Political Manipulation In Russia In The Early 21st Century In Digitalization Context


The article dwells on the basic aspects of political manipulation in the national state-legal and social fields in the 21st century. The authors focus on the origin and functional features of political manipulation in the postmodern era, and relative to contemporary Russia - the era of genesis, establishment and development of post-Soviet political and legal forms and institutions. Political manipulation is viewed as a universal phenomenon of national political life, an important tool of power elites aimed at influencing society, mass and individual political and legal consciousness, and political and legal culture as a whole. Moreover, the authors emphasize the importance of activating effective mechanisms to counter various kinds of manipulative practices. They argue for the necessity to restrict them legally, which is important to preserve the original spiritual foundations of the national and cultural environment, especially in the digital age. The authors place particular emphasis on the development of digital manipulative technologies and practices that blur social harmony, socio-economic and political-legal integrity, and the identification of fundamental socio-political actors. The paper shows and discusses the issues of providing digital security of an individual, society and the state, and defines the main trends for ensuring the latter.

Keywords: Digitalization, information influence on political interests, power elites, political manipulation


There is probably not a single term or category in political science that has a clear understanding of the history of conceptual-theoretical establishment and development, substantive evolution and contemporary interpretation. The notion of ‘manipulation’ is no exception. There are various etymological interpretations of this concept, a whole variety of socio-political grounds for its inclusion in the field of political and legal reflection, etc.

In summarizing the research projects in the national and foreign literature describing the conceptual evolution of this term, one can identify at least two dominant positions. According to the first research position, the concept of ‘political manipulation’ has a rather long history of development. At the same time, in each era, it has been filled with different content, however, following a common intellectual character.

From this point of view, it is shown that the origins of the term go back to antiquity, where it denoted a complex social process connected with a system of actions performed by hands, requiring a certain skill and proficiency. In Latin, the word usually has two meanings: 1) a handful, a palmful (- hand, - to fill); 2) a small group, a handful – etymologically, the word was used to denote a small, professional military force of soldiers (about 120 men) in the Roman army.

Therefore, the concept of ‘manipulation’ was later used in relation to performing tricks and card games (involving sleight of hand) in which skill is valued in performing false, distracting techniques, manoeuvres, obfuscating the truth about actions by hand, creating a deceptive impression, feeling, vision - an illusion. For example, this is how the Oxford English Dictionary treats the historical source of the conceptualization of manipulation. It states that in general, manipulation should be defined as “the act of influencing or controlling people or things skillfully ... as secret control or processing” (Dotsenko, 1993, p. 135).

Thus, within this line of research, manipulation as a social act means an integral element in social development and public spirit. So, it is argued that the history of the conceptualization of ‘manipulation’ goes back to antiquity, and it is as old as a human himself and is an expression of an instinctive human need (Bessonov, 1978, p. 127).

Problem Statement

Admitting the anthropological character of manipulation in general and political manipulation in particular, we note that the modern political and legal living environment in the society is in the process of qualitative transformation. The nature and direction of it are set by the processes of digitalization. As a consequence, the opportunities for political manipulation by various political actors, using digital technologies and artificial intelligence systems that are becoming more and more widespread in society, are increasing. It is necessary to revise current legal arrangements to counteract the political manipulation that takes place in the context of digitalization.

Research Questions

The study focuses on several research questions coming out from the intersection of three relatively independent phenomena - political manipulation, digitalization and legal mechanisms to protect society from negative political influence.

Purpose of the Studу

The study aims to assess the effectiveness of the available legal mechanism for countering political manipulation in digitalization.

To achieve this goal, the following tasks are set and addressed:

First, the conceptualization of the concept ‘political manipulation’;

Second, substantive analysis of available legal mechanisms to counter political manipulation;

Third, examination of the special traits of transformation of political manipulation in the context of digitalization;

Fourth, making the author’s suggestions to improve legal mechanisms for countering political manipulation in digitalization.

