Dr. Sarah Oates discusses the fundamental shift in U.S. media from journalism to propaganda.

Producer: Stephanie McVicker
01/21/2022 • 08:15 AM EST

Dr. Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, discusses the fundamental shift in U.S. media over the last five years, away from its historic journalistic norms, towards serving as propaganda outlets, by drawing parallels with modern Russian media. She goes on to explain the core strategic goals that Russia has in terms of its propaganda playbook in the U.S. and abroad.

0:00: Stephanie McVicker:

With us today, we have Dr. Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland College Park. Dr. Oates has studied Russian media for 25 years and her most recent book, Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Sphere analyzes the potential of the Internet to bring political change to Russia. Dr. Oates, thank you for joining us today.

0:25: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Oh, thanks for having me.

Stephanie McVicker:

0:27: So, let's start off by discussing your background in Russian media. You've been studying Russian media for decades. What initially piqued your interest in this topic?

0:36: Dr. Sarah Oates:

So, when I was 18, I met a Russian émigré and I realized that I didn't really know anything at all about Russia, and this was in 1981. So, kind of the height of the Cold War. So, when I went off to college, I thought, well, I'll just study Russian and learn all about it because when you're 18, that seems like a great idea. So that's what I did. And so that was my introduction into the world of Russia, Russian language, but I wasn't gonna be an academic. I was gonna be a journalist. So, I went off and did that, and it wasn't until the Soviet Union started to fall apart that I got very interested in that and decided to go back and study Russia.

1:16: Stephanie McVicker:

What changes or adaptations have you noticed in the last 25 years since you began your studies?

1:24: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Wow. You know, Russia has changed. We have changed in the past 25 years and we've changed a lot in the past five years. So, I would say the biggest change I've noticed is that there are aspects of the U.S. media system that remind me a lot of the Russian for propaganda system, both in terms of its history and in terms of its current practices. So, when I'm coding and I'm having a hard time telling the difference between a Fox News story and a Russia Today story, it suggests to me that, that something very fundamental has shifted within our own media environment. Now there've been a lot of shifts in the Russian media environment. I started out studying Russia, well in college it was still the Soviet Union and in fact, I first went there when it was still the Soviet Union. And certainly, in some ways there have been enormous changes, but there's also been a lot of continuity as well.

2:19: Stephanie McVicker:

And what do you believe are the reasons for those changes in adaptations?

2:23: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Well, in Russia, the changes in adaptations were brought about by the revolution of 1991, in which the Soviet government is brought down and a Russian government takes the place. And at that time, we all thought, well, you know, there's freedom of the press. And there was true absolute freedom of the press for a short period. I mean, everyone was saying anything they wanted. It turns out that media chaos does not lead to a stable media-based democracy. Instead, voices very quickly got co-opted by powerful economic or political interests. You can't take a Western media system and stick it in a new democracy and think that's gonna work. So, I kind of got in trouble back in 2007 for publishing an article called the Neo-Soviet System of the Media, in which I argued that the current Russian media, you could trace a lot back to the roots and Soviet system of censorship and control. And everyone was like, oh, Sarah, you know, you're crazy. It's a completely different system. They're still headed toward a democratic society. I'm like, I don't really think so. And sadly, I was right. Which for an academic is exciting, but as a citizen of the world is not so good?  So that, that was something, we thought there would be a lot of change and it winds up, there's a lot of continuity.

Flip the script here we are in the United States, the past five years, particularly the end of the Trump administration. We saw a lot of disinformation coming from our own government and that's been measured in a variety of ways. And it doesn't really matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat or what policies you support or whatever, if you look at the way that Trump communicated, he often didn't tell the truth and used a lot of propaganda techniques. So, will we reset and go back to a system that has been embedded in the United States? A flawed imperfect media system, but one that orients itself toward informing rather than propagating? Or will we branch off into another path and become more like the Russians in which the media really function as propaganda outlets for various forces?

4:40: Stephanie McVicker:

And which do you see happening?

4:42: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Okay. So even though I'm an academic, I'm an optimist. I do see us as resetting and going back to our more historic cultural roots, in which there's a lot of engaged debate. There's a lot of messiness, but the core journalistic norms of - we see seek to tell truth to power, we seek to inform the citizen, will prevail. And it has to, because without that, we don't have a democracy anymore.

5:11: Stephanie McVicker:

Turning to a different subject, a little bit, in a 2017 Washington Post article you discussed Russia's use of compromising material or kompromat as the intersection between news and blackmail. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

5:27: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Right. So, kompromat, or the Russian shorthand for compromising materials, is a particularly Russian phenomenon in which Yeltsin first deployed it against a prosecutor who was going after him for some financial malfeasance. And it was a kind of murky video, which purported to show an official cavorting with prostitutes. I'll just kind of put it that way. It was quite a murky video. I mean, it was actually kind of impossible to tell it was the guy. So, this is back in the nineties. So, you could be kind of loose with this. And so, it's not really evidence, but it's enough to taint somebody. So, it's this particular formula of, and it usually involves some kind of visual evidence, right? So, some kind of video that purports this to be someone, or even maybe an audio that purports to be someone taking a bribe or doing something that would be considered inappropriate.

