Regulating algorithmic news recommendation in non-democracies - the case of Russia

Lecture by Dr Mariëlle Wijermars, Assistant Professor, Maastricht University. This is the first of three lectures in the Frontier Seminar Series: "An interdisciplinary approach to digital threats”.


On 1 January 2017, a law (№ 208-FZ) came into force in Russia, which holds news aggregators liable for spreading fake news. Links to news items that originate from registered media outlets — a state-regulated category — are, however, exempt from liability. As a result, news aggregators, such as Yandex.News, have revised their algorithms to avoid legal claims. The talk examines the mechanism the law has created for the Russian state to influence the online distribution of news through its existing media regulation structures. It outlines how, given the role that news aggregators play in directing traffic to news websites, the law may influence online news consumption patterns and media diversity in the long-term. It argues that the law on news aggregators exemplifies the diversification of Russian internet governance from censoring (news) content and controlling the physical infrastructure of the internet toward governing algorithmic infrastructures.


Dr Mariëlle Wijermars is an Assistant Professor in Cyber-Security and Politics at Maastricht University. She conducts research on Internet governance with a focus on the impact of Internet regulation on freedom of speech and media freedom, and the framing of cyberthreats and policy responses. Before joining Maastricht University, Mariëlle worked as Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Helsinki with the project ‘Selling Censorship: Affective Framing and the Legitimation of Internet Control in Russia’ (funded by Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research). Her edited volume Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere (co-edited with Katja Lehtisaari, Routledge) is forthcoming in December 2019, while her book Memory Politics in Contemporary Russia: Television, Cinema and the State was published by Routledge in 2019. Mariëlle is an editor of the open access journal Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media.

Frontier Seminar Series

This frontier seminar series, funded by the former Centre for Communication and Computing (CCC), aims to host talks by renowned scholars and advance the interdisciplinary understanding of the repressive response and reaction from the regime in the digital age around the global.

While scholars have spent a lot of time understanding how people adopt digital technologies in political actions, how the regime – be it democratic, authoritarian, or hybrid – responds to the rise of digital challenge with the aid of digital technologies remains a relevant yet vastly understudied topic. Nowadays, “China Model” or “Russia Model” of Net Control significantly hinders the emancipatory potential, albeit not necessarily democratic, of digital technologies around the world.

Individual freedoms and civil rights are under threat, as Middle East governments hold increasing state cyber-tracking and monitoring capabilities, as well as the capacity to censor or shut down social networks and Internet connectivity. In democratic regimes like USA, the use of terms like “misinformation” and “fake news” as a rhetorical tool deliberately undermines dissident views, attack opponents, or discredits media scrutiny.

This seminar series invite scholars with interdisciplinary background from political sciences, sociology, computer science, and communication to present their up-to-date researches and thoughts about what one may call “digital threats” – or what the Freedom House calls “digital authoritarianism” – how different regimes adapt themselves to digital circumstance and react to challenges from digital technologies – such as information distraction, propaganda, confusion, and censorship.

The talks will shed light on our understanding of various processes and consequences of mediated/unmediated communication behaviors on human attitudes, cognitions, and behaviors using computational approaches in a social science framework.

The seminar series especially wants to facilitate potential exchange and collaboration – including external research applications – among CCC colleagues and invited speakers about the use of computerized tools and algorithms for collecting, processing, analyzing, and visualizing large-scaled, complex data.

Two further seminars will be held on 13 November & 27 November.

Organizer: Jun Liu, Associate Professor