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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

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

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 Professors Chadha & Steiner, Oates Receive $20,000 ADVANCE Seed Grants

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Maryland ADVANCE program aims to “lead AAU/BIG 10 research universities in women’s representation, satisfaction, professional growth, and positive work environment.” Promoting interdisciplinary research is one way to do that, and in its fifth and final round of grants, three Merrill College faculty members will have a chance to work with faculty from the iSchool and Smith Business School.

The seed grants are $20,000 each. The Co-Director of the ADVANCE program, Dr. KerryAnn O’Meara (College of Education) says data shows an 8 to 1 return on investment with the grants. Further, she said, “recipients of these grants have been more likely to be retained to campus than their peers.”

Merrill College Professors Team with iSchool, Smith School

Assistant Professor Kalyani Chadha (College Park Scholars))(left) and Professor Linda Steiner will collaborate with Assistant Professor Jessica Vitak (right)of the iSchool in a project entitled, “Misogyny Online: Implications and Consequences.”

Professor and Senior Scholar Sarah Oates (left)(who oversees the Merrill Ph.D. Program) will work with Professor of Marketing Wendy Moe – who is also the Director of the MS in Marketing Analytics program at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Their research project is entitled, “Building a Voter Intelligence Dashboard: Applying Social Brand Metrics to Political Campaigns.”

Funding comes from the UMD Division of Research and NSF funds. Dr. O’Meara says although the grants have now been exhausted (save for two funded by BSOS), efforts are underway to find additional sources of funding for the future.

About The ADVANCE Program at Maryland

The University of Maryland ADVANCE program “aims to lead AAU/Big 10 research universities in women’s representation, retention, satisfaction, professional growth, and positive work environment. We do this by creating strategic networks across disciplines, facilitating opportunities for learning and leadership, enhancing agency through knowledge and planning for career advancement, and by recognizing faculty contributions and accomplishments. We use data to increase awareness of equity issues and support local and campus-wide efforts to design better work environments.”

Scotland Prepares to Vote But What Might Independence Bring?

DSC_0406Updated Sept. 18, 2014

COLLEGE PARK, Md.  – Philip Merrill College of Journalism Professor Sarah Oates lived and taught in Scotland for 16 years and has been carefully following the news that leads to today’s vote on independence.

In an interview with Deadline, Oates, who also oversees Merrill’s Ph.D. program, says there are a number of issues to keep in mind when talking about the vote and – should independence come – its consequences:
[ca_audio url_mp3=”http://merrill.umd.edu/Audio/2014/SarahOates3.mp3″ url_ogg=”” height=”30″ skin=”regular” align=”center”]

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