Ragne Kõuts-Klemm: Of Covid information in the Russian-speaking community

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Ragne Kõuts-Klemm. Source: Diana Unt

Russian-speaking people are not more receptive to propaganda than Estonians. A Russian-speaking resident also needs thorough, diverse, balanced and knowledge-based as opposed to propagandist information, Ragne Kõuts-Klemm writes.

The Estonian-language media has in its treatments on the progress of COVID-19 vaccination recently created the understanding that the Russian population of Estonia believes in [Russia's Covid vaccine] Sputnik V and is hesitant when it comes to vaccines that have been authorized for use in Europe. The supposed reason is that the Russian-speaking part of the population consumes Russian media and believes everything Russian propaganda suggests.

While these suspicions might include a grain of truth, allow me to add some nuances to the mix.

A mottled picture

Past studies have shown that the self-determination and relevant interests, mannerisms and copings of the Russian-speaking population are very different. We cannot talk about an average Russian-speaking media consumer. The Russian-speaking community – just like its Estonian counterpart – has both those who believe the Earth is flat and people who are very selective and critical in their media consumption. People both in favor and against vaccines.

We conducted thorough interviews over the last four months on whether and how the coronavirus situation has altered how the Russian-speaking population consumes news information, what kind of information is trusted and what kind is not. The results are truly varied.

Everyone is interested in coronavirus information as it concerns everyone's daily life and coping. Covid has also rendered Russian-speaking media consumers' focus a little more local.

Restrictions and dangers are here and now and the local news media is one's first stop for relevant information. Whether we are talking about Delfi and Postimees Russian news portals or radio and TV news.

People say that their trust in the Estonian media has grown. But as is the case for many Estonians, a considerable part of Russian-speaking media consumers also searches for information from many different sources. Especially when information is not thorough enough or fails to provide timely guidelines.

For example, whether Tallinn will close its kindergartens cannot be gleamed from the Russian media, with the latest and most accurate information available on the website of the city's education department or the education ministry.

Information on what to do about the virus can be found on the Health Board's website. The interviewees said they have also started visiting the websites of Estonian agencies more often, in addition to Estonian news channels.

We see that the need for information of the Russian-speaking population is divided into zones and that different channels are used to fulfill it. Estonian news channels are by far the most important when it comes to everyday life. While in the zone of general interest it is usually a combination of Estonian, European and Russian media channels.

Some go about it in a media critical manner, while others are more "brainwashed." There are also those who are indifferent when it comes to serious information and only rely on the media for entertainment.

That said, the coronavirus situation has caused people to take an interest in what kind of information is trustworthy and what kind isn't. The thorough interviews we conducted with people from very different regions, sporting a different level of education and of a different age clearly reflect the tendency to regard Estonian news media as more dependable than its Russian counterpart.

Opinions are connected to topics people regard as important – for example, it is believed that while Estonian and European media is quite good when it comes to business, Estonian publications are said to be lacking in terms of geopolitical analysis.

Opinions differ categorically when it comes to coverage of domestic politics in Estonia. Russian-speaking media consumers would like to see more versatility and different views when it comes to political and cultural coverage, including different experts. There should be more and more thorough explanation also when it comes to coronavirus information.

The interviewees consider major European channels such as Deutsche Welle and Euronews to be trustworthy sources for global events. Many called into question the credibility of Russian state media and the U.S. media.

News is also considered to be untrustworthy if the interviewee already has a general negative attitude toward the source or strong convictions as regards countries or persons involved or certain topics. Also, when the information clashes with what people know or believe to be true.

Examples given in interviews included a case where the press claimed that people have taken to wearing masks in a particular city, while the interviewee only saw a few people waring a mask when they visited said city.

Another example – the press had painted a frightening picture of the coronavirus situation in the UK, while the interviewee's acquaintance who lives there had nothing particularly horrid to say about the state of affairs there. These are isolated experienced and examples, while news is expected to be as diverse and representative of different positions as possible.

Bad apples

Paradoxically enough, talking about misinformation can lead to the understanding that everything is misinformation. We noticed that some Russian-speaking people had taken to the Trumpian exclamation that this is fake news!

A closer look revealed that the phrase fake news is usually invoked when referring to utterances by politicians. This creates a chain reaction where media channels that place a heavy emphasis on politics become untrustworthy for such media consumers. However, once a preconceived notion takes hold regarding a particular media channel, all other topics it treats with are affected.

It is completely accurate that a few bad apples can spoil the bunch. Minor details are usually what Delfi and Postimees are criticized for. Whereas examples of bad apples come from the coronavirus coverage of the local media.

For example, when articles are published, next to otherwise professional material, that in between other information suggest – sometimes through the mouth of credible sources – that people should prefer a vaccine that lacks authorization for use in Europe.

We should therefore adjust our understanding of the massive propaganda influence of Russian networks among the Russian-speaking part of the Estonian population. Many people we interviewed were very well informed in terms of which Russian networks are serious sources of information and which tend to cover one-sided state information instead.

Russian propaganda is not to blame either. Russian-speaking people are no more susceptible to propaganda than Estonians. A Russian-speaking resident also needs thorough, diverse, balanced and knowledge-based as opposed to propagandist information.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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