Research Methods

The methodological basis for the study of political manipulation and legal mechanisms to counter it, methods of limitation is provided by a combination of universal, general scientific (dialectical, historical, logical, system-structural, socio-cultural, genetic reconstruction, etc.) and special research methods. The use of these approaches in the review of political manipulation technologies makes it possible to define and give interpretation to its ontological, functional, axiological and practical characteristics, to determine the place, part and importance of this phenomenon in modern national state-legal construction. In addition, the study uses the methodological techniques of hermeneutic interpretation and discourse analysis of texts (scientific publications, analytical reports, etc.) in terms of systematization, meaningful interpretation and typologization of different views, approaches and ideological-conceptual constructions of the concept of ‘political manipulation.’


Political manipulation: Essential aspects

Despite the different approaches to the category of ‘manipulation’, and in particular, to the concept of ‘political manipulation’, it is clear that in contemporary rational-humanitarian discourse, they are interpreted as technologies, methods and ways of forming illusions, some ‘deceptive vision’, perceptions, invisible mechanisms of influence on consciousness, and thus, the behaviour of individuals and many people. At the same time, it is argued that manipulation has been typical in all forms of social arrangement from ancient times to the modern state of social development. The complexity of the phenomenon of ‘manipulation’ has increased with the complexity of society, social interaction, political thinking and culture.

Based on the historical background for the development of this political-legal phenomenon, its ‘neutrality’ as a technology of social organization is justified. In other words, political manipulation can have both negative and positive significance for the development, organization and unity of a social system, predictability and manageability of social (political, legal, economic, spiritual, cultural and other) processes. For example, Tsuladze (1999) cites a whole system of historical and logical facts to justify that ‘manipulations can be necessary and useful’ (p. 105), yet the line beyond which the useful ends and the negative begins is very movable, changing both in time and space.

In contrast, the second research position argues that the use of manipulation in political science discourse has a rather short history. It was not until the twentieth century that this notion began to be used as a scientific political term and that can be explained. In the twentieth century, objective processes of development of the political, as well as the legal, economic and spiritual spheres, caused the phenomenon of ‘mass character’ or total publicity.

The mass character became not only a reality in political processes but also their main object of managerial influence. However, it cannot be clearly stated that massive involvement initially appeared as a phenomenon of modernity predominantly in the sphere of public policy, as its cause and result. Thus, within this research position, the emphasis is placed not only on the fact that the phenomenon of ‘political manipulation’ is relatively new, but also that the main emphasis is placed not on the external effects of manipulation - technologies of creating illusions, distorted perceptions, the way of external expression of a particular social action, but on the internal state and thinking of the object of manipulation. Thus, Boretsky (1998) insists that political manipulation:

should be treated as consistent and purposeful control of the public mind (and through it, as a result - and behaviour), addressed primarily to the irrational sphere of perception, which is based on infusion and aims at preventing social conflicts or in short, a deliberate deviation of public mind from reality. (p. 32)

Hence, the interpretation of political manipulation, proposed by Bessonov (1978) is generalized for this opinion, according to which this phenomenon should mean as mainly focusing not on the external effects of manipulation - the technologies of creating illusions, distorted perceptions, the manner of verbal expression of a particular social action, but on the internal state and thinking of the object of manipulation, carried out non-invasively.

In general, any ideological confrontation today is interpreted as a form of manipulative gamesmanship. However, it is argued that political manipulation is not only an integral element of the political process but also generally a necessary factor to forwarding political power, which is humane and legal.

For example, P. Linebarger, one of the leading American theorists of manipulative forms of control of domestic political and international processes substantiates, notes that in modern reality political manipulation is an analogue, substitution of traditional forms of state legitimate violence and international wars (as cited in Bessonov, 1978). Moreover, the scholar interprets the development of modern forms of political manipulation as building up a new ‘humane era’, in the context of which manipulation becomes a new humane, human weapon of mass subjugation, power domination. In this new form of domination, the scientist argues, traditional symbols of homeland, fatherland, god, church and human welfare have to be disguised (Bessonov, 1978).

In turn, the system of modern forms and technologies of manipulative control over the individual and public mind is seen as the necessary methods of “easy, latent” control, considered more “humane” and “legal” (concerning the traditional system of legitimate pressure of Weber type) means “to impose a certain behaviour on a person, for otherwise, we would have to resort to violence”. The Western theorist shares a similar point of view. He is considered to be the ‘magician of the mass soul’, '... human masses cannot be educated, they can only be trained, they can be controlled, they can be encouraged or they must be destroyed' (Bessonov, 1978, p. 67).

