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Discursive Strategy of Sputnik News: How the Russian News Website Promotes Anti-Establishment Sentiments?

Security
International
Qualitative
Quantitative
Communication
Mixed Methods
Kohei Watanabe
University of Innsbruck
Kohei Watanabe
University of Innsbruck
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Abstract

[This is primarily for the Political Communication in a Post-Truth Era panel] Western policymakers, journalists and academics are increasingly concerned about the spread of false information on the internet. Although ‘fake news’ was understood initially as random news content produced by non-journalists for economic interests, they soon realized that false news stories are often written strategically for political purposes. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (Kragh & Åsberg, 2017) revealed that the Russian government has been attempting to influence the Swedish public’s perceptions of its government and the EU by false online news stories published by Sputnik News. The website was created by the Russian government in 2014, following its success in international propaganda during the Ukraine crisis (Watanabe, 2017). While Russia’s older state-controlled news media (RT and TASS) aims to reach out satellite TV audiences and the mass media, Sputnik News targets social media users. Branding itself as a “provider of alternative news”, the website publishes foreign news stories produced either by own editorial staff or western news agencies in over 30 languages. The strategic communication divisions of the EU and the NATO have been monitoring the content of Russia’s international propaganda outlets, including Sputnik News (Boffey & Rankin, 2017; Rankin, 2017), but it appeared challenging for researchers at non-government organizations to study these productive sources systematically. Although computer-assisted content analysis techniques such as dictionary analysis or topic modeling have often been used to analyze large volume of news in political communication research, these methods are not useful here, because we lack knowledge of expressions used in Russia’s propaganda, and these too rare for topic models to detect. To discover infrequent but important signs of propaganda from a large collection of international news stories, I developed a new exploratory content analysis technique. In this technique, I first classify news stories based on their geographical focus and then construct a PMI-weighted feature co-occurrences matrix for each country to identify unusual pairs of words in news stories. These pairs of words are then visualized as network of words (semantic network) to allow researchers to easily discover keywords for deeper content analysis. With the new technique, my analysis of over 50,000 articles collected from Sputnik News has revealed that the website frequently (1) features drawbacks of western liberal policies on refugees, (2) emphasize failures of the western government institutions, and (3) promotes distrust of the western information technology and media companies. Further, I also found that the website often utilizes western (anti-government) politicians or activist to increase the credibility of the news coverage. I argue that these news frames can prompt anti-establishment narratives through existing political division, and can exploit almost all kinds major news events to spread distrust towards western institutions.