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12 June, 2019  ▪  Спілкувався: Yuriy Lapayev

Gordon Ramsay: “It could take years to establish the effect of media literacy programs”

The Ukrainian Week talked with British researcher of Russian propaganda to find out what topics the Kremlin tries to promote in the English-language media, whether there is a recipe for countering the negative informational impact and how extensive the network of Russian false information is

You are one of the authors of “Weaponising news” research. Could you tell some highlights of this research?

– This analysis shows how Russian news outlets inserted over 130 competing and often contradictory narratives into their extensive coverage of the March 2018 Salisbury poisoning incident. The study shows how statelinked news outlets operate in a ‘crisis management’ situation, mobilising a ‘parallel commentariat’ to air dozens of narratives explaining events and the motivations of Western actors, as well as amplifying provocative statements from senior Russian government officials. We have analyzed, in total, 151,809 online articles published by UK national news outlets and 11,819 articles on the English-language sites of RT and Sputnik. 


Which narratives of Russian propaganda are the most powerful now in United Kingdom?


– It is a very difficult question to answer. Probably, because we are able to see what Russia and its news sources are publishing. But what we have not seen in that exact research – is the results of it. We know that in some cases it means to be significant. It is very difficult to measure the success of a narrative. We have only rough ideas of what this news sources are reacheson their daily, weekly and monthly basis. We can say only that there is a lot of information being published in English on Russian sources. All those news outlets have relatively small audiences. We know that thy can attract readers via social media.  They publish the same attractive content as the traditional news organizations in UK, which have large audiences. We don’t know what readers do with all these information, we don’t know the effect. But we know that they are in our information space and people can access them. What is interesting – it is the consistence of some of the narratives. There are many opportunities for people to see them

Are these narratives targeting only UK or other countries as well?

– As part of the project we looked at how several countries were portrayed in Russian media in English language. What was Russian media telling to English audience? And one of those countries was Ukraine. What we have found with content analysis – there were eleven different frames looking at issues of political and social dysfunction, which were created in terms of social conflict, political conflict, institutional failure or alienation of democracy, corruption, political failure, governmental failure, undemocratical practices. We have only eight weeks to look at, we have found 101 articles about Ukraine and 70 of them were on more or less famous sources. The most common were on governmental failure, on sample which presents the conflict on East as a result of political failure. Some of them criticize the decision to block Russian social networks. Others focusing more on undemocratical practices, which denying Ukraine as a state. Those were sorts of a standard subject for media outlets.


Do you see any difference in topics comparing with the EU and USA?


– We saw some differences. In not the same analysis, but we looked at the USA and some Western Europe countries. In western Union focus was more on migration and problems, which are results of migration and institutional failure. Violence as a result of terrorism. In the US focus was much more on governmental and institutional failures, particularly the police, on large amount of the gun crimes and violent crimes. So it seems to be much more focused on migration and integration in the EU and more on violence and structural failure in the US. 

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Do you see any shifts in Russian rhetoric? What could be the reasons for that? 


– That is difficult to say, because we have only two four-week samples from May-June 2017 and March 2018 and because the second sample that was immediately after Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, so that event had really dominated the coverage. This is such an unusual case, so it is really hard to compare.  What we did see is a strong focus on geopolitical division of Russia versus West. 


Do you think there is something like special British division for spreading propaganda in UK, or it is just a part of European network or agenda?


– What we did notice when we looked through who were the external sources, which viewing the news – we saw is a certain small number of people, are viewing quite often, and I saw that they are affiliate in some French news organizations, some of what I have never seen before. And we have taken a closer look just to find who those people were, we find same organizations operating in UK. We spotted a small network, but it can be larger. We did see that there were some very small news organizations, that seems to publish almost nothing except   Russia-related stories from pro-Russian angle. So I can suspect it goes beyond UK if these organizations are linked across the countries. We need to investigate that.


Which European and British actors (like media, politicians, activists, bloggers) are helping Kremlin to spread propaganda?


– I don’t really want to name the names. What we really found in the research, that the certain news web-sites, attached to legacy media, to tabloid newspapers seemed to be vulnerable to packing eye-catching content in articles and publish them nation-wide. These articles in military cases have very detailed information about new weapons with photos and even videos, what is a very eye-catching. And we saw that some of the sites, which are not involved in game to attract the audience, seemed to be happy to take these articles and make their own stories. This is more for the journalism aspect of the project. I think that could be fixed so easily, editorial filters could perhaps prevent that happened. Social media are obviously a very effective tool for spreading. And there is a small number of independent journalists, some French former politicians, who either appears often a sources for Sputnik or RT, or themselves take part in this conversation over defending meanings of events from Russian angle. 


Do you have a signs that Russian authorities helped someone in spreading propaganda?


– We didn’t see the evidence of that. All we know is that RT and Sputnik provide a platform for sources and their approach. Some of the sources, for example, appear only once. 


Do you know something about British countermeasures? Are they effective and what could make them more effective on your opinion?


– At the moment there is a lot of talk. There are some parliament enquires on fake news. There are some investigations against RT. I believe some of them will result against this platform. We have ways of monitoring but we have no counter solutions. It also extremely difficult to deal with a good journalism, just because it has a very consistent view on some topic and some of the newspapers done that. When someone says “I’m a journalist and I’m publishing some journalism in good faith” it becomes extremely difficult for someone to say “No, you aren’t.  We need some fresh thinking to deal with nonregulated journalism in the future. 

Where is the border line between freedom of press and necessary countering the negative information influence?


– I think that is the key issue. I don’t know where this border line is. It is a very philosophical issue. When someone says openly “I’m a journalist, I’m reporting in good faith, I have an audience ”, what kind of the mechanism would be there for someone to disprove that. One way to deal potentially with that issue is a whitelisting, but I don’t know how effective that could be. For now, blacklisting or banning is very problematic. I think you are talking of most important and philosophical conceptual question on what to do for media in next 10-20 years. 

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Which tools or methods could be effective for countering propaganda?


– Fact-checking can help and also a media literacy. You need to positively enforce and encourage standards. These are positive and beneficial things. But in the news environment where people lean more to emotional content it is not necessary be effective. It could take years to establish the effect of media literacy programs. I’m slightly pessimistic, because as long the information exists, there is aim to attract attention, it is designed to appeal to emotions. And it is actively not intending to be truthful and accurate. 



Dr Gordon Ramsay has been conducting and publishing media and communication research for the past decade. He holds a PhD in Political Communication from the University of Glasgow (2011) and and is the co-author, with Dr Martin Moore, of UK Media Coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum Campaign and Monopolising Local News. He has co-developed the content analysis research tool Steno with the developer Ben Campbell, and has previously published research on media regulation and policy at the Media Standards Trust.

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