The obvious fact of this position is the blurring of the clear distinction between political manipulation itself and the political process, public policy, public activity of civic institutions, in general, democratic processes as they are. On the whole, it may be noted that this trend is typical for many political law studies devoted to the phenomenon of ‘political manipulation’.

However, when analysing this definitive construct in detail, its substantial similarity with the general definition of power given by M. Weber is obvious. It is well known that German sociologist defines power as an ability of politics (of public open and legitimate nature) or possibility (mostly unnoticed, hidden, potential influence) of the subject of power to influence the will and consciousness of the object of power, by various methods and means, to compel/promote a certain form of action or inaction in favour of the former (Weber, 1990).

Legal mechanism to counter political manipulation in Russia in the early 21st century

Because of the arbitrary behaviour of the ruling elites in an extremely contradictory and unstable convergent legal and political system, and the lack of a concept of political and legal and socio-economic reforms, and therefore no clear goals of the ongoing reforms, the quickly emerging (due to objective and subjective factors) technologies of political manipulation of public opinion are aimed at distracting the public from the conflictogenic ongoing innovation, at hiding in particular information about serious mistakes made in the course of the reforms. It is clear that in this situation, the latter is not interested in any opposition to political manipulation, especially since they are the institutional subjects of this manipulation. The main thing here is to make up a negative image of the previous government and to point at the positive features of the new one.

It should be noted that political manipulation should be distinguished from information extremism. Both phenomena emerge, as a rule, at critical moments in the development of the national state and law and economic system. Nevertheless, they are different, which, of course, also affects the content and institutional forms of the mechanism for countering these destructions. The main sign of any extremism, according to Article 1 of Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism, dated June 15, 2001, is violence (Shankhayskaya konventsiya..., 2001), whereas political manipulation is a ‘more subtle’ phenomenon, often even harder to detect, which has its impact on political and legal methods of opposing it.

“Manipulation is not violence, but temptation. Each person is given freedom of spirit and free will. So, he bears a responsibility to manage, not becoming tempted” (Kara-Murza, 2007, p. 19). Therefore, while the procedure for countering extremism is based on criminal law regulations (Vorontsov & Upornikov, 2008), a different protection mechanism must operate concerning political manipulation, which includes not only legal, political but also other components (Mamychev & Petruk, 2020).

Therefore, several elements should be distinguished in the institutional structure of the anti-manipulative state-legal mechanism:

(a) Institutional and legal (a system of regulatory acts, among them, are the Law of the Russian Federation ‘On Mass Media’ No. 2124-1 of 27 December 1991; ‘On Advertising’ No. 38-FL of 13 March 2006 should be noted first and foremost, as well as several subordinate acts;

b) institutional and organizational (the arrangement of appropriate federal and regional structures as well as various public structures (creative supervisory boards at television channels, other media, at federal publishing houses, primarily those that publish course books for schools and universities, etc.) that perform a control and censorship function);

c) informative and communicative (release of anti-manipulative information, various expert comments, etc.).

In contrast, the most important form of an anti-manipulative mechanism institutionalized in the national legal and political space is censorship, which, however, should not be reduced only to political, strict censorship, but should be referred to its various forms and variations.

Thus, the famous Soviet researcher in ancient philosophy, Chanyshev (1981) writes:

in his state, Plato offers to make a great revision of available art and create new art... In his modal state, he expels irregularity and disharmony as close relatives of slander and ill temper... Then he prohibits any art where a poet or performer imitates another person... Therefore, Plato banishes all dramatic art from his state. (pp. 272-273)

In modern political and legal science, it is necessary to investigate the institutional nature of censorship in the context of information security of an individual, development of a mechanism of protection of society from various political manipulations by state power institutions and individual political structures (political parties, movements, foundations, etc.), underestimation of which is not only ruinous for the human psyche, proper motivation of its behaviour. As recent events show in several countries (‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, etc.) are dangerous for maintaining the institutional and legal and political profile of the state, as they stimulate all kinds of institutional distortions and deformation of general, legal and political culture.

