Virality Project (Russia): Penguins and Protests
As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world, RT’s English-language branches worked to undermine lockdown measures in Western countries while extolling the Russian and Chinese governments’ success in containing the virus’s spread.
In Russian studies there is a concept known as “the accursed questions,” those that come up over and over again in Russian history: What is to be done? And who is to blame? The coronavirus pandemic has raised its own versions of these questions. What countries are taking the right steps to stop the pandemic? And who is to blame for it? As the public health crisis is compounded by economic disruption and geopolitical friction, providing answers to these questions and framing the pandemic and its consequences has become a matter of great urgency for world powers. In response, countries like the United States, China and Russia have thrown the public-diplomacy resources they have available into the struggle to mold public opinion.
RT (formerly Russia Today), Russia’s network of TV networks, websites, and social-media channels aimed mostly at international audiences, has played an important role in crafting and advancing narratives (and answers to the accursed questions) that are favorable to Russia and its interests. Of course, this is the function of international state-controlled media and why the Russian government has invested massively — according to reports, $440 million in 2019 — in Rossiya Segodnya, RT’s parent organization.
But what exactly is RT doing in response to the urgent questions posed by the coronavirus pandemic? What kinds of narratives has it focused on? And what kinds of content does its audience respond to? In this post we analyze RT’s English-language coronavirus-related content; analyses of RT’s other regional Pages will follow.
A few key takeaways:
- Most “negative” content is related to the US, the UK, France, and the EU. This content typically highlights political dysfunction, media bias, diplomatic conflicts and conspiracy theories.
- These countries are also targeted with “overreaction” narratives: posts that allege that Western governments are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to deprive their citizens of their natural freedoms.
- On the other hand, most “positive” content is related to Russia and China. This content tends to focus on these countries’ international-aid efforts and human-interest stories.
- On the whole, RT’s “positive” content generates more audience engagement than its “negative” content. One fifth of the interactions on RT’s Page came from human-interest and international-aid stories, even though these posts accounted for only 11% of posts.
RT was launched by the Russian government in 2005 with an innocuous mission: to portray Russia, which was emerging from a time of troubles in the ’90s, in a more positive light internationally. (In 2013 Vladimir Putin, revising history to some extent, stated that the network was founded to “break the Anxlo-Saxon monopoly on global information streams.”) While RT positioned itself from the beginning — and steadily built an audience — as an energetic newcomer giving airtime to unconventional voices, it gradually became more prone to indulging in conspiracy theorizing and contorting its coverage to follow the Russian government’s official line. By 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Russia-backed separatists in the Donbass shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, it was often difficult to distinguish between RT’s editorial positions and those of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the same time, RT continued to increase its reach, adding Spanish, French, German, Arabic and, eventually, Russian to the languages in which it offers content to its international audience. At present RT encompasses television networks, websites and social media channels aimed at audiences for these six languages (its sibling network Sputnik adds coverage for another 31 languages).
Getting a complete picture of RT’s coronavirus-related content would require compiling cable news and YouTube programs, tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, and articles across multiple web properties. Thus, for the purposes of this analysis, we have focused on posts appearing on RT’s English-language Facebook Page from January 1 to June 1, 2020. These data were retrieved from CrowdTangle and include post content and Facebook interaction counts. A complete list of posts appearing on RT’s English-language Facebook Page from January 1 to June 1 was filtered to approximately 1,900 posts that contained coronavirus-related terms. These posts were then manually coded according to their characteristics: editorial slant (negative, neutral or positive); the country or countries they referred to (if any); the themes they address (e.g., the spread of the virus, death counts, human-interest stories, etc.); and finally whether or not they were designated as “op-eds,” that is, represented as the opinion of an individual. For example:
- “Coronavirus turns Wuhan into a ghost town following lockdown” — Neutral, China, Lockdown, Not Op-ed
- “Coronavirus crisis will be used as a way for the malicious narcissists in Washington, Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms to come together to assure that all their losses are socialized and their profits privatized - Michael McCaffrey” — Negative, US, Politics, Op-ed
- “Mexican 'angels' spread hope amid coronavirus crisis” — Positive, Mexico, Human Interest, Not Op-ed
These codes were then used to evaluate RT’s content across the period for country-specific narratives and editorial trends.
