Excitement and Exasperation

Image: John Gara/BuzzFeed

The Excitement

On August 1, The Times of London published a feature article about the findings of my graduate research project at the University of Oxford (!!).

“The Kremlin-backed television station RT is succeeding in turning viewers against the West, according to the first controlled experiment into the effects of watching the news channel.”

Of course, that line is catchier than any single sentence in my actual thesis (and is in fact a little misleading, since the conclusions of a one-off test are not generalizable beyond the treatment conditions). Earlier this spring, I conducted an online survey experiment with 1,200 participants that tested the short-term attitudinal effects of exposure to Russian television coverage of the war in Ukraine. My case study centred on Russia’s state-funded international broadcaster, RT, which pegs itself as a legitimate news network on par with the likes of BBC World and Al Jazeera, but in reality functions as little more than a Kremlin mouthpiece. (I have written a piece here about RT‘s media strategy, if you need a brief introduction.) Consistent with other Russian media, RT‘s coverage of the ongoing conflict Ukraine is highly biased and propagandistic in both content and style. RT accuses the West of instigating the crisis to undermine Russia and encouraging an undemocratic political revolution in Ukraine, while praising Putin for having Ukraine’s best interests at heart and taking action to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians against the ‘tyranny’ of the new ‘fascist’ government in Kiev. I shouldn’t have to say that this is nonsense. (Why yes, it does feel fantastic to set aside the anodyne academic language for once and just say that point blank!)

Anyway, I wanted to know whether this narrative holds sway with audiences in Western countries — specifically, under what information conditions and with what sorts of people. In other words, whether Russian disinformation works! The experiment comprised four treatments involving clips from two current affairs programmes broadcast in 2014 about the situation in Ukraine — one from RT and the other from the BBC. Some of the participants were shown just one of the video clips while others were shown both. Members of all four treatment groups plus the control (who received no intervention) were then asked to answer a series of questions about their views of Russia and the West. The Times article summarises the results as follows:

“Those shown RT were more likely to express an unfavourable view of the West’s policy towards Ukraine and believe that Russian speakers [faced] greater threat to their self-determination than ethnic Ukrainians. Volunteers who had admitted to believing conspiracy theories such as the US government carrying out the 9/11 attacks and vaccines causing autism in children were more susceptible to the RT line.”

Like I mentioned, the generalizability of these conclusions is obviously limited. Nonetheless, I stand by the originality of the project and, most importantly, by the need to study this phenomenon — i.e., the impact of misinformation in general on public opinion — much more thoroughly.

The Exasperation

As it happened, the day after the Times article came out, I got my first taste of yet another author’s rite of passage: having my views publicly oversimplified, subjected to speculation, and used as easy fodder for rebuttal. On August 2, The Guardian published an opinion piece entitled ‘Russian news may be biased – but so is much western media‘ by a Dr Piers Robinson of the Sheffield Department of Journalism Studies. Robinson singles out the Times article as evidence of a troubling double standard plaguing Western journalism, and dismisses Russian propaganda efforts as no worse than those of our own mainstream media establishment. Here is the relevant excerpt:

“Most recently in the Times, a study by an MPhil student at the University of Oxford, Monica Richter, is reported to confirm that people who watch the 24-hour English-language news channel Russia Today (RT) are more likely to hold anti-western views. The tone of the Times article is clear: RT uses unqualified and ‘obscure’ experts, is frequently sanctioned by Ofcom for bias and failure to remain impartial and, worst of all, actually seems to be ‘turning viewers against the west’. Perhaps the intended subtext of this particular news story is to warn people off watching non-western media for fear of betraying their home country in some way.

“Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of ‘our’ media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful ‘public relations’, ‘strategic communication’ and ‘public diplomacy’ while the Russians lie through ‘propaganda’.

Quite the indictment! First of all, I don’t advocate “warn[ing] people off watching non-western media for fear of betraying their home country”. On the contrary, I think that maintaining a wide news diet is essential to avoiding the myopia of echo chambers and groupthink. (And yes, even RT sometimes airs incisive reports — but intent and context matter.)

Secondly, by criticising RT, I do not “fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while [presuming] the output of “our” media […] to be objective and truthful.” Many Western countries have historically relied on some pretty nasty propaganda to advance their interests, both at home and abroad, and I don’t excuse it. Nonetheless, to equate Western media (however flawed and imperfectly objective it may be) with the Russian propaganda machine — which includes not only official news agencies like RT and Sputnik but covert initiatives like the St Petersburg troll factory, bot networks, and cyberhacking — is intellectually dishonest and analytically unproductive. Clearly, there is a vast difference between bias and outright state control; between imperfect adherence to journalistic standards and their outright abnegation. To ignore these differences, as well as the wider political and structural context in countries like Russia, utterly clouds the issue. Western media, while indeed sometimes biased, does not invent fake stories, deny truth, or give airtime and recognition to Holocaust deniers, 9-11 truthers, and other quacks. RT is guilty of all of the above. And yet, Robinson forgoes all of these glaring considerations when he alleges that, due to a variety of reasons including financial limitations, motives of profit or patriotism, and an overdependence on government sources, the “mainstream western media fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence”, and are thus hardly better than those “derided as ‘propaganda’ outlets” (here I assume he means RT). Are you kidding me? This kind of relativism and equivocation truly infuriates me to no end because it is so corrosive to basic public understanding of these issues. Indeed, Robinson also writes:

“These are confusing times for consumers of the news, and the issue of which media outlets should be trusted is as demanding and critical as ever. Given the level of conflict and potential conflict in the world today, plus pressing global issues regarding environmental crisis, poverty and resources, it is essential that people learn to navigate the media and defend themselves against manipulation.”

Well, I agree wholeheartedly with Robinson that we should be more vigilant in recognising strategies of manipulation that are employed by the media and government communication. Unfortunately, by obscuring the qualitative difference between traditionally pluralist Western media and state-controlled outlets lacking true editorial independence like RT, Robinson is only adding to the confusion he laments about source trust and media literacy.

For those interested, Padraig Reidy at Little Atoms has written an excellent scorcher of Robinson’s position.


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