Late last year, at an event organised by LSE’s Grimshaw International Relations Club, I shared my experiences of trolling as evidence of the implication of academics in an form of hybrid war and campaign of discreditation.
— Mark Sleboda (@MarkSleboda1) October 21, 2015
Well, this campaign became a bit more real (and surreal) when I stumbled across a Russian talk show discussing my research and more specifically my recent Monkey Cage piece, where I discuss the complexities of Russian identity, as I observed them in 2012 and 2013. Totally surreal, the talk show comes out of Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defence’s TV channel, and featured the well-known nationalist Konstantin Zatulin, who interesting and ironically, was banned from Ukraine during Yushchenko’s presidency for making claims on Crimea.
The name of the program is perhaps most revealing: “Information War against the people of Crimea” (Информационная война против народов Крыма). It’s like an Orwellian double-speak; implicating me as a weapon of an information war, when the program’s objective is precisely that: to discredit the argument I put forward in my research.
I’m still mystified what is so controversial about my argument, that identity was complex and that, among those I interviewed, across the identity spectrum, none imagined or supported separatism or unification, imagining it only as akin to violence. But, in particular, the speakers on the show seek to superficially discredit both the methodology of the research, that it’s unrepresentative, and the approach, that I ethnicise Russian identity in Russia, where Russia is multi-ethnic federation of Russian citizens. Of course, I don’t claim representativeness, I’m more interested in the meaning of being Russian for those I interviewed, and, of course, those I interviewed were not Russian citizens in 2012-13.
I’m not trying to respond to a superficial critique that is based around a politicised distaste for a counter-argument about how the current Russian regime imagine Crimea, but rather to consider the attention paid by the Russian state, and their instruments of propaganda, to my research. They seek to discredit not just my interpretation, but also the methodology of my research and the rationale. As Zvezda presenter, why would I want to conduct this research and why do I think I have the right to make these kinds of conclusions? (that run counter to how a) the Russian state understands Crimea b) how the west is supposed to understand Crimea as a homogeneously Russian and pro-Russian region)
We can all become weapons in this information war whether we consent to or not, unaware of how far research can permeate. On the one hand, this is the impact we (are incentivised to) seek; on the other, it’s a nervous position for our arguments to be so visible and, as researchers, so powerless to control this visibility.