The Russia connectionStudying Russian disinformation campaigns

Published 26 April 2019

An interdisciplinary research team from communications, anthropology, and political science will study Russian disinformation campaigns in three former Soviet republics as part of a $1.6 million Minerva research grant awarded through the U.S. Department of Defense.

An interdisciplinary research team from communications, anthropology, and political science will study Russian disinformation campaigns in three former Soviet republics as part of a $1.6 million Minerva research grant awarded through the United States Department of Defense.

UT researchers were one of only 12 academic groups nationwide selected for the prestigious Minerva Research Initiative awards this year.

The research team for the project consists of faculty members from five departments: Maureen Taylor (advertising and public relations), Catherine Luther (journalism and electronic media), Suzie Allard (information sciences), Michael Fitzgerald and Brandon Prins (political science), and Alex Bentley (anthropology). Also closely involved in the project are Natalie Rice, research associate for the College of Communication and Information’s Center for Information and Communication Studies, and Oleg Manaev, global security fellow at the UT Institute of Nuclear Security.

“The study will monitor and analyze the content of Russian information warfare and measure the effectiveness the tactics have in shaping opinion in Eastern European nations Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus,” said Taylor, director of the School of Advertising and Public relations and principal investigator for the study.

UTK notes that the research will include a close inspection of both traditional media and popular social media platforms, including Russian-language local news media in the Baltics, Facebook, Twitter, and Vkontake, a Russian online social media and social networking service. Onsite public opinion polling and focus group testing will be conducted in cooperation with the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), a Lithuania-based research center with more than 25 years of experience in research in the former Soviet Union countries, and Baltic Surveys.

Each team member brings specific expertise to the project and all will contribute to analysis of data collected:

·  Maureen Tayloroversees the research and conducts the monitoring and evaluation for the grant.

·  Catherine Luther provides expertise in the areas of international and intercultural communication and political psychology for data evaluation purposes.

·  Suzie Allard provides knowledge of information flows across media platforms and adds expertise to foster interdisciplinary collaboration in the research team.

·  Michael Fitzgerald, a Cold War expert and researcher of Russian and post-Soviet politics and government, provides context for the project, especially the efforts of Vladimir Putin’s regime to use mass communication in the service of its national security and foreign policies.

·  Brandon Prins will use the collected data to model relationships between propaganda and opinion and evaluate how Russian disinformation campaigns further political and social conflict.

·  Alex Bentley, who teaches the graduate class Big Data Social Sciences, will analyze social media data to study how propaganda and disinformation are deployed and shared in the United States. He will be supported by postdoctoral scholar Damian Ruck.

·  Natalie Rice, whose dissertation work provided a foundation for understanding traditional media in former Soviet republics, is the project manager.

·  Natalie Rice, an expert on Soviet propaganda, serves as the lead liaison with international partners.

“The project is significant because it not only measures Russian propaganda, but also assesses how this propaganda shapes public opinion,” said Prins, professor of political science. “We want to model the relationships between propaganda and opinion and evaluate how disinformation campaigns upset democratic institutions.”

The three countries selected for the project are increasingly the targets of propaganda campaigns.

“There is evidence that the selected countries are serving as testing grounds for Russian media tactics designed to influence public opinion and collective behavior with the goal of employing them against Russia’s political rivals such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany,” said Luther, director of the School of Journalism and Electronic Media.

The vision for the research project grew out of Rice’s doctoral dissertation. Rice studies Russian propaganda, and the project extends this work by adding social media tracking and creating a mechanism to measure the effects of both traditional and social media.

The project began in April 2019 and will last through March 2024. After the project concludes, researchers plan to study foreign disinformation campaigns in Asia and Oceania.

The Minerva Research Initiative was started in 2008 by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and is a Department of Defense-sponsored, university-based social science research program. The goal of Minerva is to “improve the department’s understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape the regions of the world.” The results of the research are unclassified and intended to be of widespread importance.