Under such conditions, the opportunity of using communications means relevant, technically and technologically regulated activity on influencing people in the direction necessary for the authorities or those who seek power. The authorities have to decide what such communication could include. The balance of power in media management and other means of mass communication is a higher priority (Mirzoev, 2006).

It should be clear that:

considering the role of mass communications and their influence on political processes, Russian political scientists note that in post-industrial society, the power of knowledge and information becomes decisive in society management, pushing aside the influence of money and state forces. Moreover, the community and, especially, the ones that convey knowledge and other socially significant information are the mass media. (Grachev, 1998, pp. 17-18)

Furthermore, the function of media in the modern world is so great that one of the functions of this institution has become the control of media over the processes taking place in the state and society, the activities of various institutions of state power and officials. A situation characteristic of the information society has emerged: it is not the state that exercises legal and other control over the media, but the media not only controls the actions of state institutions and structures but also influences them.

The rejection of all types of censorship legal policy means the affirmation of an all-powerful media project that freely manipulates the public mind in favour of certain political forces (national and international), oligarchic structures, individual politicians, officials, etc. The situation is further getting worse, according to Shostrom (1992), by manipulating others, the manipulator inevitably becomes the object of his manipulations.

Digitalization of political technologies to manipulate public opinion and political agenda

Undoubtedly, it should be reported that the development of digital technologies and the tendency (systemic and total and the effects caused) of contemporary elites (economic, political, technological and an emerging new – ‘netocracy’ (Bard & Zoderqvist, 2004, p. 252) to involve new tools (blockchain, bigdata, bots and other autonomous digital algorithmic systems) in various living environments, the core, forms and technologies of political manipulation change significantly.

Modern digital space has gradually ‘collapsed’ from a free open world, a free form of communication and free access to obtaining any information meaningful to the subject to extremely limited content and a rather impenetrable ‘digital cocoon’ (Volodenkov & Artamonova, 2020), which is ‘woven’ by modern algorithms that search individual content, targeted advertisement, a news feed, contextual events and processes. This is a digital world, which has formed an entire digital institutional-manipulative environment that regulates and specifies all human life processes, private and public activity. This is an environment that manipulates quite softly social expectations and preferences, where any private preferences, personal opinion etc. are covertly constructed and changed, for example, Cambridge Analytica is well known.

It makes it clear that modern technology to collect and process digital footprints and digital profiles may contribute to changing citizens’ electoral preferences dramatically,

by around 5,000 pieces of data per 230 million American voters, we will arrange your target audience and then use this important information to campaign, persuade and motivate their actions... with an equal understanding of your electorate, we will find voters who will change ‘the balance’ in your favour, come in contact with them and bring them to the voting box. (Walsh, 2019, p. 320)

There is another example. Modern digital communication platforms and social networks, which have a significant influence on the development of information space, forms and special features of communication, are currently filled not with certain people, network users, but digital algorithms and bots (Baranov et al., 2019). The latter determine the style and the main trends of the digital communication space. Thus, well-known social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Vkontakte, etc., in which a new communicative reality is formed, are overcrowded with virtual digital algorithms, bots and fake pages that define the information agenda, ways of communication development today, etc. Fundamentally, it is the latter, not people, that influences the design and development of the information space.

Similar trends can be registered in the field of digital public-power communication involving the person-society-state system (Apolsky et al., 2019). Thus, for example, within the public discussion of various law-making initiatives (draft regulatory legal acts) or significant management decisions (discussion of social programs and various initiatives of governments of modern states), or within public legitimation of adopted governmental decisions or achieved results of political and legal activity of individual authorities or officials, the vast majority of recorded positions, comments, opinions are produced not by articular people, but by autonomous digital algorithms. The latter becomes a key tool in manipulating society, socially significant decision-making, etc.

A famous example is the virus public discussion by the Federal Communications Commission (US) on a regulation, where 84% of comments were from imaginary people designed and rendered by bots. Another example is when a significant nationwide event is broadcast or discussed, such as a Direct Line with the Head of the country. In these cases, up to 90% of the activity of digital algorithms is also recorded, which completely blurs in a variety of digitally aggregated comments, positions, fake requests and expectations. Overall, digital manipulative space is being designed in contemporary political space, which is being significantly transformed by the introduction and use of cross-cutting digital technologies, where real human voices and public positions are ‘drowned in an ocean of digital activity by bots and fakes (Volodenkov et al., 2021). All this leads to the fact that public opinion as a fundamentally political institution, as well as the ‘common good’ as a key concept of democratic discourse, may be deleted completely from public politics, and stop being considered as a real and meaningful phenomenon or a process (Mamychev et al., 2020).

Developed technologies of digital manipulative influence distort the functioning of traditional socio-political institutions significantly, leading to functional dysfunction (Merton, 2006). For example, the information function is distorted in terms of spreading contextual information, targeted news, fakes, etc., which are neither valid nor objective but dominated by bot-commentaries. As part of the educational function, the audience is presented with distorted facts and false ideas about the world, people, nature, and the system of assessment of political processes and events, historical and other facts.

The socializing function of political institutions is also deformed, connected with distortion of value-normative preferences, replacement of traditional value trends and national cognitive dominants with values, forms of behaviour and interaction favourable to one or another political force, corporate culture, the substitution of political identity with ‘lifestyle forms’.

The function of socio-political criticism and control is deformed into a total illusion of control, controllability, simplicity, accessibility, and other presentation of any position as socially significant, the manipulation of public opinion, social needs and expectations. The function of articulating and thermalizing public interests involves the imaginary contradictions, the informational construction of problems, the accentuation through social networks and other digital communication platforms of the social attention, groups and individuals on ‘beneficial’ problems, and lobbying of possible solutions.

The list goes on, as most functions of traditional political, legal and economic institutions are distorted by the digitalization of socio-political and other aspects of society (Baranov et al., 2020).


In the modern world, it is censorship that acts as a deterrent to destructive information phenomena (‘mental contagion’ of individuals and society), affects the provision of information and psychological security as a state of protection of individuals and society as a whole from a variety of information factors that prevent or hinder the development and performance of a relative information-based background of legal and political behaviour, the life of society and its representatives, an appropriate system of attitude to the outside world, the state, the legal system, national traditions, family, children, work, material values, etc.

It should be clear by now that it is wrong to view the institute of censorship in modern information policy only in a negative term. In defending one’s freedom, a citizen is often forced to defend himself against the freedom of others - all kinds of oppositional ‘fakes’, pornography, insults, destructive influence on psyche and morality, such as advertising, etc.

The emergence and maintenance of a censorship regime in any state are determined by objective and subjective factors. The objective conditions for the censorship that takes place in society are the fact that information is one of the most important tools of state power and control of society, influencing (manipulating) the consciousness (political and legal) of citizens. Therefore, different power elites solve the problem of audience access to information in different ways and, in this regard, there are different approaches to the issue of restricting free speech and journalism in a particular state.

In our view, to minimize the negative effects of digitalization and prevent threats to the socio-economic and political-legal development of society, as discussed above, it is also necessary:

  • To provide the transparent functioning of modern digital systems and technologies in the socio-economic and political-legal areas of society, it is necessary to include an autonomous algorithm that ensures the open process of making those or other algorithmic decisions, identifies defects in digital systems and technologies while machine learning as mandatory standards and/or legal and regularity record in each such system or technology;
  • To limit (and possible ban altogether) awareness of data at a basic level, i.e., in private law interaction, establishing and guaranteeing that personal information is available only to the individual; in public law interaction, establishing and ensuring a sovereign national right to data, information and digital security (digital sovereignty);

To ban completely the use of autonomous algorithmic systems in socially significant discussions, social advertising, the use of campaigning and other social and political technologies, through machines, the use of algorithms and bots for mass persuasion and campaigning.


This work was supported by the grant of the President of the Russian Federation №NS-2668-2020.6 ‘National, cultural and digital trends in the socio-economic and political-legal development of the Russian Federation in the 21st century’.


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Mordovtsev, A. Y., Mamychev, A. Y., Mordovtseva, T. V., & Petruk, G. V. (2022). Political Manipulation In Russia In The Early 21st Century In Digitalization Context. In N. G. Bogachenko (Ed.), AmurCon 2021: International Scientific Conference, vol 126. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 697-707). European Publisher. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2022.06.77