In Shock and Avoiding the “Politics”
Our postdoctoral researcher Teemu Oivo found mixed early reactions to the war from Russia’s environmental-themed Telegram channels
The scale of damage to life and the environment initiated by the invasion of the Russian military to Ukraine from February 24 onwards is difficult to comprehend. Besides war refugees and (contra) sanctions, the impacts of war spread outside Ukraine as several states, companies, and organizations have halted their cooperation with invading Russia. Since the world is strongly transnationally networked, many social groups feel the need to reconsider their positions. Environmental movements and activists are good examples of this.
By early 2022 the environmental agenda in Russia had shown positive signals of raised popular interest and engagement. In the previous year, the state set official goals of a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2060, which is 10 years slower than the EU goal, but still a notable shift from Russia’s previous policy. However, since the beginning of the invasion, there has been discussion and some signals of the Russian state rolling back on its environmental regulation and standards, albeit thus far no large-scale changes have taken place. In this blog, I review some of the early responses to the invasion on Russian environmental and ecology Telegram channels with a focus on the two first weeks.
While Telegram has quickly gained popularity, particularly among experts and enthusiasts of specific topics, it is generally not the most known digital media platform. Telegram is an instant messaging application that has gained reputation as a safe communications channel regarding data security and anonymity. Hence, it is popular among groups that seek protection from public authorities such as political activists in authoritarian states. However, it hosts a large scale of activities from clandestine to official and mundane channels. It has for example become a popular messaging channel for authorities in Russia. Unlike many social media platforms, the possibility to interact between content producers and audience is not a meaningful feature of Telegram channels – the main feedback is (un-)subscription. In Russia, Telegram’s userbase is notably young, active, urban, and educated (Salikov 2019).
Our Flowision project members have conducted a series of interviews with Russian environmental journalists, many of whom highlighted that Telegram channels provide a prevalent source of enlightening and newsworthy content about environment-related issues. Out of 19 Russian ecology-relevant Telegram channels that the journalists mentioned, I have followed the ten most subscribed channels. The content of all these channels is openly readable for all Telegram users without channel subscription, but commenting is disabled in eight of them, two of which enabled smiley reactions. Most of these channels are anonymously administrated. Through their popularity among journalists and activists, these channels can be considered important for projecting and disseminating environmental knowledge.
Acknowledging strict political control and sensitivity of civic activism in Russia, I anonymise most of the channels in this blog to avoid giving them any undesirable publicity. As an exception, I mention ShER (“ШЭР”, Sharing, ecology, rationality), which can be considered to be very public and known in its field with 100,692 subscribers (on June 1, 2022). Moreover, the channel received extra publicity in November 2021 when Snob.ru awarded ShER as the media of the year. The other nine channels in comparison had 58 to 3,5 thousand subscribers. The channel stood out also visually with its own, yellow-highlighted bold text font. ShER also made polls to its subscribers more often than other channels.
Most of the examined channels posted three to seven posts a week, whereas ShER and one other channel published several posts daily. In the first days of the Russian invasion, the posting frequency slowed down in few of the channels and two continued on lower-than-normal activity beyond the first weeks. The topics in these channels included news and studies from Russia and abroad, dealing with urban planning, electric cars, protection of flora and fauna, sustainability in everyday life, innovations, and news from policymakers.
Direct and Delayed Reactions
There were variations in how the ten selected Telegram channels reacted to Russia invading Ukraine on February 24: four addressed the issue with shock, but restrained from taking a clear stand, three continued their usual daily activities and noted the war as new circumstances without point-of-view comments, one froze its activity after stating the state of shock, one shifted its focus from Arctic environment more towards Arctic geopolitics, and one took a pro-Kremlin stand without directly addressing the situation.
Two channels addressed their subscribers immediately on February 24 writing about their shock by the (unspecified) news and state of shock in not knowing how to continue with their daily activities. In the next few days, similar messages were shared on three more channels. Two of them noted in grim and disempowered messages that the projects of environmental protection in Russia will suffer following the halting international cooperation in spheres of technology and knowledge exchanges. One channel declared that it would freeze its activity until it becomes clear what kind of world there is left after “the armed operation in Ukraine”, but after a couple of days, it forwarded one more piece of news about the staggering state of sustainable development in Russia.
Uncharacteristically for any of the ten channels, one channel reached out to their subscribers, particularly for the people working in the ESG (ecology, sustainability, governance) consulting companies asking to let the channel know about their situation. Soon, the channel administrators summarised the received answers: the international networks had suffered, and project names changed but contacts and access to some expertise had remained. Simultaneously, the future employment of these experts remained uncertain.
In the first days following the invasion, the most subscribed Telegram channel ShER continued with their previous topics that most often included positive decisions and innovations relating to electric cars, traffic, and food waste in western countries and Russia. Finally, on the fifth day of the war, ShER posted a statement that its subscribers had asked the channel to ignore the topic (implying the war), and hence they will continue with a positive perspective on the world of ecology and try to help people to be more aware of their environmental impact. Besides ShER, also the second most subscribed channel stated explicitly that they will seek to offer a positive distraction for their subscribers. I got an overall impression that this could have been a general approach in the other channels as well, but I will make a more systematic comparison later.
Commenting on posts was mostly either disabled or scarce in the selected ten Telegram channels. The address of the situation on the ShER channel received an unprecedented amount of 99 answer messages and they were dominantly supporting the channel’s statement with smileys and gifs. A couple of commenters stated that whereas they support the channel, the war should not be ignored because also it is bad for ecology, or that ecology is the only important people stay alive. Simultaneously, few commentators recommended people to “avoid politics”.
Generally, the telegram channels discussed and referred to the war with reservation to word choices from the very beginning when there was not yet criminal liability in “distributing false information on the military of Russia”. Similarly, they did not criticise the decisions and activities of Russian officials. This tendency to disassociate oneself from the “political” has previously been noted also on Russian environmental blogs (Poberezhakaya 2017) and it is generally an aversive and even dangerous label in Russia.
A few days into the war also the channels not addressing the situation started to post occasional messages related to the war and its consequences. These posts included, for example, the lack of shop receipt paper in Russia, which one channel speculated may have a positive side effect in decreasing the paper use, Another channel speculated that the lack of car spare parts due to the sanctions could lead to more car thefts and consequently drop the popularity of private car ownership. On the other hand, the ending of transnational environmental and technical cooperation was reported with concern, but often without judgment.
The Telegram channels often posted recently published policy documents and decisions of Russian regional and federal authorities, such as announcements to increase environmental regulation, without giving them critical commentary. Yet only one channel appeared pro-Kremlin, as it characteristically praised the actions of the Russian officials and blamed the countries sanctioning Russia for harming the ecology, for example by exchanging the Russian gas for coal. This channel went as far as promoting propaganda channels of the so-called republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, this channel’s description did not reveal anything from its background. On the other channels, there was only one notable exception of a message taking a stand on the consequences of the war.
Scaling the environmental agenda
While stating personal shock of the “terrible news” on February 24, an environmental activist wrote a message on their channel criticising Western countries for abandoning the environmental agenda with their sanction politics. This message became the only notably redistributed post among the ten channels that I followed. It was forwarded not only by the above-mentioned pro-Kremlin channel but also by two channels otherwise abstaining from commenting on the war. The message declared condemningly that pressuring Russia is more important for Western states than saving the planet. It highlighted that excluding “our country” from SWIFT hampers the ESG-certifications of Russian companies and argued that the termination of scientific cooperation will lead to ecocatastrophe:
I am convinced that political disagreements shouldn’t influence the realisation of ecological projects — Situations dictated by world leaders should not violate cooperation in the sphere of ecology. — One more example is the termination of the cooperation in the Arctic where a methane catastrophe is brewing. It appears that the ‘green’ agenda was just a passing fashion for many of the world’s politicians and all that now takes place reveals their pure hypocrisy. — science, especially the studies of global climatic risks should be left outside politics.
While I consider that its characterisation of the anti-war sanctions astoundingly downplays the reasons for these policies, this message tackles the valid question of the collateral damage of sanctions. On this rather rare occasion, the channels spreading this message voiced their grievances over the ending of the cooperation in the fields of environmental protection (i.e., not all the sanctions) and criticised their purposefulness. The freezing of environmental and more broadly scientific cooperation has been validly criticised in Western countries as well.
Additionally, there was a channel that reflected the prioritisation of the ecological agenda against the war in another way. Its administrator reflected the unspecified, but contextually clear temporal situation by stating their personal fear of losing everything, while highlighting that people should not be afraid of losing McDonald’s, since they should consume less and there are greater things that should be valued instead. Moreover, administrators of the channel that froze their activity wrote that the grievance of what will happen with the environmental agenda is not so big compared to the human damage occurring at the moment.
However, from the perspective of most of the content on these ten channels, I got the perception of relatively optimistic attitudes towards the state of the environmental agenda in Russia and globally. As I noted above, a couple of the Telegram channels openly stated that they intentionally aimed at positive bias in their posts to balance the otherwise sad news, whereas the situation evaluations on a couple of the channels were very pessimistic. These impressions are based on my subjective familiarisation with the Telegram channels in a situation when it is still difficult to put things into a wider perspective. From this general familiarisation, I plan to continue with a more systematic examination of the shifts in these channels and what they can tell about the environmental agenda.
Author: Teemu Oivo
Poberezhkaya Anna (2017) Blogging about Climate Change in Russia: Activism, Scepticism and Conspiracies. Environmental Communication 12(7), 942–955. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2017.1308406
Salikov, Alexey (2019) Telegram as a Means of Political Communication and its use by Russia’s Ruling Elite. Politologija 95(3), 83–110 DOI: https://doi.org/10.15388/Polit.2019.95.2