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‘Don’t Fall for It’

Journalism Professor’s Book Shows Convergence of Russian Propaganda and American Media

By Sala Levin ’10

hand with puppet strings hovers over man sitting at news desk

In her new book, "Seeing Red: Russian Propaganda and American News," journalism Professor Sarah Oates, a longtime scholar of Russian media, explores how the Kremlin's agenda has made its way into some American news sources.

Illustration by Adobe Stock

In 2017, as University of Maryland journalism Professor Sarah Oates was scrutinizing how Russian propaganda was infiltrating the West, she began to notice something odd. In many cases, she saw little difference between articles that had come from Russian sources or, alarmingly, American news media.

“Why would American news sound like Russian propaganda?” wondered Oates, a longtime scholar of Russia’s state-run media. “That didn’t make any sense to me.”

Thus began years of research, compiled into the new book, “Seeing Red: Russian Propaganda and American News,” co-written by Associate Professor Gordon Neil Ramsay of Iceland’s University of Akureyri. Published last month by Oxford University Press, it investigates how Russian disinformation on the 2020 election, the war in Ukraine, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and more has seeped into American news sources, especially those on the right.

To do so, Oates and Ramsay used artificial intelligence and human coders to analyze eight news sources: state-run RT and Sputnik on the Russian side, and The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, and the websites of CNN, Fox News and NewsMax on the American side. They scanned these websites for keywords like “Trump” or “Biden,” and examined the resulting thousands of articles from 2020 through 2022.

Here are three takeaways from “Seeing Red”:

American media is losing trust among the public. The American media ecosystem in the 21st century has contributed to the rising power of Russian propaganda. The economic collapse of traditional journalism, the proliferation of news sites of wildly disparate quality and the ubiquity of social media have eroded the American public’s once-widespread confidence in their news sources. “These fissures in the American news media … all provide a nurturing environment for both foreign and domestic disinformation,” writes Oates. “In an atmosphere of increasing suspicion and distrust of the news media, it is easy to appeal to segments of the audience who are disenchanted with mainstream news narratives.”

Russia has long embraced—and excelled at—propaganda. Russia’s Communist history means that it has “a lot of practice” with state messaging, said Oates. “The role of mass media was to promote the interests of the Communist party. The role of the media in the United States is to educate citizens so they can make informed choices.” (Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is a former KGB agent.) With a highly educated populace, Russia has developed sophisticated methods of propagandizing, said Oates, whether it’s testing different versions of a message (what’s now known as A/B testing) or disseminating clearly articulated talking points to all media outlets in the country. “The Kremlin will send out a list of themes for the news every week,” said Oates.

Russia’s strategic narratives have found purchase among Trump’s most ardent supporters. Regardless of truth, Putin and the Russian government have pushed several key narratives, among them that NATO is a security threat whose main goal is to destroy Russia and that Western democracy, especially in the U.S., is failing. These ideas especially have been echoed in the U.S. in suggestions that NATO expansion is to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and in right-wing media coverage of the 2020 election, like Fox News’ repeated reporting of false claims that voting equipment was rigged. Other spurious narratives have also gained strength from Russia—for example, that the leftist movement known as Antifa (short for “anti-fascist”) is responsible for widespread, highly organized acts of violence across the U.S.

As the 2024 presidential election season kicks into high gear, Oates said that she hopes readers come away with a keener eye for identifying questionable narratives. “The big headline here is: Know what the Russians want and don’t fall for it,” she said.



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