Media and Crime in Russia

Posted: October 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Author: Aaron Beitman, PhD Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Political Science

Mass media has long featured descriptions and images of violence, whether actual or fictional.  Whether it is the latest James Bond movie or a graphic newspaper article on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, we are all fairly well acquainted with violence in the media.  However, do media depictions of violence contribute towards actual criminal activity?

A recent report by Victoria Chernyshova, coordinator of TraCCC’s Vladivostok office, uses a variant of social learning theory to answer the above question in the affirmative, as it pertains to Russia.  According to American criminologist Ronald Akers, “social learning is a general theory that offers an explanation of the acquisition, maintenance, and change in criminal and deviant behavior that embraces social, nonsocial, and cultural factors operating both to motivate and control criminal behavior and both to promote and undermine conformity.”  In other words, the application of social learning to the study of crime leads to the idea that criminal or noncriminal behavior is often patterned after the observed habits of others.

 

SOCIAL LEARNING AND CRIME

Instead of examining how actual people serve as role models for illegal or antisocial behavior, Chernyshova’s analysis focuses on the role of mass media.  In her view, increasing exposure to information has and continues to have a significant effect on our social consciousness.  At the same time, this process of change has engendered new forms of mass communication and mass media.  As social beings, we observe when others are successful or not in achieving their needs and wishes, usually copying those strategies that prove to be successful.  When our role models employ legal, socially acceptable means of achieving their goals, social learning results in implanting positive behaviors.  When illegal or antisocial behavior helps a role model achieve his or her goals or objectives, we might then copy these approaches as well.

With respect to the orgy of crime affecting Russian society for the past twenty years, Chernyshova suggests that we look beyond continually worsening qualitative and quantitative crime indicators.  Instead, we should examine the growing criminalization of Russian social consciousness, which presents a formidable and to some extent irreversible problem.  The criminalization of Russian social consciousness is connected to the devolution of widespread social values, guidelines, and behavior.  This process results in the proliferation of anti-social views and attitudes permissive of violations of criminal-legal norms.

 

DEPICTIONS OF CRIME IN THE RUSSIAN MEDIA

A few examples from mass media sources illustrate how this process works, as a number of print publications, online news sources, and television programs feature excessive details and naturalistic depictions of severe and sadistic crimes.  One newspaper line read: “On the rivers of Moscow, as per usual in springtime, float human remains.”  Another newspaper described how “…the criminal cut into the victim’s skull and left, not bothering to remove the axe lodged in the victim’s head.”  This mass “choking” of the consciousness of Russian society fosters a sense of inescapability, helplessness, and an exaggerated fear of crime.

Regular references in the mass media to the connections between criminal authorities and the “powers-that-be” also advance this state of affairs.  News reports describing the technical and operational advantages of criminal groups as compared to that of law enforcement, which spreads additional pessimism about the state’s ability, if it wished, to combat crime.  Moreover, the intellectual potential of modern Russian organized crime is frequently showcased through mass media depictions of the army of “shadow” advisers, consultants, experts, and lawyers in the service of organized crime.

The Russian state’s consistent failure to punish crimes is also a familiar theme.  According to one newspaper, “…in our state, the guilty are not punished and in most cases encouraged,” while another paper wrote that “…most contract murders ordered by criminal authorities remain unsolved.”  In Chernyshova’s view, Russian society continues to be hollowed out, accompanied by a proliferation of legal nihilism and antisocial behavior.  For their part, Russian citizens are experiencing an increasing threshold for criminal behavior.

 

NEW FORMS OF REPRESENTING CRIME

As Internet penetration continues to grow, the relationship between crime and the media in Russia may be further complicated.  Recent research from Professor Majid Yar of the University of Hull suggests that the rise of new media problematizes assumptions about the interaction between crime and media.  Put simply, discussions of crime and media are largely based on models in which the media generates and transmits representations of crime, and audiences engage with them.  With the proliferation of blogs, self-produced videos, and personal webpages, we are increasingly able to see people performing criminal acts in order to record them for uploading to the Internet.  In Yar’s view, this ‘will to representation’ may be seen in itself as a new kind of causal inducement to law- and rule-breaking behavior.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu