Research projects

The Platformisation of Authoritarian Control in Russia

Authoritarian states, such as China, have used digital technologies to strengthen their regimes, for example through surveillance systems, online propaganda and censorship. There has been a surge in research demonstrating the variety of strategies autocracies use to increase their control over the digital sphere, and formulating reasons why autocrats choose to (not) restrict digital freedoms. Yet, scholarship on digital authoritarianism has largely overlooked one key element: the concentration of power in increasingly integrated digital infrastructures and the transnational dependencies this has given rise to. I argue that this vertical and horizontal integration of digital services and infrastructures, a process known as “platformisation”, has introduced novel challenges and constraints; especially for states who, unlike China, are not digitally autonomous. For example, why do some authoritarian and illiberal states succeed in pressuring foreign social media to censor online content, while others do not? Drawing upon recent scholarship in Media and Communication Studies, my project aims to reconceptualise how we understand the relationship between authoritarian regimes and digital technologies. It subsequently applies its theoretical framework to selected case studies from Russia.

The Global Politics of Internet Freedom

This collaborative project with Tetyana Lokot (Dublin City University) analyses how four groups of actors – the tech and academic community, non-profit advocacy organisations, states and corporations – have influenced how we conceptualise internet freedom and the real-world consequences of their ideas.

Towards Sustainable Journalism for the Algorithmic Future

This project, funded by Helsingin Sanomat Foundation (2020-2022), examines the adoption of digital technologies in Russian news media and the role of Russian ‘big tech’ (Yandex) in shaping the Russian information space. Building upon over fifty interviews and complementary methods, the project demonstrates, e.g., how questions of data access, data reliability, societal impact and repercussions condition how data journalism is practiced under authoritarian conditions. It also uncovers how journalistic practices in Russia are changing in a way that negatively impacts press freedom as media negotiate their visibility on online platforms (e.g., news aggregators).

Dovbysh, O., Wijermars, M., & Makhortykh, M. (2022). How to reach Nirvana: Yandex, news personalisation, and the future of Russian journalistic mediaDigital Journalism

Selling Censorship: Affective Framing and the Legitimation of Internet Control in Russia

In today’s hyperconnected world, states are confronted with the global challenge of responding to potentially disruptive online communications, such as terrorist propaganda and fake news. In Russia, these threats have been instrumentalized to legitimate a dramatic decline in internet freedom. Scholars have investigated the curtailment of internet freedom in contemporary Russia, drawing attention to its infrastructural, economic, regulatory and foreign policy aspects. But how does the Russian government legitimate and cultivate popular support for these policies? This research project studied how the internet and its regulation are framed in political and media discourses. It asked what role the mobilisation of affect plays in legitimating censorship and surveillance. Employing a mixed methods, case-study approach, it analysed how affective frames are produced by policymakers, how they are translated and disseminated in state and (semi-) independent media, and how they resonate in social media and online debates.

Wijermars, M. (2021). Selling internet control: the framing of the Russian ban of messaging app TelegramInformation, Communication & Society, 1-17.

Wijermars, M. (2021). Russia’s law ‘On news aggregators’: Control the news feed, control the news? Journalism, 22(12), 2938–2954.