Merrill College’s own Sarah Oates discusses Russian news and propaganda in lecture
By Emily Hahn
October 30, 2021
Image Credit: Screenshot from Merrill College lecture recording via Youtube
Sarah Oates, professor and senior scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, gave a lecture at Knight Hall titled, "Nyetwork' News: How Russian Disinformation Becomes American News," as a part of the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher lecture series on Thursday, Oct. 14. Oates received the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award in May 2021, which is sponsored and issued by The Office of Faculty Affairs. Oates is the first Merrill College faculty member to earn this honor since the award was established in 1978. “I was thrilled when I heard I was getting it, and I was even more thrilled when I went to the convocation and met the other people getting it,” said Oates. The Dean of Merrill College, Lucy Dalglish, introduced Oates at the lecture and said winning the award was “incredibly exciting.” She described Oates as “an incredible mentor and teacher.” “She always coaxes everybody to do a better job,” said Dalglish.
Senior journalism major Damon Brooks is taking Oates’ class: Special Topics in Data Gathering and Analysis; Political Analysis. “She’s so personable and so honorable,” adding that when it came to the award, “she deserved it,” Brooks said.
Senior journalism and government and politics major John Bedard is also taking Oates’ data class.
“[Oates is] really charismatic. She cares a lot about her students. And I'm really impressed with what she does for us, on a day to day, class to class basis,” said Bedard. Oates discussed the authoritarian media system in Russia during her lecture and how it is a propaganda machine. She explained free media has become increasingly rare and endangered. The lecture followed her work laid out in the 25 page paper she wrote about Russian narratives. During her sabbatical from 2018-2019, Oates was at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank, looking at, “what the Russians want,” with a “laser focus” on the DNA of misinformation. Content analysis remains a central piece of her work. Using a tag and trace method for tracking messages on different social media platforms in information ecosystems is part of Oates’ research focus. “What I'm trying to do these days is find a way to create a kind of DNA of online information so we can tag it,” Oates said during her lecture. In Russia, there are four main propaganda strategies that are pursued: “democracy is corrupt and failing,” “we protect Russians no matter where they are,” “Russia is resurgent as a great nation,” and “the west is out to get us, particularly through their henchmen with NATO,” Oates explained. Carole Lee, adjunct professor and a Ph.D. candidate in journalism, attended Oates’ lecture. Oates was the first person Lee met at Merrill when applying for the Ph.D. program. Oates is an advisor for her dissertation. “As a researcher, what I find really valuable about her is that she goes where the data actually goes. She doesn’t, you know, she doesn’t try to make things say more than they can, but she finds the story in the data and tells it well,” said Lee. When it came to Oates’ character, Lee said that, “her humanity has just always been the first thing that you recognize about her.”