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Of Boats and Rats: How Russia's election banter transcended the borders of online and offline mediaPosted by: admin on Tue, 2012-03-27 14:27
27 March 2012 - Political and social analysts are likely to be debating for some time how the results of Russia's recent elections were influenced by a vocal democratic movement and President-elect Vladimir Putin's reactions to it.
From a media and communication perspective, it is already clear that Russia's lively and public electoral debate triggered a historic change: the effective elimination of "borders" between online and offline media and dialogue. Street-rally discourses, Twitter-enabled pronouncements, social networking chatter, televised reports and other conduits of communication intermingled and overlapped, creating a vibrant crosscurrent of information.
One example of messages crossing media borders was a political exchange beginning late last year. In a speech to the last session of the previous Duma (parliament) on November 23, Vladimir Putin urged the opposition to “not rock the boat” and let the ruling party keep the country afloat.
Shortly afterward, at one of the early-December 2011 rallies for transparent elections, poet Dmitryi Bykov (one of the most creative personas in the opposition camp), sported a sarcastic poster saying “Do not rock the boat – our rat [Putin] has nausea."
The pro-government blogosphere tried to throw the rat back into the opposition camp. Notably, they described the visit of Russian opposition figures with the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul as "flautist" collecting "rats" - a reference to the famous pied piper of Hamelin fairy tale, as well as, the idea that the visit with McFaul would only serve to hasten the opposition's demise. The discussion continued online from one news site to another, and ultimately to a social network, evolving into a duel of wits and creativity between the two sides.
This phenomenon of media outlet transcendence was all the more significant in light of very different vocabularies, images and symbolism favored by pro-opposition and pro-government communicators.
The “rats” dialogue also showed how semiotics can help in the analysis of public discourse. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, particularly within language or other systems of human communication. Semiotics helps uncover hidden meanings of words in specific contexts by tracing the etymology of those words as well as the self-identification of social groups using them for communication.*
From a semiotic perspective, pro-government discourse was dominated by simple and official messages. They appealed to a wide range of audiences and left very little room for interpretation. For example, participants in a post-election celebratory rally for Putin carried posters displaying blunt statements such as “Russia is for Putin” and “Best President is in Power.”
The opposition turned to artisanal creative skills and mostly low-cost production techniques. They brought a more intellectualized, academic and literary tone, making use of figurative speech based on metonymy and metaphors. Their linguistic choices and preferred visuals yielded a young and dynamic “now” image of a group having a lot of fun while challenging the inert and authoritative government to stimulate slow reactive change.
The opposition’s discourse also tended to be rather elitist because its messages were filled with complex references to global political affairs, classic literature, history and linguistics. Examples include messages like “Putin C. F.” (for Roman cave furem -- “beware the thief”) and the English-language poster “Put-in, Put-out” (below). Both messages appear rather strange in Russia, where only about 5 percent of adults are fluent in English and possibly 0.01 percent know Latin.
The discourse of the opposition also tended to borrow from non-Russian cultural contexts. For example, the “12 years of Putin’s reign in 2 minutes” Simpsons-style animated clip, which went viral overnight, makes reference to South Park, Larry King’s Show, Time magazine, Superman, Robocop, and Kaddafi, to name just a few. Most of these references are likely to go over the head of an average Russian, who would probably be able to relate better to Putin’s heroic deeds and sport achievements in the clip “Are you [voting] for Putin?” produced by the pro-government camp.
These are small examples of how semiotics can be used to provide critical insight on communities of interest. As traditional and new media technologies merge to produce hybrid information spaces – as seen here in Russia's electoral discussions – semiotics could be combined with traditional and digital media research methodologies to yield useful insights on the patterns of communication among various groups in a dynamic information environment.
*Credit goes to the American Heritage Dictionary for much of this definition.
About the Authors:
Dr. Anastasia Mirzoyants / Intermedia
Dr. Mirzoyants is an Associate Director working in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Africa and Asia. She recently finished her PhD in Educational Foundations and Leadership at the University of Toledo, Ohio. Her interests include Human Rights Education and Education for Peace and Democracy.
Lucia Neva / Visual Signo
Visual Signo is under the direction of Lucia Neva, a consultant with extensive experience in the praxis and teaching of semiotics, cultural insights & graphic design. Lucia is a graphic designer and anthropologist with deep expertise in the use and exploration of methodologies for the analysis of the visual through design principles and anthropological thinking. She has more than 10 years of experience as a graphic designer, semiotician, and researcher delivering cultural and design insight, semiotic strategies and research for companies in a wide range of sectors.