Tag Archives: Russia

Sarah Oates’ Study of Russian Disinformation Intensifies as Wilson Center Fellow

Sarah Oates

Sarah Oates

COLLEGE PARK (9/5/18) — A carefully organized Russian government disinformation campaign is threatening to upend Western democracy, and the United States doesn’t have the tools to effectively fight back.

That’s according to Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, who will spend the next year in an intensive effort to give policymakers a way to change that.

“I’m interested in putting all the pieces of Russian propaganda together so we can understand its shape and direction,” said Oates, who for more than two decades has studied the Kremlin and the ways Russian media delivers that government’s messaging. “There’s not a lot of coherent understanding about exactly how this propaganda is getting to our media system.”

Oates begins a yearlong fellowship this week at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, where she will focus on Russian propaganda and work with other scholars to develop a method for detecting and deterring propaganda as it moves through the U.S. media ecosystem. American intelligence officials say Russia covertly tried to influence the results of the U.S. presidential election in 2016, in part by distributing disinformation on social media. Officials said last month that Russia is still trying to influence the upcoming midterm elections.

Messages may begin on social media, be amplified by Russian propaganda websites masquerading as news organizations, get picked up by websites espousing values of the alt-right — an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism — and, ultimately, find their way into mainstream news stories.

Stopping the spread of disinformation is especially difficult in the U.S., where the free press is a pillar of democracy. Russian media is controlled by the Kremlin.

“America’s at a big disadvantage in this propaganda war,” Oates said. “We are supposed to represent media freedom and freedom of speech, so we really allow a wide latitude in our media system.

“And the Russians don’t.”

It’s not Oates’ first foray into developing a tool to identify and combat propaganda. Last year, she started to work with Joe Barrow, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer Science, to build PropagandaIQ, a web-based program designed to help journalists track narratives in media.

“You can think of a more targeted, more advanced search engine that has some notion of what journalists want to track,” Barrow said.

Barrow said it’s difficult for individuals to track disinformation campaigns. Using computational linguistics — computer science techniques applied to language analysis — the program can help journalists identify a narrative thread by tracking keywords and marking suspect documents.

Identifying and stopping the propaganda is critical, Oates said, because of Russia’s objective: to topple democracy by eliminating the free media. Unchecked disinformation confuses reality, heightening the tension between people already divided along political lines.

“For the Russians, this isn’t some kind of fraught debate about democracy,” Oates said. “It’s an opportunity to destroy it.”

For more information, contact:
Alexander A. Pyles
aapyles@umd.edu
301-405-1321

5 Political Communication Observations About That Trump-Putin Summit

Sarah Oates

Sarah Oates

By Sarah Oates
Philip Merrill College of Journalism
July 19, 2018


Editor’s note: Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, has studied Russian media, elections and political communication for the past 25 years. After U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Oates offered this analysis of the meeting.


Putin and Trump both lie, but Putin is better at it. This is why:

1. Words matter in international relations, a point Trump seems to fail to understand or just ignore. In the 21st century, power and influence come from more from negotiating skill than the battlefield. At this meeting, Trump demonstrated no skill in international agenda setting or narrative.

2. Putin sticks to a narrative. A narrative is the story you construct about something. In the case of international relations, leaders use “strategic narratives” such as “America is the land of democracy” or “Russian fortitude brought down the Nazis in World War II.” The current Russian strategic narrative is that this democratic country is under siege from the West and fails to get the proper respect due a world nuclear power. The reality is that Putin leads an authoritarian regime. Russia is in a proxy war with the United States in Syria. Russia has seized territory in Ukraine, a Western ally, and has been instrumental in an armed rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. By sticking to his narrative of Russia as a wronged democracy, Putin can effectively ignore these inconvenient facts. He lies consistently, which makes it more convincing.

3. Trump could have used the conclusive evidence about Russian meddling in the campaign to attack the Russians or at least put Putin on the defensive. He could have discussed Russian military operations in Syria or Ukraine. He even could have forced Putin to try to again deny that a Russian missile shot down Malaysian Airlines 17 in 2014 and killed all 298 aboard. Instead, Trump attacked the Democrats and the FBI, which is not useful in the international politics game. He should have used this meeting to strengthen America’s position, not least because the Russians should be on the defensive. It doesn’t seem that Trump has established an international strategic narrative for his presidency, not even one that is like “Make America Great” again. Without a script, he seems to just improvise and fall into agreeing with Putin.

4. Both leaders routinely attack the media in much the same way, but it would seem with a different goal in mind. Putin constantly attacks the notion of truth itself, while Trump more selectively denies particular facts. In Russia, the purpose is to completely disempower any kind of fact-based dialogue in Russia or about Russia. This works particularly well for Putin, as there are no longer free elections in Russia (they have elections, but they’re rigged). For Trump, this seems an odd policy. The media were instrumental in creating his persona and he needs some aspect of the media to continue to promote his “brand” in order to gain re-election (if that is what he seeks). Putin denies certain facts that don’t fit his strategic narrative. As it doesn’t seem that Trump HAS an international strategic narrative, it’s just confusing. He may want to discredit the democrats, the FBI, and even the U.S. legal system, but that does nothing to advance American power and influence. In fact, it does the opposite.

5. A free media is not part of the Russian political tradition. Media have worked in the service of the Kremlin almost since the Russian Revolution more than 100 years ago. But a free media is part of the U.S. tradition, so it’s puzzling that a U.S. president would try to play the Russian propaganda game with a free press. It’s like playing chess with a checkers set. For Putin, disinformation is about nation building. For Trump, disinformation seems to be all about Trump, which helped him become president but won’t do much for America.

