Oxford academic caught in Russia ‘fake news’ row

Researcher raises fears of “misappropriation" by controversial Russian news outlet Sputnik

An Oxford University academic has expressed his concern over “misappropriation” after an interview he gave to a Russian-backed news agency was used as part of an ongoing row over the United States’ military policy.

In an inteview with the online site Radio Sputnik published last week, Dr Michael Robillard, a post-doctoral researcher at the Oxford Uehiro Centre, highlighted “ethical concerns” with the alleged US Special Operations Command programme to develop so-called ‘super soldiers’—human beings enhanced through eugenics and genetic engineering. The US project reportedly intends to “push the limits” of human performance using nutritional supplements and performance enhancing drugs.

Yet Robillard, a former combat soldier in the US Army, has since raised concern that his comments may have been “misappropriated” by Sputnik—a Russian-backed news agency—to serve its military political aims.

“In this present age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ […] the pervasiveness of factual distortions are at an all time high,” Robillard exclusively told Cherwell.

He expressed his “worry” over “the potential for state and non-state actors to manipulate our thoughts and actions or simply bamboozle us into a state of continual confusion”.

Robillard said: “Academics and scholars now find themselves in a very vulnerable position when it comes to their ideas becoming distorted and/or misappropriated for ends that they never intended.”

“Accordingly—and as I’ve just learned through personal experience this past week—scholars must be more vigilant and active in deliberately managing the distributuion of their ideas to the world.”

Sputnik’s chief, Dmitry Kiselyov, has described the outlet as intended to counter the “aggressive propaganda that is now being fed to the world.” However, the news outlet has been labled by Foreign Policy as the “BuzzFeed of propaganda.”

A paper released in 2016 by the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think tank, described Sputnik as “propaganda in a new orbit”, claiming that its output “appears to be not balanced, but the exact opposite: one-sided hostility to the mainstream.”

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Attention has focused on Russia’s state-owned media organisations, which also include the broadcaster RT, after American intelligence agencies judged with “high confidence” in January that Russia had led a campaign to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.”

Robillard recommends that scholars “take more active efforts to engage in the public sphere, to vet media outlets more aggressively, and to make a more robust presence on social media. Media training for scholars for these new platforms could also be highly useful.”

Sputnik was contacted for comment.