Russian Media Meddling: The Catch 22 of an Open Media System

By Kelsi Sievering

The Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies’ lecture series on “Russian Media Strategies at Home and Abroad” opened this past Monday, February 11, with guest lecturer Sarah Oates, a professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and former journalist. Oates discussed the topic of Russian disinformation and media literacy in both Russia and the United States. Her presentation focused on the ambiguity of the media in different countries and the linkages between national political cultures and systems to media discourse, while also attempting to shed light on the dichotomous relationship between U.S. and Russian media strategies.

Oates introduced her presentation with the sobering reality that only 13 percent of the world’s population has a free media system, meaning that the remaining 87 percent occupy countries that at least partially restrict their access to news.[1] However, the evolution of news from televised and print media to social media platforms and other internet-based content has made it harder for countries with strict censorship laws to maintain complete control over the content their citizens are able to access. While the debates continue to wage on whether the internet is an asset or a liability to democracy, Oates urged the audience to consider an important auxiliary question; how are authoritarian regimes using the online sphere to undermine democratic media systems?

According to Oates, the importance of this lies in Russia’s ability to take advantage of our own liberal model of media, and our inability to counteract equivalently. U.S. media systems are at a disadvantage here because, as Oates puts it, America’s key defense for the free press—the knowledgeable media audience—is overwhelmed and exploited by disinformation. Oates concentrated heavily on the increased responsibility that social media platforms have in this climate. She recommended that sites such as Twitter and Facebook be held to higher standards of accountability regarding the labeling and filtering of content labeled as news media, in order for these companies to resist becoming “active agents in the destruction of democracy.[2]

Ending with more open-ended questions than concrete answers for the future, Oates questioned the role of the media in 21st century discourse. She stated that nearly three-quarters of Republicans feel misunderstood by the media, and that education does not seem to play an active role in these numbers. This leads to further questions regarding the role media plays in the United States: is the news supposed to represent those to which it is presenting? Or is its main function to educate the public? Oates conceded that there is no right way to answer this question and that due to the changing climate of journalism, the answer today might be different from that of a few decades ago.

Kelsi Sievering is a Master’s student in Political Science.

 

Bibliography

Benkler, Yochai, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman. “Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda.” Columbia Journalism Review 3 (2017): 2017.

House, Freedom. “Freedom on the Net 2017.” Obtained from https://freedomhouse. org/sites/default/files/F OTN 202015 (2015).

Oates, Sarah. “When Media Worlds Collide: Using Media Model Theory to Understand How Russia Spreads Disinformation in the United States.” In American Political Science Association 2018 Annual Meeting, Boston MA. 2018.

[1] Freedom House. “Freedom on the Net 2017.” Obtained from https://freedomhouse. org/sites/default/files/F OTN 202015 (2015).

[2] Oates, “When Media Worlds Collide”

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