Five Questions with … Sarah Oates

Note: This is the first installment in what will become an ongoing “Five Questions with” series where students enrolled in the Spring 2019 Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’ Colloquium on “Russian Media Strategies at Home and Abroad.” In this series, students pose questions to the Colloquium’s guest lecturers.  Today’s five questions were posed to Dr. Sarah Oates, Professor and Senior Scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.


By: Joshua Bennett, Kelsi Sievering, and Jacob Werling


Question 1: In your article, “When Media Worlds Collide,” you discuss the necessity for social media platforms to adhere to national media standards. Keeping in mind that these platforms are international and far-reaching, do you see this having any political implications between rival countries? For example, between the United States and Russia?

There are two ways to look at this—from the domestic and the international perspective. Within Russia, the internet should bring a greater freedom of speech because online communication is harder to regulate than traditional media and there will be more exposure to democratic ideals from abroad. I wrote about that in my last book, but in the end I couldn’t find a lot of evidence that the online sphere had really been able to bring about much democratization in Russia (which is why the book is called Revolution Stalled…).

And for a long time, the Russian internet has been a lot freer than the Russian traditional media sector (TV, newspapers, radio, etc.) although the Russian internet gets less free every year. Since I published that book about five years ago, there has been a lot more prosecution of people and online platforms in Russia to limit freedom of speech, such as by charging people with crimes for even liking messages on issues such as its military intervention in Ukraine. So the ability of the internet to bring Western norms to Russia via the internet seems limited.

Internationally, there’s a lot of concern that Russia can “weaponize” the Western media system through distributing propaganda online. That’s because Western media such as the U.S. system tolerate a lot of freedom of speech, and Russia is relatively free to disseminate disinformation. So, yes, I do think that has political implications and there’s no easy answer for that. I think it’s part of a larger problem of disinformation online, but at least I have seen more attempts at labeling the origin of information – including whether it comes from a Russian-backed source – on sites such as YouTube recently. But it’s an open question as to whether the very nature of our media system in the United States makes us particularly vulnerable to foreign propaganda.

Question 2: The presence of Russian disinformation in the U.S. media has been in the headlines for years. Is it your understanding that Russia may be performing similar acts of media subterfuge in other countries? If so, how far do you think that their reach has extended into international media spheres?

There are many reports about Russian propaganda in countries aside from the U.S., including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden (here’s an interesting article on that by Martin Kragh and Sebastian Asberg). Russian disinformation is a huge part of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine), which led to painful debates about Ukraine shutting down access to some Russian media sources in the country. Russia definitely tailors its propaganda to specific countries, although there’s no one single “international” campaign. However, Russia does push some of the same general themes in its messages in most countries, including the idea that the West is out of get Russia, Russia is a great power, and Russia will protect Russians abroad.

Question 3: In what ways does international media cover terrorism differently than state run media outlets? In countries with authoritarian regimes, are there ways that framing has a more positive or negative effect on public opinion? 

I’m going to be annoying and answer this question in a somewhat different way. I don’t really think there is anything such as an “international” media outlet—I think all media outlets reflect the norms, laws, journalistic professionalism, and cultural perspectives from their own countries. That being said, you usually get a less emotive and more balanced coverage of conflicts from those who are not involved or don’t have a political stake (in some conflicts that would be hard to find).

Terrorism presents a tough dilemma to journalists—cover it and you’re playing into the hands of terrorists by giving them what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously called “the oxygen of publicity.” Ignore it or leave out some issues (such as why the terrorists made the attack) and you are failing to properly inform the public. There is also the problem of political bias—even the US and the UK don’t share the same definition of “terrorist” groups, so you can imagine that definition is even wider between countries that are farther apart politically.

State-run media outlets tend to take the government’s point of view of who is a terrorist and find it impossible to provide unbiased or “balanced” coverage because the terrorist is framed as criminal. In a book I co-wrote about the framing of terrorist threat in election campaigns in the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, we actually found there wasn’t that much difference in how the U.S. and Russia framed terrorists. That was a pretty extreme time for the United States—it analyzed coverage of the 2004 presidential elections and that was the first one after 9/11—but terrorism coverage is a tricky thing to try to compare because the media really want to resist being part of the terrorist campaign by spreading fear. They tend to self-censor whether they are state-run or not. Also, they’re probably not going to please their audience if they try to present the voice of who those citizens consider terrorists.

Question 4: We are ushering in a generation of people who will not know a world in which social media does not exist. How can journalism work to evolve with the times in order to attract the attention of a generation who obtains their news from tweets? 

There are two challenges here and they are related but still separate. One is just the problem of funding good news. As traditional media outlets have lost advertising dollars, they’ve slashed staff so that there are far fewer professional journalists than there were before in the US. There has been a real dearth of innovation in the industry (like why couldn’t a media outlet do social networking?) as well as a lot of wishful thinking by trying to do traditional journalism and keep up with the frenetic pace on social media with fewer staff. So at the very time that media outlets need to be investing in content that will attract the audience in the online sphere they are spending less and less on actual journalism.

The other big problem is propaganda outlets posing as “journalism” and crowding out authentic journalism in the online sphere. In particular, social media is designed to keep people in information bubbles and this makes it really easy to avoid being part of a national, informed civic conversation.

That being said, there are good things about a generation that uses social media. When I started teaching media and politics 20 years ago, it was not unusual for students to have seen no news at all for weeks. They didn’t have TVs in their dorms, and they didn’t buy newspapers. I find my students today not only better informed, but much readier to debate and discuss issues—including by going online to seek out a range of information. So I think the younger generation and social media itself get blamed for problems with news literacy, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

Question 5: Your research has focused heavily on the dichotomous relationship between American and Russian media sources and how they are perceived by their audiences. In your opinion, what are some of the best tactics that citizens attempting to defend themselves against disinformation can take to increase their media literacy in this era of libertarian news models throughout the west?

Consider the source. Just because it looks like a news website or has a URL that is close to something you’ve heard of, look carefully. When we do class exercises on this, I’ve found that students are quite astute at picking up on things such as dodgy website addresses (such as news spelled newz), poor grammar, headlines that don’t match the stories, etc. It’s kind of like looking at one those puzzles that are supposed to confuse you into thinking whether something is a vase or a human profile, like this one here. Once you know the tricks, you can see through them.

I also think that engaging people in civic discourse around disinformation, such as false flag or immunization conspiracies, is helpful if done in a non-aggressive way. I think we should view many people who are disinformed as being victims of information war and encourage them to dig deeper (into other information sources and their own common sense). Don’t give up on someone just because he or she prefers Fox to CNN or CNN to Fox, etc. We have a long way to go and there are deep political divisions, particularly in the United States right now, that are exacerbated by information bubbles online. But I have to believe that Americans have enough common sense to combat disinformation in its many forms.




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