The meeting underlined the power of a free press, particularly as Chris Wallace from the Fox News Network asked Putin questions that were in America’s strategic interest, such as whether the Russian government was behind the U.S. election interference and why there were so many political assassinations in Russia. This demonstrates how the media are critical to democracy.

For more information, contact:
Alexander A. Pyles
aapyles@umd.edu
301-405-1321

Professor Sarah Oates talks Russian Election on BBC Radio Scotland

Professor Sarah Oates

Professor Sarah Oates

COLLEGE PARK (3/23/18) — Recent Russian aggression could be viewed as an intentional show of strength ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s re-election, Professor Sarah Oates told BBC Radio Scotland.

“It’s very important for Vladimir Putin to storm into a new term of office with a very large turnout and with a very large vote for him,” said Oates, professor and senior scholar at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “If you kind of reorient your head around what Putin and the Kremlin needs right now, some of the rest of this starts to make sense.”

Putin easily won a third term as president this week after officials in the United Kingdom accused Russia last week of using a nerve agent to poison a former spy and his daughter in England. Meanwhile, officials here maintain that Russia meddled in the United States presidential election in 2016.

“If you’re a leader who really depends on the politics of fear, what are you going to do in the weeks leading up to your election?” Oates said on “Good Morning Scotland” late last week.

“Are you going to play nice and do hearts and flowers, or are you going to be as aggressive as you possibly can with your politics of disruption?”

She also explained that it’s not really correct to call what happens in Russia an election.

“The Russian elections are not an election in any sense,” Oates said. “It’s best to think of them as a coronation. … That being said, Putin would probably win in a free election. And so a lot of people say ‘why don’t you just have a free election?’

“But they’re not going to take that risk.”

Oates is a scholar in the field of political communication and democratization. A major theme in her work is the way in which the traditional media and the internet can support or subvert democracy in places as diverse as Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

She’s written books, chapters and papers on topics including how the internet can challenge dictatorship, how election coverage varies in different countries and how national media systems cover terrorism in distinctive ways.

For more information, contact:
Alexander A. Pyles
aapyles@umd.edu
301-405-1321

Fearless Blog: How Russian ‘Kompromat’ Destroys Political Opponents, No Facts Required

Professor Sarah Oates.

By Professor Sarah Oates

Originally published in the Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2017: Reprinted with permission

Short for “compromising material” in Russian, kompromat is all about the intersection of news and blackmail. It’s the ability to sully the reputations of political opponents or pressure allies through hints, images, videos, promises of disclosures, perhaps even some high-quality faked documentation. Sex or pornography often figures prominently. The beauty of kompromat is that it has to create only a sense of doubt, not prove its case conclusively. This sounds a bit like “fake news,” but in a classic kompromat operation, real Russian state media organizations work in tandem with the Kremlin to find appealing and effective ways to discredit the target. Often, that means in the most visceral and personal ways possible.

Now kompromat may have come to the United States.

This past week, news broke that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump on unsubstantiated allegations that Russian operatives had gathered scandalous information on him or had had contacts with his advisers. But kompromat was a constant undercurrent in the campaign, too: National security officials say hackers linked to Russian intelligence got into the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in order to leak damaging information about her. And Trump’s love of conspiracy theories and baseless accusations isn’t so far from the Russian concept, either — which may be why the idea that he might have been a target of kompromat himself is resonating so clearly with his political opponents.

The Kremlin has denied that it sought to gather compromising information on Trump during his visits to Russia, as it has denied involvement in the DNC hacks. But a high-profile businessman such as Trump would be a prototypical target for such an operation. And denials are also standard.

Kompromat has evolved well beyond the clumsy photo-editing of the Stalin era, when political opponents were carefully airbrushed out. Several opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Russian regime find themselves facing charges of possession of child pornography that they believe was planted by Russian operatives – in Russia, but also in Lithuania and Britain.

Another tactic of choice involves sex tapes. In 2010, videos of Russian opposition journalists and politicians who had been filmed separately having sex with the same young Russian woman were leaked online. Last year, an opposition political party was damaged when a tape emerged of a married party leader having sex with an aide. Putin has been involved in such operations for years: In 1999, when he was the head of the FSB (the post-Soviet successor to the KGB), Putin reportedly helped then-President Boris Yeltsin to discredit and dismiss powerful prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who had threatened to reveal which Russian officials were siphoning money to foreign bank accounts. When Yeltsin could not persuade the parliament to fire Skuratov, a video of the prosecutor — or at least a man who resembled him — having sex with prostitutes was aired on television. This all may sound like something out of “The Americans,” but it’s politics as usual in Russia.
Read the full article on the Washington Post website.

Merrill Expert Wonders Why Russia Is So Worried About Alexei Navalny

Alexi Navalny - courtesy World NewsNetwork (wn.com)

Alexi Navalny – courtesy World News Network (wn.com)

UPDATE: After his conviction and sentencing Thursday, July 18, Alexei Navalny was released the next day (following protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg) pending appeal. He is now planning to run for mayor of Moscow.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Merrill Professor Sarah Oates says that today’s (July 18) Russian court decision to send blogger Alexei Navalny to jail for five years is for one simple reason – to get him off the Internet.

Oates is an expert in Russian politics and the media. Her new book,  Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Sphere (Oxford University Press) takes a hard look at the Russian Internet.

“Russian prison sentences in high-profile cases that challenge the state have nothing to do with the law and everything to do with politics. The sentence for Alexei Navalny on trumped-up charges is pure politics,” she says.

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