Deep Learning Digital Humanities Propaganda in Context

Propaganda in Context: Eastern European Nationalist(ic) Symbols

The goal of this project was to train an artificial neural network to recognize specific nationalist(ic) symbols from Eastern Europe. Initial training annotations were funded by the German BMBF at the University of Passau, Germany. Further annotations were funded by the DI4DH initiative at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Training was conducted using the infrastructure of the Research Center High Performance Computing in Innsbruck.

Our project can be considered a contribution to the emerging field of “distant viewing”, which uses quantitative methods to assess a corpus consisting of a large number of visual media. Currently, deep learning methods play a minor role in distant viewing, as most of the projects use pretrained networks. This is understandable, as training is not trivial. However, using pretrained networks significantly reduces the amount of possible research questions. Moreover, a better understanding of the training process allows us to contribute to the field of “critical machine learning”; more precisely, we try to point out some of the benefits and pitfalls of training an artificial neural network for a humanities research project.

We selected YouTube as an example, which has become the most important online media outlet in Russia. In 2020, 82% of those aged 14-64 years used it daily, making in the most successful example of Social Media in Russia. Therefore, it is of vital importance for Slavic cultural and media studies to develop analytic tools for this platform.

Three test cases were used in our project: Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), who was instrumentalized by both sides of the Ukraine conflict starting in 2013; prominent Russian opposition leader Aleksei Naval’nyi; and Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who was re-elected in fall 2020. In the case of Naval’nyi and Lukashenka, YouTube clips with several million views helped to bring the protest to the streets. Naturally, demonstrations rely a lot on visual symbols such as flags and thus, allow us to test our theories. Protesters in Belarus, for example, do not use the official flag and coat of arms, which stem from Soviet times, but rather those of the first Belarusian republic founded in 1918.

A sample video showing protests in Minsk, automatically annotated by our artificial neural network

For these test cases, Deep Learning was used to train an artificial neural network (Resnet1010) to automatically detect 45 predefined nationalist(ic) symbols and 40 politicians from Eastern Europe. This network can now be applied in a wide variety of research questions. The trained networks together with our scripts and performance metrics are available on Github.

(Auto-)Biographical Practices Digital Humanities Literature

Weaving Lives

My PhD thesis focused on (auto-)biographical strategies of Russian writers on the internet and was published in 2020 as an Open Access monograph: Weaving Lives: (Auto-)Biographical Practices of Russian Authors on the Internet (in German, Bielefeld: Transcript).

The internet as a bona fide medium of self-expression is used by countless Russian authors. They borrow author images from the canon of Russian literature, adjust them to match the communicative structure of the internet and reinvent them in media experiments.

How can we identify these creative mechanisms operating beneath the surface of Web 2.0? How can we bring them together with literary theory? In my book I combine qualitative and quantitative approaches not only to answer these questions but to uncover (auto-)biographical practices in the Russian-language internet (Runet).

For my thesis I received the Gustav Figdor award for literary science by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (2018), the thesis award of the University of Passau (2018) and the DARIAH-DE Digital Humanities Award (2018).

You can browse the publisher’s page to order a physical copy or read the Open Access version right here:

Literature Positivism

Intention & Reception: Re-Reading Polish Positivism

I am writing a postdoctoral thesis about Polish positivist literature where I investigate the relationship between literature and politics in 19th century Poland. The so-called “powieść tendencyjna”, or tendentious novel, is not imaginable without an author’s intention. This category, however, was rightfully problematized by poststructural theory.

My goal is to bring back ‘intention’ as a category for literature theory; in order to achieve that goal, I investigate four different ‘positions of intention’: author, text, reception, and imagination. First of all, the positivist authors had a clear goal in mind, as is demonstrated by their poetological texts: They strove to educate the people. This original intention cannot be overlooked. Second, the text employs various literary devices to achieve a specific impact on the reader’s side. Third, the reader has intentions as well, which fundamentally shape the reception process. Fourth, the audience often imagines the author’s alleged intentions. These imaginary intentions often prove to be impactful as well.

By means of bringing together Eliza Orzeszkowa’s, Bolesław Prus’ and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novels and poetological texts with the reception of contemporaries and later generations, I try to uncover how these ‘positions of intention’ work.

Vorträge & Konferenzen

Ich-Splitter. (Cross-)Mediale Selbstentwürfe in den slawischen Kulturen

Workshop an der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 8. Oktober 2016

Vorläufiges Programm des Workshops herunterladen

Die lange Tradition von Autoportraits und Autobiografien führt den Stellenwert vor Augen, den Beschäftigungen mit dem Selbst in der künstlerischen Aneignung der Welt seit jeher einnehmen. Nicht zuletzt durch die stetige Weiterentwicklung der technischen Möglichkeiten liegen heute zahlreiche mediale Formen vor, die zur Repräsentation und Inszenierung des Selbst eingesetzt werden. Fotografie, Film, Musik, Skizzen, Sprachaufnahmen oder Profile in sozialen Netzwerken bringen jeweils unterschiedliche Möglichkeiten mit sich, Aspekte der eigenen Persönlichkeit zu zeigen oder in den Vordergrund zu rücken.
Die geplante Konferenz nimmt diese Phänomene aus einer crossmedialen Perspektive in den Blick. Selbstentwürfe treten in Literatur, Kunst oder Popkultur mit sprachlichen Selbstdarstellungen in Interaktion, werden in dieser Kombination als Statement des Selbst wirksam gemacht und erproben damit poststrukturalistische Theorien der Subjektkonstitution (Smith et al. 2010). In diesem Rahmen sollen der Einsatz und das Potenzial unterschiedlicher Medien zur Selbstdarstellung in verschiedenen slawischen Kulturen sowie die dadurch gezeichneten Persönlichkeitskonstrukte, Menschenbilder und Selbstverortungen beleuchtet werden. Die Konferenz legt ihr Hauptaugenmerk auf Medienkombinationen und versteht sich damit als Ergänzung zu Arbeiten über Dichterbilder (Städtke 1996), Ich-Entwürfe (Schmid 2000), Mystifikation (Frank et al. 2001) und Selbstinszenierung (Tippner et al. 2014) in den slawischen Kulturen.
Mögliche Themen für Beiträge inkludieren musikalische und filmische Autobiografien, die Rolle von Fotografien in Autobiografien, das Zusammenspiel verschiedener Medien in sozialen Netzwerken oder auch Portraitbilder als Topos in der Literatur.

Frank, S., R. Lachmann, S. Sasse et al. (ed.) 2001. Mystifikation – Autorschaft – Original. Tübingen.
Moser, Ch., J. Dünne (ed.) 2008. Automedialität. Subjektkonstitution in Schrift, Bild und neue Medien. München.
Smith, S., J. Watson 2010. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis.
Schmid, U. 2000. Ichentwürfe. Die russische Autobiographie zwischen Avvakuum und Gercen. Zürich.
Städtke, K. (ed.) 1996. Dichterbild und Epochenwandel in der russischen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Bochum.
Tippner, A., Ch. Laferl (ed.) 2014. Künstlerinszenierungen. Performatives Selbst und biographische Narration im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld.