewers “with any level of education are impressive, with a formi-
dable armory of ways to get at the news”, showing “remarkable abilities […] and unique mo-
tivation” (Mickiewicz 2008, p. 206).
Media Audiences in Hybrid Regimes
Based on the broader argument of this article and the interview data, I would like to
put forward the following preliminary hypotheses on media audiences in contemporary Russia
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that might also hold true in other contemporary hybrid regimes. These hypotheses could be
tested in future research. (1) Audiences in hybrid regimes are – just as the media landscapes in
these states – ideologically highly fragmented. While substantial proportions of the citizen-
ship of a hybrid regime may operate in the official code, significant other proportions may
not. (2) In predicting the code in which an individual operates, regular patterns of media use
(i.e. reception of different media spheres) seem to be of crucial importance. (3) The code in
which an individual operates can be seen as strongly mediating his or her news reception. It
can be imagined as a type of “last filter inside the head” that can function just as effectively as
traditional forms of internet control (Deibert et al., 2010; MacKinnon, 2008). (4) As the find-
ings of this explorative study suggest, in hybrid regimes, only narrowly informed individuals
(defined as not following news discourses beyond the official sphere or not following the
news at all) tend to operate fully in the official code. By contrast, broader informed individu-
als decode official media discourse either from a straight-forward oppositional or at least from
a negotiated position. (5) In hybrid regimes, extremely low informed individuals (particularly
those who are not following the news at all) will tend to make sense of any of the dissonant
discourses “full and straight”, i.e. in the way intended by the encoder. (7) Finally, in the inter-
views conducted for this study, it was striking to observe how specific frames that dominated
the official media discourse also surfaced in many negotiated and oppositional decodings of
the liberal-democratic blog-entry. For instance, in oppositional readings of the blog entry,
many students brought up the frame that the Strategy 31-protesters were “rioters”, explicitly
associating the clip with recent youth riots in Europe and violent protests against social cut-
backs in Greece. This specific frame cannot be regarded as deeply rooted in Russian culture,
as violent youth protests in Europe were a phenomenon of rather recent origin. On state-
controlled Russian TV, however, pictures of street “riots” in Europe were omnipresent during
the four weeks I spent in Russia to conduct the interviews. In a way, it thus appears that Rus-
sia’s ruling elites are very aptly employing the news discourse in the powerful sphere of offi-
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cial media to spread or foster specific interpretive frames that “immunize” individuals against
oppositional messages disseminated in liberal-democratic media or blogs.
Suggestions for Qualitative Studies of Audiences in Hybrid Regimes
As indicated above, the – to date only – previous study on how Russian audiences are making
sense of specific news items (Mickiewicz, 2008; see also Oates, 2006) arrived at more posi-
tive conclusions regarding the abilities and motivations of Russian citizens. Why do the find-
ings of this study suggest a slightly different picture? Firstly, the results of the two studies are
difficult to compare as Mickiewicz adopts a completely disparate theoretical lens. She devel-
ops her argument against the backdrop of the predominantly US-American literature on polit-
ical cognition and TV viewers’ use of “mental shortcuts” and “heuristics”, i.e. techniques to
extract meaning from low-quality media discourse (Crigler, Just, & Neuman, 1992). Second-
ly, however, Mickiewicz also adopts a different method. While the present study is based on
one-to-one interviews, Mickiewicz commissioned focus groups. In focus groups of 10 indi-
viduals, it appears likely that more knowledgeable individuals will dominate the discussions,
while we will learn less about the less sophisticated and contained. These imbalances might
distort our views on audiences in certain respects – a tendency that should be explicitly re-
flected by researchers in their choice of method for future studies.
Moreover, Mickiewicz (2008) conducted her focus groups nearly ten years ago and fo-
cused exclusively on TV audiences. Against this backdrop, it seems particularly intriguing to
expand on the research design tested in this explorative study, which has produced promising
findings in the highly fragmented media environment of a contemporary hybrid regime. In the
specific case of Russia, data collection could be easily extended in several directions: First
and foremost, interviewees could be included from other social backgrounds (blue and white-
collar workers, pensioners, villagers, etc.) and from different regions (outside Russia’s urban
centers). In addition, more news items from each media sphere could be presented to inter-
viewees to investigate how consistent they are in their decodings of one sphere. Thirdly, me-
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dia content from other marginalized media spheres (for instance, the nationalist or communist
spheres) could be incorporated in the research design; by doing so, researchers could explore
to what degree these ideologies resonate with different groups in Russian society. Finally, the
research design could easily be adapted to study audiences in other (semi-)authoritarian re-
gimes in Asia or the Arab world.
Suggestions for Quantitative Audience Research in Hybrid Regimes
Conceptualizing the variable media use. As outlined above, the majority of current
survey studies on audiences in (semi-)authoritarian regimes are based on questionnaire items
that measure media use according to the channel of communication, for instance internet use
vs. no internet use. However, the findings of this study suggest that in the converging media
environments of economically developed hybrid regimes, these distinctions have lost in im-
portance. Instead, it might make sense, wherever the research design allows for this, to distin-
guish between different spheres of the media landscape according to the “code” in which they
operate. A simple solution might be to distinguish between spheres of “official” and “non-
official” media. As this study illustrated, a reliable short-cut to find out about relevant patterns
of media use might be to test an individual’s knowledge about key events or key issues that
were regularly covered in one sphere but not in another. This shortcut also avoids problems
that are connected to having to rely on self-reported data on media use.
Incorporating decodings of news items in quantitative surveys. Moreover, an intri-
guing path for future research might be to incorporate short news items taken from different
media spheres in quantitative surveys. Based on the interview experience in this study, I as-
sume that it is possible to establish the position from which an individual decodes a news item
not only in an unstructured interview, but also by a small number of multiple choice items in a
questionnaire. If this approach is feasible, it would allow a representative study on how dif-
ferent segments of the population of a hybrid regime relate to different spheres of their media
landscape. The emerging findings could help to rethink and reframe two long-standing prob-
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lems of both survey and focus group research on audiences in non-democratic regimes: the
conceptualizations of media “credibility” and “trust” (Oates, 2006; Moehler & Sing, 2011).
These terms have shown to have widely different meanings to different people in different
cultural contexts. One alternative here could be, for instance, to assume that affirmative de-
coders of the state TV newscast in this study “trusted” or “believed in” the reporting of this
channel on the election campaign, whereas oppositional decoders did not. This, again, would
shift the mode of measurement from self-reporting to observed interaction between media
content and audience members.
Using the decoding approach to “anchor” survey research. In recent literature on
survey methodology, the use of so-called “anchoring vignettes” has been hailed as a new way
to generate more accurate measurement of complex notions such as democracy, freedom, pri-
vacy, and corruption across different cultural contexts (King et al., 2004; Bratton, 2010). To
do so, short sketches (“vignettes”) of hypothetical cases are included in survey questionnaires
to find out how a respondent understands a core concept. This data is then used to re-evaluate
or rescale answers on other survey items and thus increase interpersonal comparability. In a
similar way, confronting survey respondents with short news items and establishing in which
code they operate could not only reveal their understanding of an isolated core concept like
“democracy”, but it would even give us an idea about their more complex, cohesive pattern of
thinking. For instance, the information whether an individual operates in the official or liber-
al-democratic code can be used to interpret his or her answers to other survey items.
Conclusion: The Last Filter inside the Head
In this article, I argued that the media landscape of Russia’s contemporary hybrid re-
gime is fragmented in a number of spheres that are encoded from different ideological posi-
tions. Subsequently, I explored how young, urban, and educated Russians were decoding
messages taken from two of these spheres. In in-depth interviews, I investigated how 20 stu-
dents decoded a report from state-controlled TV (representing the official media sphere) and
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an oppositional blog entry (representing the liberal-democratic sphere). The interviews re-
vealed how crucially the way participants made sense of the liberal-democratic blog entry de-
pended on the code in which they operated, i.e. on what we might call the “last filter inside
the head”. To pass this last – and in Russia’s hybrid regime oftentimes: the only – filter inside
the head, political messages published on (liberal-democratic) blogs must be decoded by indi-
viduals in the (liberal-democratic) code of the encoders. As the findings of this study suggest,
in contemporary Russia a significant proportion – even of young, urban, and educated citizens
– are currently not operating in a liberal-democratic code. This is why even political messages
presented in sharply oppositional interpretive frameworks, such as the video of Yashin’s ar-
rest, can be freely available online to an ever increasing share of the population – without se-
riously damaging the legitimacy of the ruling elites. At a more abstract level, the line of ar-
gument presented in this study can thus also be seen as helping to understand an observation
that continues to surprise political observers (Boas & Kalathil, 2003; Lynch, 2011; Stock-
mann & Gallagher, 2011): the astonishing stability of many contemporary (semi-)authori-
tarian regimes that pursue rather open policies towards the net.
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