‘Decision-making centers’ — The Russian response to Dugina’s killing

I’ve been using Telegram to try and get a sense of how consumers of Russian media respond to government -aligned or -backed messaging, the thought being that one can only understand how propaganda works if one understands how it is received.

To that end, I’ve been considering the react emojis that some channels have available. Some data is available here, and also on my Twitter quasi-bot (quasi- cause I can’t find a decent host online for it). A drawback of this method is that not all channels enable reactions, and among such channels are the more interesting ones.

This week, I tried a new strategy to get reception information. Some channels which don’t allow emoji reacts do allow text responses. I figured that the more responses a post receives, the more popular or noteworthy it is. What stories get people writing responses?

To answer that, I took a look at two very notable but so far mostly unnoted by me channels, that of Margarita Simonyan, who is the head of RT, and Maria Zakharova, who is a government spokesperson. They are both among the most forward-facing pro-government mouthpieces, with respectively 1/3 of a million and one half of a million followers.

I didn’t have any expectation going forward, but unsurprisingly the results clustered around the killing, last night,of Darya Dugina, the daughter of … hard to describe Alexandr Dugin. I’m not overly familiar with his work but it’s a sort of Russia-first nationalism dolled up with theoretical trimmings from a range of disciplines — international relations, philosophy, and so on. For some he’s a key source of Putin’s ideology, for others less so.

Regardless, the killing of his daughter, in what appears to have been an attempt on him, is the story of the day. Among Twitter commentators, there are many dark pronouncements about the significance of the killing (e.g); I’ve seen some suggest it’s a false flag, in part based on the Russian propaganda reaction. So let’s take a look at those reactions.

(Before going on, some technical details if you want to recreate: if you’re using pyrogram, it’s the `get_discussion_replies_count` method you’ll want to use. You’ll get rate-limited if you try too much, but halting the script gets around that problem.)

Wikipedia, for which see image credit, is pretty good on Dugin, as far as I can tell.

Consider first Simonyan: average replies for her for this week was 545, the largest getting 2566, the smallest 94. Her most replied-to story, with around 2500 responses, for the whole week, came last night, and read simply:

This needs explanation. Russian tabloid Argumenty I Fakty provides one:

The significance is clear, surely: Simonyan is suggesting an attack on the decision-making centers in Ukraine in retaliation for what she takes to be the Ukrainian killing of Dugina (as far as I know there’s no evidence for this). It’s noteworthy that this message, reposted on Solovyov’s channel, was, as my bot shows, his most popular post of the day, and so its meaning was not lost, and was popular, for many.

The second is a report of a puff piece from the New York Post that isn’t particularly interesting. The third is a video clip of some music concert with soldiers in attendance, with accompanying text:

I don’t know what the concert is and google didn’t help, but this seems pretty straightforward and understandable war cheer-leading.

The fourth is

‘Mundep’ is short ‘municipal ̶d̶e̶p̶a̶r̶t̶m̶e̶n̶t̶’̶)̶ deputy’ (thanks to a reader for the correction — see the first comment on this story for helpful info), and in this context means, I think, someone working at such a governmental role who came out against the war although I’m not sure.

And the fifth:

I must confess to having no idea here — is it a quotation or parody? Kuban Yeysk denotes, I think, a holiday place for Russians, but beyond that I don’t know. I guess it must be a parody from something but google turned up nothing.

Regardless of the uncertainty, that 2/5 of the most reacted-to stories of the last week occurred since yesterday would suggest the Dugina death is significant; more important, I think, is the overwhelming popularity of the ‘decision-making centers’ message, given it is proposing what must be close to a war crime (recall the ‘civilians’ bit in the AiF gloss).

Let’s turn to Zakharova. I reckon we get roughly the same from her. Her first most responded to post is one about her holidays; her second

The rhetoric is pretty overblown — I’m not familiar enough with her to know if that’s her normal style or she’s putting it on. The sentence beginning ‘It is necessary’ reads

Informational violence’ which might include things like propaganda and adverts and mishandling data, seems hardly appropriate here. Regardless, it seems we’re two-for-two on influential Russian voices suggesting quasi-judicial responses aimed at Ukraine in response for the killing. Recall there’s no evidence for Ukrainian involvement (at least, that I’ve seen or they’ve presented).

Her fourth is a snap from her holiday. And her fifth reads:

Translation:

Russian law enforcement agencies are investigating the death of Daria Dugina. If the Ukrainian trace is confirmed — and this version was voiced by the head of the DPR Denis Pushilin, and it must be verified by the competent authorities — then we should talk about the policy of state terrorism implemented by the Kyiv regime. Facts have accumulated over the years: from political calls for violence to the leadership and participation of Ukrainian state structures in crimes. Waiting for the results of the investigation.

Again, it’s possible I just missed it, but I didn’t know the ‘trace’ was in a place where it just needs to be ‘confirmed’.

So I think there’s something to be learned from this. Some more statistical information would be nice (is Simonyan’s ‘decision-making centers’ an extreme outlier? What sort of pieces elicit tame reactions? Is replied-toness generally a good signal for importance) But I think there’s at least a weak and prima facie case for thinking that Dugina killing is an important event, and that Telegram-mining of the sort displayed here is useful for keeping track of it, and perhaps other such important events.

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