AUGUST 13, 2021 — A new study by Douglas Wilbur, a visiting scholar in the UTSA Department of Communication, examines the claims made by the fact-checking website Prop or Not that Russian propaganda targets the American public.
He found evidence that popular sites such as Zero Hedge, a Wall Street-focused site, echoes Russian propaganda in line with the claims leveraged by Prop or Not. Wilbur analyzed over 600 articles and found a strong, positive correlation between Sputnik, Russia’s state-owned media, and popular alternative media sites that are thought to provide favorable coverage in the U.S. of Russia and its allies.
“Covert manipulation of the U.S. news agenda presents a threat to U.S. national security,” said Wilbur, whose research reveals the need for U.S. media to have a counter-attack against the propaganda weapons that Russia creates.
Douglas Wilbur, a visiting scholar in the UTSA Department of Communication, is examining how Russia's state-owned media influences alternative news sites in the United States.
The study, “Propaganda or Not: Examining the Claims of Extensive Russian Information Operations within the United States,” is a content analysis of articles published in four websites labeled by Prop or Not as working on behalf of the Russian government. Although Prop or Not was criticized by major U.S. mainstream media for its methodology in labeling 200 sites as vehicles of propaganda, Wilbur’s research shows that there is strong credibility for the claims made by Prop or Not of Russian interference.
“Prop or Not made an allegation in 2017 that Russia was manipulating U.S. public opinion through online propaganda. However, they failed to provide compelling evidence for this. I have now validated this claim,” Wilbur said.
Wilbur researched articles published on several websites: Zero Hedge, New Cold War, Global Research, and The Daily Sheeple. The outlets were chosen using a random number approach. Published articles on those sites between January 2019 and July 2020 were then selected for examination if they contained the following key terms: Russia, Syria, Ukraine, Iran, Venezuela, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These terms were chosen because they highlight important foreign policy issues for the Russian government. Once the articles were selected, their tonality was rated on a positive or negative scale according to how the news stories described Russia and its allies versus the U.S. and its partners.
“Most of the current research on how agendas are set is focused on more traditional news media, leaving a research gap of how alternative media is influenced in the agenda building process,” Wilbur added.
Wilbur specifically looked at intermedia agenda setting, a method in which one news media outlet directly influences the coverage of others. This practice occurs in two ways: the first is to tell the audience about what or who to think about, while the second strategy tells an audience how to think about an issue, either in a positive or negative manner.
“Researchers have already shown how The New York Times exerts tremendous influence upon the agenda and content of both other newspapers and television news,” Wilbur said. “Even non-mainstream online news websites, like Zero Hedge, have been shown to influence the agenda of traditional mainstream news outlets.”
The research shows that statistically there is a strong positive correlation between Sputnik and the four websites chosen from the Prop or Not list. Articles on all five of the websites examined describe Russia and its allies very positively.
According to Wilbur, all of the websites assumed that Russia was an honest broker, always acting in a prudent and rational manner.
New Cold War was especially hostile toward the United States and its allies. For instance, one article celebrated Venezuelan resistance to U.S. imperialism, labeling the U.S. as the real culprit in the suffering of the Venezuelan people. Sputnik was generally critical of the United States, but its criticisms were often subtle in order to soften the blow upon an American audience.
Zero Hedge was generally critical of the U.S., but the focus was more on the allies of the U.S., especially NATO, and it often appeared to be supporting the same criticisms offered by Sputnik. A number of articles celebrated President Trump’s rift with his NATO allies, Germany in particular. According to Wilbur, Zero Hedge is a very influential blog and its articles are shared and reposted on numerous websites. With this comes the potential for the Russian Federation to use propaganda to influence U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
“The Russian Federation has the same right to engage in public diplomacy within the U.S. as the U.S. has to engage in public diplomacy within Russia,” he said. “However, the sources of the information, such as Sputnik, should be made clear to the audience so that they can weigh the evidence carefully and discern any bias.”
Prior to the 2020 election, U.S. agencies were planning a major effort to thwart Russian interference geared toward hackers disrupting voting systems.
UTSA’s research shows that news and government groups need to acknowledge propaganda and its negative impact on U.S. media as an effective weapon used by foreign actors that merits more social and scientific attention. U.S. media vigilance on verifying sources can help diminish the misinformation against communication warfare.
“Covert manipulation of American news outlets is a threat to us all,” Wilbur added.
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