Countries across Eastern Europe and Eurasia (E&E) have seen increased efforts in recent years by foreign actors, especially Russia, to influence their domestic governance. As the region experiences greater democratic backsliding, the media has become a battleground for would-be autocrats and their opposition. These vulnerabilities can open doors to malign foreign actors to skew narratives and push propaganda in a country’s media, to the detriment of democracy and civil society. With the rise of social media, Internet penetration, and smartphone uptake complicating the picture, development practitioners seeking to counter this through funding in-country programs are often left with little reliable data and poor ground-level information about a country’s media landscape.
Filling the gap, a team of researchers at AidData recently completed a three-year project to better understand the vulnerabilities of a country’s media to malign foreign influence. The result is a suite of valuable tools for development practitioners, including a report with an index of media resilience for 17 countries in Europe & Eurasia; profiles tracking the ownership of top media outlets and presence of Russian state media in each country; a sentiment analysis of certain top media outlets; and a digital survey of media literacy in the region. Alongside the efforts of AidData staff—Vera Choo, Emily Dumont, Jonathan A. Solis, and Lincoln Zaleski, members of AidData’s Foreign Policy Influence program—the research benefited from over 20 undergraduate student research assistants from William & Mary who participated during the multi-year project.
Explore AidData’s collection of tools to understand media resilience and vulnerability
The research, made possible with funding from USAID, is particularly relevant in providing quantifiable measures to feed into the Countering Malign Kremlin Influence (CMKI) development framework. The framework funds research that provides USAID’s in-country partners with tools to improve funding decisions for programs that bolster democratic processes and norms threatened by Russian influence. Much of AidData’s work featured inputs from country experts both before and during the research.
“It was incredibly valuable to speak with people working on the ground dealing with these issues face-to-face, day-to-day,” said Solis, the E&E media project’s research lead and a Senior Research Analyst at AidData. Solis has studied media freedom and media resilience for nearly a decade; his recent academic research focuses on the factors influencing government censorship of the press, approaches to measuring media freedom, and the relationship between regime type and journalist killings, with publications in the Journal of Human Rights, the British Journal of Political Science, and Foreign Policy Analysis.
At AidData, Solis has contributed to ongoing research into the economic and soft power tools of China and Russia, and has served as the technical lead for reports quantifying Beijing’s public diplomacy activities, specifically those focused on media influence, in South and Central Asia and East Asia and the Pacific. He is also the co-author of a forthcoming report that focuses on China and Russia’s digital censorship tools and their influence in autocratizing countries.
The sample of countries Solis’s team examined included former Communist states in Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia that have not yet joined the European Union (EU). These 17 countries sit at the crossroads of Russia’s sphere of influence and that of Western organizations like the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some are full or associate members of the Russia-dominated intergovernmental organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, while others are NATO members or remain EU accession candidates or potential candidate countries. The 17 countries are Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
“To understand how vulnerable a country’s media is to foreign manipulation and influence, we had to first capture the factors that determine how stable or robust the media system is,” said Solis. “One issue we ran into early on is that ‘media resilience’ itself is a relatively new concept. We didn’t have much literature to draw from, so we had to develop our own theoretically-driven conceptualization and taxonomy.” The researchers defined media resilience as the extent to which a country’s consumers and producers of media are able to responsibly identify and respond to externally influenced content, especially malign content.
The team identified three key components of media resilience: (1) citizens as content consumers, including media consumption habits, societal norms and attitudes toward media, and media literacy; (2) media outlets as content producers, including which media is available, how reliable it is, and the level of media professionalism; and (3) the institutional environment for media, encompassing government efficiency and responsiveness, political legitimacy and accountability, and how independent the media is. From these three key components, the researchers built a multi-faceted taxonomy and collected secondary data.
The resulting dataset, which is being made publicly available along with the technical report, was used to construct the final Media Resilience to Malign Influence (MRMI) Index, which covers 17 countries from 2010 to 2020 and provides a score for each country over time. “As far as we know, this is the first attempt to describe and quantify media resilience on a broad scale in this region,” Solis added.
While conceptualizing and quantifying media resilience created a solid baseline, the research team pursued projects to further flesh out two key components of media resilience: media outlets and citizens. For media outlets, they developed media ownership profiles that mapped out (1) domestic media ownership and (2) Russian state-owned media presence in each country. Using a synthesis of consumption and polling data that ranked top media, the team compiled a list of the top five outlets each in TV, radio, newspaper, and online. Using open source searches, key informant interviews, and government and business directories, the team of research assistants was then able to uncover the true ownership structure of top outlets in most cases.
“This was a difficult endeavor, because some media companies want to obscure their exact ownership information and hide it from the public,” said Abigail Maher, an undergraduate research assistant and William & Mary ‘23 Anthropology major who worked on the project for two years. “But with our research methodology, we were eventually able to uncover the digital trails of data that traced back to the true owners of these outlets.”
The profiles include a breakdown of both corporate and individual shareholders, as well as highlighting ownership ties to foreign entities, especially the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs close to the government. “We’re unaware of a larger, more up-to-date collection of media ownership data in the region,” said Solis. The project also recorded whether 11 Russian state-owned media were present in these countries, including the TV stations Russia 1, RTR-Planeta, and TV Centre, as well the physical presence of news agencies TASS and Sputnik.
Though the media ownership profiles highlighted potential channels of malign foreign influence, evidence of specific media narratives being affected remained missing. To that end, the team scraped as many articles as possible from these top outlets and conducted sentiment analysis on keywords to indicate how favorably or not topics from the West, Russia, and even China were covered from 2019 to 2021. The results can be seen in this interactive dashboard. This effort was immense. “We had to work with 17 different languages across 17 countries,” said Vera Choo, the text analysis lead and a Junior Data Analyst at AidData. “To solve this problem, we used automated translation methods and publically available resources, like Wiktionary.”
To flesh out the citizen component of media resilience, the team fielded a digital survey in ten of the 17 E&E countries that asked 35 questions about respondents’ media literacy. “If governments and media are captured by foreign actors, the last line of defense are citizens and their ability to identify and reject (or not) disinformation and misinformation,” said Solis. “We spoke with many in-country and media literacy experts during a series of fact-finding interviews, and then a larger colloquium once we completed a draft of the survey.” AidData partnered with survey firm RIWI to leverage their novel Random Domain Intercept Technology to field the survey online, which mixed self-reported questions about behavior and factual questions to provide objective tests.
The sum of these varied tools paints one of the most up-to-date, complete pictures of media resilience in Europe and Eurasia. “We hope this work provides much needed data to practitioners in this region that are typically data sparse, especially in Central Asia,” concluded Solis. “All our work is based on reproducible methodology that can be updated later within the region and scaled up to other regions as well. Taking the work into subnational domains—for example, by examining the most consumed media in a country’s subregions—would be a natural extension for us to pursue.”