When Media Worlds Collide: Using Media Model Theory to Understand How Russia Spreads Disinformation in the United States
American Political Science Association 2018 Annual Meeting, Boston MA
20 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2018 Last revised: 8 Jun 2020
Date Written: August 24, 2018
Ever since the 2016 U.S. elections, disquiet about the role of Russian propaganda in the U.S. media system has grown into outrage and fear. How has one authoritarian state been able to wreck so much havoc in the U.S. media system? The answer lies in a relatively small area of political communication scholarship: the study of national media models. Scholars ranging from Fred Siebert to Paulo Mancini have eloquently articulated how closely media systems reflect their national political systems and cultures. While this debate has remained mostly academic, it now holds the key to understanding (and trying to control) the vulnerabilities to disinformation in the U.S. media ecosystem. This paper pushes back against the idea that media literacy of the audience is the critical problem in combatting ‘fake news’ created as disinformation by other countries. The U.S. media audience has not fundamentally changed in the past two decades. What has changed in the way in which media is supplied to the American public, notably the decline of traditional news, the fragmentation of the information space online, the rise of news distributed within trusted circles via social media platforms, and the flooding of the U.S. news supply with both foreign and domestic disinformation. In thinking about the role of Russian propaganda as one central challenge to the U.S. media system, it is clear the affordances of the Russian media system strongly favor the ability of Russia to exploit the U.S. media sphere. Under the Russian media system, journalists are considered mouthpieces for political interests and mold information to support those in power, unfettered by the U.S. ideal of media in service to the public or a greater truth. The U.S. media cannot completely ignore these messages, but must expend precious resources refuting or attempting to find some sort of impossible ‘balance’ between disinformation and actual news. Nor can the mainstream U.S. media counter with its own disinformation, as this violates American media ethics. This paper will discuss evidence from the 2016 U.S. elections to showcase the role Russian disinformation has played in undermining the U.S. media system and how it has dovetailed with other challenges to the supply of information to U.S. citizens. The paper also will suggest possible solutions to the issue of Russian disinformation, with an emphasis on how social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should acknowledge their essential role in preserving the free media system and significantly increase their efforts to help the American audience to identify disinformation.
Keywords: Russia, disinformation, media systems, media models, Facebook, Twitter, elections
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