What to do about Russia’s primary international broadcaster
Just before the European elections, EU officials raised concerns about Russian attempts to influence the democratic process, and Russia’s international broadcaster, RT (Russia Today) came under scrutiny for its anti-EU content. But is RT really an attack on democracy? What should be done about it? Reporting findings from the first substantive project researching the activities of this provocative media actor, and in advance of sanctions against RT due to be announced by Ofcom, Professor Steve Hutchings, Professor Vera Tolz and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody suggest that a measured, evidence-led response may be more effective than swiftly imposed, harshly punitive sanctions.
- RT often presents openly biased information. Blatant falsehoods have been restricted to Russian military interventions.
- RT covered both Remainer and Brexiteer perspectives on Brexit. It foregrounded chaos and dissatisfaction with the process.
- RT exploits declining public trust in political and media institutions. It presents criticisms of the network as evidence that its unsympathetic portrayal of these institutions is accurate.
- The impact of RT’s output is questionable due to its low audience reach compared with mainstream media outlets; and its self-selecting audiences.
Attacks on democratic actors aren’t necessarily attacks on democracy
RT routinely attacks the politics and politicians of Western democracies, and relentlessly criticised Hillary Clinton during the 2016 US Presidential Election campaign. However, uncompromising political critique in the mainstream media is a feature of, not a threat to, democratic systems.
Some Russian actors – as in the illegal hacking of Clinton’s email account – directly attack democracy, and require urgent policy responses. However, news broadcasting is not cyber-hacking. Equating them compromises analysis and response, as in the US intelligence services’ report into Russian interference in the 2016 US election, which based its findings on outdated, unrepresentative data.
RT’s ideologically-flexible, opportunistic coverage exploits existing cleavages within western societies: its Brexit coverage covered both Remainer and Brexiteer perspectives, foregrounding – not creating – the social divisions and political mistrust that drove Brexit. Its impact, however, was questionable – RT’s negative stance on the EU has not stemmed the recent rise in EU support.
Policymakers can undermine RT’s appeal on divisive issues by addressing the social inequalities and institutional mistrust on which RT capitalises, and discussing them robustly in the mainstream.
The threat from ‘Russia’
It is inaccurate to assume that one ‘Russia’ is conducting malign activities. Many types of actor are connected – whether loosely or intimately – to the Russian state. It is untenable for a Kremlin puppet-master to control them all. So, whilst RT’s Editor-in-Chief attends weekly agenda-setting meetings with the Kremlin, many RT presenters and journalists have their own agendas and sometimes ‘go rogue’.
Reliance on the ‘puppet-master’ assumption has led to spectacular misidentifications of critical social media commentators as ‘Kremlin-controlled’ trolls; countermeasures based on untenable assumptions (eg, that all posts in Cyrillic script are suspicious); and policymakers underestimating the domestic sources of democratic discontent. For instance, our research showed how claims that ‘RT made Nigel Farage a YouTube star’ overlooked the crucial role of Eurosceptic accounts and mainstream television broadcasters.
Attacking the mainstream
Effective policy responses must address the wider sentiment of declining public trust in the media generally. RT holds that all networks ultimately reflect their sponsors’ interests, which provides cover for its openly biased reporting. Yet, RT is just one outlet to ‘Question More’ about mainstream western media and governments, whether on the right (Breitbart News); the left (The Canary), or internationally (Al Jazeera’s ‘Voice for the Voiceless’ mission). Tolerance of – even biased – narratives that criticise democratic societies is fundamental to democracy.
Our cluster analysis of 2.7 million RT Twitter followers showed RT was often followed together with mainstream news; focus group participants knew RT’s origins and sought to balance out perceived biases elsewhere (a motivation that big data analyses of Russian ‘disinformation’ cannot address). Audiences’ ability to do so could be increased by policies addressing the low critical awareness and media knowledge in the UK.
Information manipulation versus ‘fake news’
False information is another matter. However, whilst RT has occasionally promoted downright falsehoods, fact-checking is problematic, sometimes increasing stories’ traction, circulation and influence. Moreover, until the latest investigation of the British regulator, Ofcom, RT received a comparable number of sanctions to other broadcasters (15). Ofcom’s oversight curtailed any systematic dissemination of falsehoods on RTUK, compared with overtly conspiratorial content on RT America and the unregulated Sputnik radio.
Nor do audiences simply accept RT’s falsehoods. Our research found that over 70% of social media comments on RT’s interview with the Salisbury poisoning suspects doubted their claims. Many thought the interview discredited RT.
RT manipulates information to construct preferred narratives. This involves: uncritically quoting commentators’ opinions/assertions; reporting unverifiable rumour; and promoting self-evidently false stories for comical effect. However, there is ‘no evidence’ of a sustained effort to influence mainstream non-Russian media and it remains ‘very rare’ for them to replicate RT’s narratives.
A threat to public trust?
Despite policymakers’ concerns that RT threatens public trust in democracy, it only attracts around 0.01% of UK TV viewing figures. Its much-publicised YouTube viewership gravitates towards satire and non-political ‘clickbait’, and recent algorithmic changes should minimise follow-through to political content.
RT’s 2.6 million Twitter followers are dwarfed by the BBC World Service’s 24.7 million, and CNN’s 54.9 million. However, RT sometimes outperforms its rivals on critical issues: 4 of the 6 most popular Twitter and Facebook articles on the Skripal poisoning in the week commencing 28 March 2018 were RT’s, generating 63,000 shares. Plus, its Arab-language and Spanish-language circulation is gradually rising. RT’s audience penetration, and threat to public trust, is sporadic and regionally-varied.
How should we respond?
When selecting sanctions against RT for breaching its regulations, Ofcom should recognise that such regulation effectively prevents the excesses of RT’s US counterpart and Sputnik radio. This approach must continue without political interference: any ‘special measures’ invite the charges of hypocrisy and ‘Russophobia’ with which RT routinely exploits public mistrust.
In the longer term, policymakers could help erode the basis for RT’s appeal by addressing social inequality and declining trust in traditional media and politics by improving media education and critical skills. Matching policy commitments in these areas with robust mainstream public debate would deprive RT of its unique angle.
Our research on RT’s impact and the effectiveness of information countermeasures indicates that in order to avoid counterproductive policy responses, policymakers will need to refer to evidence-based inquiry into the broader system in which RT operates. This must incorporate both quantitative analysis of online news consumption and circulation patterns; and qualitative investigations into how news consumers actually engage with such output.
The authors of this post work at the University of Manchester as part of the research team on the AHRC-funded Reframing Russia project (AH/P00508X/1).