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How Investigative Journalism Flourished in Hostile Russia

“The audience doesn’t care whether you bought data or got it from a source,” said Roman Anin, the founder of iStories, a nonprofit Russian investigative site with a staff of 15. He said he had concluded that “since we live in a country where authorities are killing opposition leaders, let’s forget about these rules, because these stories are more important than our ethical rules.”

A bot on Telegram that offers to identify the owner of any car.Credit…The New York Times

That portal into Vladimir Putin’s world has opened even as some American journalists covering Russian interference in the 2016 election produced overheated essays and viral Twitter threads. They cast Mr. Putin, in the American imagination, as an all-powerful puppet master and everyone whose name ends in the letter “v” as his agent. But it was actual Russians, running their websites on the margins of legality or from abroad, who opened windows into Mr. Putin’s real Russia. And what they’ve uncovered is unbelievable personal corruption, shadowy figures behind international political interference and murderous but sometimes inept security services.

Here are a few examples of these revelations:

  • The investigative nonprofit outlet Proekt identified Mr. Putin’s “secret family,” and found that the woman it linked to the president had acquired some $100 million in wealth from sources tied to the Russian state.

  • IStories used a trove of hacked emails to document how Mr. Putin’s former son-in-law built a huge fortune out of state connections.

  • Bellingcat, which was founded in London, and the Russia-based Insider identified, by name and photograph, the Russian agents who poisoned the defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018.

  • The media group RBC delved into the political machinery behind the troll farm interfering in U.S. elections.

  • Meduza exposed deep corruption in all corners of the Moscow city government, down to the funeral business.

  • Mr. Navalny’s foundation flew drones over Mr. Putin’s palace, a vast estate on the Black Sea that Mr. Navalny labeled “the World’s Biggest Bribe” in a scathing, mocking nearly two-hour video he released on his return to Russia last month. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube.

There’s a tendency in parts of the American media right now to reflexively decry the rise of alternative voices and open platforms on social media, seeing them solely as vectors for misinformation or tools of Donald J. Trump. Russia is a potent reminder of the other side of that story, the power of these new platforms to challenge one of the world’s most corrupt governments. That’s why, for instance, Mr. Navalny was a vocal critic of Twitter’s decision to ban Mr. Trump, calling it an “unacceptable act of censorship.”

The new Russian investigative media is also resolutely of the internet. And much of it began with Mr. Navalny, a lawyer and blogger who created a style of YouTube investigation that draws more from the lightweight, meme-y formats of that platform than from heavily produced documentaries or newsmagazine investigations.

Mr. Navalny doesn’t cast himself as a journalist. “We are using investigative reporting as a tool to achieve our political ends,” his aide, Ms. Pevchikh, said. (One convention they don’t follow: getting comment from the target of an investigation.) Indeed, his relationship with the independent journalists can be complicated. Most are careful to maintain their identity as independent actors, not activists. They criticize him, but also message him their stories, hoping he’ll promote them to his own vast audience, and he publicly criticizes them, in turn, for being too soft on the Kremlin.

The new news outlets learned from Mr. Navalny as well. Many of them have imitated his style on YouTube. And he proved that certain lines could be crossed. What’s more, they all undoubtedly benefit from the homogeneity of the television networks. Imagine how much YouTube you would watch if the only news channels available were Fox News, Newsmax and OAN.

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