Andrey Simonov wears many hats. He’s the Gary Winnick and Martin Granoff Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School; he’s an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Economics of Columbia University, and he’s a Research Affiliate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research. This academic year, Simonov is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In addition to the US, he’s studied in his native Russia and in the Netherlands, focusing on the academic fields of quantitative marketing, empirical industrial organization, and political economy. He’s an expert on digital markets, and can speak authoritatively on advertising, news and other features of the media landscape, but there’s one topic that has recently piqued his interest and is proving a particular challenge. Indeed, it would for any academic regardless of their brilliance.

The problem with understanding media consumption trends in Russia, he explains during a lunchtime talk in mid-April—part of a series on Business, AI and Democracy (BAID) hosted at CBS—is that there’s a dichotomy between what people say publicly and what they think privately.

The reasons for this are obvious. In March 2022, shortly after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s government clamped down aggressively on independent media outlets. It blocked access to social media sites, including Facebook, and major foreign outlets, in an attempt to quash discontent related to the war and to control the narrative.

It also enacted a law making it possible to punish individuals spreading what it considers to be “false information” about its Ukraine invasion. Tens of thousands have already been arrested on that charge.

Because of all this, Simonov says, it’s almost impossible to know for sure what to believe about public sentiment. Together with research colleagues, he’s working to understand how many people in Russia still have access to independent media, for example. They’re also trying to establish how effective government censorship has been, and what might happen next. But the nature of the developments is such that it’s extremely difficult to collect any unequivocally accurate and trustworthy data.

Hungry for News

For all the challenges and opacity, though, there is some valuable information that Simonov has been able to derive.

Firstly, Russians seem hungry for news. While all major news channels are today controlled by the government, it’s clear that the news channels that might be seen as broadcasting the most factual information—as opposed to opinion-based—have soared in popularity over the last year.

Programmes that are classed as entertainment have not experienced a similar spike in popularity, meaning that 10 out of 20 most popular programs on TV are now news.

A second piece of analysis shows that the number of people using Telegram, an alternative to platforms like WhatsApp, has soared since the war began. Some western media outlets have even described the app as the “digital battlefield” of the war on account of the fact that it’s become an important resource for both governments and a source of information for citizens on both sides of the conflict.

Telegram allows individuals to communicate with each other privately, but it also features channels for broadcasting to huge groups of subscribers, essentially making it a tool for mass communication. “One challenge with Telegram is that it’s difficult to determine ownership structures,” says Simonov, explaining that it’s hard to tell whether a channel is pro government or not. But, he adds, it’s undoubtedly a critical source of information and news, and an instrumental tool for communicating, for Russians both inside and outside of the country. And echoing the increased appetite that Simonov has seen among Russians for news, he’s also seen an increase in the number of views per Telegram post, and the number of comments that Telegram posts generally generate.

A third observation that Simonov has made about the state of the Russian media landscape, relates to YouTube. Historically, YouTube has been an extremely important and popular media outlet in the country and that remains the case. It’s not been shut down by the government, likely—Simonov speculates—because there’s no real viable alternative in terms of sharing video as efficiently.

Currently around 50% of the Russian population is believed to be consuming content on YouTube and that content is still predominantly produced by independent outlets. In fact, all the state controlled media was blocked by YouTube in April 2022.

Taking Stock

Ever determined to crunch the numbers in pursuit of valuable insight, Simonov took it upon himself to do some rudimentary math to make sense of it all.

“This is very back of the envelope,” he caveats, “but it’s something at least.”

By his estimates, television currently accounts for about 59% of news consumption across all of Russia with outlets entirely controlled by the government. Online websites, he estimates, account for a touch over 20% of consumption with independent media largely censored in this space. Telegram, by his calculations, constitutes about 12% of overall news consumption with state controlled outlets on the platform outnumbering independent ones by about three to one. And finally, he approximates that YouTube accounts for about 8% of all news consumption and that it’s dominated by independent media.
Simple arithmetic therefore leads him to the conclusion that somewhere around 13.9% of all media consumers in Russia are currently accessing independent news. It’s a rough estimate at this point, but at the very least it provides a sense of just how restrictive the environment is.
And beyond this, it’s hard to get a picture that’s any clearer for now. “We’re working to understand overlaps in media consumption,” Simonov says, explaining that it would be meaningful to at least understand if consuming one source of media makes an individual more likely to consume another source. But for now, reliable data is as valuable as it is elusive: a difficult-to-mine commodity, even for an academic as accomplished as Simonov.