The bounds of that are becoming more and more stretched, so who knows what that would be nowadays? So, this sort of half truth that leans into sort of entertainment value that's a very powerful thing to use. People often ignore news. They often ignore investigative reports. They're not always very interested in connecting the dots, but if you have a spicy picture or a spicy video that comes along with some insinuations, it can smear a person to the point where they're no longer effective politically. So that's why I would say it's like that boundary between blackmail and media news. And it is a perfect example of the way in which you can use media as a way to subvert democracy, rather than support it.

7:15: Stephanie McVicker:

Now to switch topics a little bit, in a 2019 journal article you wrote about Russia's interference in U.S. elections, specifically the use of disinformation disseminated in social media. How does the use of hashtags on social media relate to the spread of disinformation?

7:32: Dr. Sarah Oates:

I think the use of hashtags is very helpful to the spread of disinformation, because hashtags, aggregate communities. And hashtags are a really fascinating thing to me, because on the one level they're very simple, like you're just labeling something as about, hashtag kittens or hashtag Canada, you know, things that would just sort of be a way for people to find things they're interested in. And I honestly think that's what Twitter was about. However, they also allow people in Twitter to build communities across accounts and across countries. So, on the one hand, think of hashtag BlackLivesMatter, hashtag MeToo, right? So that's a technological innovation that leads to community building. And in those two cases, you could say extremely positive, in terms of letting voices that should have been heard long ago, let them be heard. So, it is a tool that that can be not only can you create your own hashtag to create your own community, but you can hijack hashtags or you can ride along with hashtags.

On the other hand, they also make it easier for disinformation specialists to find disinformation communities, which is what we did in the 2019 paper for the American Political Science Association. We looked at hashtags that we knew to be associated with known communication goals of the Russian government. And that worked fairly well in terms of saying, oh, look, here they are on Twitter and here's what they're trying to do. And here's how well some of these have done and here's how some are sinking without a trace. So, Twitter can be a wonderful laboratory for people trying to push disinformation or propaganda. It's also a wonderful laboratory to reverse engineer it and say, well, that worked, that didn't work. That seems to be associated with this particular group or government, it's a two way mirror a little bit.

9:33: Stephanie McVicker:

Is there an outcome that the Russians are working toward when it comes to pushing this sort of messaging strategy in America? Is it just an effort to sow discord or is there a larger play at work?

9:48: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Okay, so there's three goals that the Russians have in terms of the propaganda playbook in America. In the first and most obvious goals is the Russians have particular strategic narratives that they want to push on the world stage - Democracy is flawed and failing. We will protect Russians no matter where they are. Russia is a resurgent nation. So this is kind of their main communicative goals. And they're very organized about them. And it's great to study Russia because they, they stay on message. They have these goals, they're in Putin's speeches. They resonate throughout their communicative sphere. Trump was very difficult to study because he didn't stay on message. You often had no idea what he was talking about, in terms of his strategic goal. So that's one, so, okay. So, you have certain strategic goals that you want to get across.

Two, you want to project bigger than you are, you know, I guess that way you're supposed to like confront bears in the woods or something. So Russia is not a particularly dominant nation in world affairs. So Russia has lost its status that it had during the Soviet times. So by promoting itself and having this very vigorous overseas propaganda campaign, which it carries out in numerous countries and in particularly Europe it, it projects a more powerful image of itself. And I think actually the Americans could learn something from that. But it's a little bit more complicated when you have a free media system.

Third, and this is the most important goal, and this is where it dovetails with Trump's goal as well, destroy the power of the free media and you destroy the power of democracy, right? So if you constantly attack the media and you disconnect the people from supporting the notion that the media should tell truth to power and should inform the citizens, then you're well on your way to dictatorship. So we see all of these, there's a little side note in there that is actually quite debated right now around social scientists, is about how much Putin needs to project international power to have domestic support. And there's been a lot of talk about, well, he has to do this because this is how he gets domestic support. That's become rather contested because it will be difficult for him to maintain domestic support if he actually sends troops into Ukraine, because that's gonna be unpopular on certain levels.

So, there you have it, the trifecta of why Russia is doing this. And once you look at why Russia is doing this and say, okay, yeah, you know, international strategic, communicative goals, projecting themselves as power, and destroying the power of the media in general. Okay. That all makes sense. Yeah.

12:38: Stephanie McVicker:

What can we do to halt this or minimize it in some way?

12:44: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Yeah. I think Americans, just as we have an obligation to vote, we have an obligation to educate our children. You know, we have these different obligations. As citizens, we have an obligation to be informed and to, you know, not push away people who say, that particular outlet is not news, it's opinion or worse yet it's propaganda. One of our studies actually found a lot of RT content on InfoWars, or it might have been Sputnik, but it was Russian content. And what's hysterically funny about it is it's labeled as such, like it says from this Russian source. And you're like, do I really want to be consuming news that is written by a country that says it would love to destroy America specifically and democracy in general? I just think people need to take responsibility.

13:41: Stephanie McVicker:

Alright. Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. And we've been talking with Dr. Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Dr. Oates, thank you so much for joining us today. This was a really great conversation.

13:57: Dr. Sarah Oates:

Thank you. And thanks for the great work at PropWatch.