27.09.23 Propaganda Review

Undercurrents in a Sea of Podcasts: Can podcasts influence American public opinion on Russia and Ukraine?

Podcasts are becoming an increasingly significant part of the information landscape, serving both as a medium and as a new content market that often escapes the attention of analysts. A recent analysis of the American political podcasting market reveals that pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian narratives do not occupy a prominent space. However, as they engage with domestic agenda issues, they become part of a countercultural ideology rooted in distrust of mainstream media and the American administration. In this capacity, they could lend support to Donald Trump's criticism of the incumbent president's policy on the war in Ukraine and may undermine the relative pro-Ukrainian consensus in American society.

The rapid growth in the popularity of podcasts is tied to the fact that their content is consumed while people are busy doing other things. As a result, podcasts are becoming an increasingly significant mode of information dissemination. They serve as both a means to deliver content and a burgeoning independent content market, alongside the corporate segment (traditional media) and social networks with their army of bloggers. However, there is currently a dearth of systemic understanding of how this content market is evolving and what kind of demand it generates and satisfies.

American media researchers, including Jessica Brandt, Bret Shafer, Valerie Wirtschafter, and Peter Benzoni from the Brookings Institution, analysed 1885 episodes of various American podcasts that touched on Ukraine, and Russian aggression against it. Their aim was to understand how anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian propaganda is structured in this part of the media landscape. As the US presidential election draws near, the strategy of supporting Ukraine is becoming an increasingly important topic of pre-election discussions, and the researchers were interested in the potential influence such propaganda may have on American public opinion.

As they have observed, anti-Ukrainian or pro-Russian podcast narratives primarily revolve around four narratives: 1) Ukraine is full of Nazis; 2) the US is using Ukraine to develop biological weapons; 3) the US is responsible for the explosion of the 'Nord Stream 2' pipeline; and 4) the tragedy in Bucha was an anti-Russian stunt by Ukraine. However, the significance of the Russia-Ukraine topic in the American podcasting space should not be overstated. The war in Ukraine was only actively discussed in the first months following the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. While, in March, the Moscow-Kyiv conflict featured in 26 podcast episodes per week, by April, this number had dropped to 10, and it is now only present on the periphery of the podcasting universe.

According to the authors' observations, the conservative-right 'flank' of American podcasts is predominantly more oriented towards pro-Ukraine narratives. This aligns with recent research showing that Republican members of Congress are more likely to support Ukraine in their Twitter posts than to oppose it. The researchers conclude that the decline in support for Ukraine among Republican voters, evident in public opinion polls, is more related to issues on the domestic American agenda than to the effective promotion of pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation. Pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian narratives resonate with the audience only when they touch on some internal US issue. This is precisely how such narratives appear in the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who has emerged as the primary 'isolationist' in discussions of the 'Ukraine issue.'

Once in the American media landscape, pro-Russian narratives mutate under the influence of these domestic agendas. This 'mutated' content then returns to Russian propaganda, which incorporates it as content that resonates with the American audience. An example of such a combination of a pro-Russian narrative with the American domestic agenda are the stories about 'Ukrainian Nazism’. The topic appears in American podcasts as a rebuke to the American mainstream media and government, which allegedly deliberately camouflage the influence of extreme nationalists in Ukraine. Notably, this topic was present in the podcasts of both extreme left and extreme right hosts — ideological radicalism is traditionally accompanied by a high degree of distrust towards conventional media and the political elite.

Similarly, the narrative concerning the American development of biological weapons in Ukraine continues the conspiracy discourse about the origin of COVID-19. In this case, the primary argument from both ends of the political spectrum is a distrust of mainstream journalism, which is believed by conspiracy theorists to be influenced by the Biden administration, seeking to hide the truth from the public.

As in the case of the European information space, which Re:Russia recently discussed, the pro-Ukraine political consensus in the American public sphere is under attack at the periphery, in its non-corporate sector, while anti-Ukrainian narratives are rooted in distrust of the mainstream and counter-elite sentiments.