Over half of RT’s coronavirus-related content over this period was related to four themes: the spread of the virus, lockdowns, political responses to the pandemic, and human-interest stories. Another 25% of content was related to coronavirus-related restrictions (e.g., social distancing), equipment and medical staff, economic issues, and death counts.
Approximately 68% of this content was editorially neutral — that is, it did not exhibit a clear editorial stance disparaging or praising the subject of the content. Conversely, 25% of content was negative in tone, and 7% was positive. Op-ed pieces (those clearly designated as a contributor’s opinion) were one of the primary vessels for this “negative” content: although fewer than seven percent of posts were opinion pieces, these accounted for approximately 25% of RT’s negative content. Almost 80% of opinion pieces appearing on RT’s English-language were obviously negative in tone, and only 3% were positive.
Since content with a clear editorial slant (whether positive or negative) is most likely to be connected to the public-diplomacy questions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth looking at these types of posts more closely.
Closer inspection reveals that the US was the subject of approximately 50% of clearly negative content on RT over this period, followed by the UK (10%), France (6%), Italy (2%), and Germany (2%). For reference, the US, the UK, Italy, and Germany were the subjects of approximately 29%, 7%, 5%, 5%, and 3% of content overall, respectively.) Much of this negative content takes the form of attacks on politicians and the media:
While the majority of the content related to these countries is “neutral,” it is clear that “negative” content far outweighs “positive” content:
In reality the number of negative posts is higher than this, since a significant portion of negative content was not addressed at any single country or bloc but at “Western” powers.
If we filter content according to the most prevalent “negative” themes — politics, unrest, media, panic, overreaction and diplomacy — it is clear that they are correlated with just a few countries and one bloc: the US, the UK, France and the EU. This is true even without filtering for “negative” editorial slant; that is, even neutral and positive content on these themes is tied to these countries. In effect, reading RT might give readers the impression that such things as unrest and panic are barely happening in other countries. If we restrict content with these themes to that with a “negative” slant, the correlation is even starker.
More troublingly, RT tars these countries with very specific “negative” narratives. “Overreaction” and “government overreach” narratives — content based on the idea that a given government’s reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has been excessive — is overwhelmingly targeted at Western countries:
Many of these posts are presented as opinions:
This is despite the fact that many other countries are relying on the same approaches to curb the pandemic; indeed, RT even praises the Russian and Chinese governments for these very measures:
This is no coincidence. While there is less “positive” content than “negative” content in general (see above), RT’s “positive” posts tend to be about China and Russia:
What are these “positive” narratives about? Almost three fourths of “positive” content is related to just three themes: human interest (43%), international aid (17%) and coronavirus-related equipment (12%). If we look more closely at content related to Russia and China, respectively, we can see that these themes make up a large percentage of the overall content (including negative and neutral content) related to these countries:
Not surprisingly, these posts tend to praise these countries’ work in combating coronavirus and assistance to other countries:
Thus, RT has tended to focus on narratives of political dysfunction, growing unrest and creeping authoritarianism for the US, the UK and the EU countries, while Russia and China are presented to its audience in terms of international aid, infrastructure and human-interest stories. But is RT’s audience receptive to these narratives? Reception is difficult to measure accurately, but we can get at this question by examining engagement statistics for posts related to these narratives. One of the first trends to emerge is that posts with “positive” content, though fewer than other types, received more total interactions (the sum of shares, comments, likes, love, etc.). The engagement numbers for median posts suggest that “positive” content outperformed other kinds, although “negative” content generated proportionally more comments:
- Positive: 1,078 total interactions, 155 shares, 124 comments
- Neutral: 665 total interactions, 105 shares, 127 comments
- Negative: 534 total interactions, 80 shares, 109 comments
The top-performing coronavirus-related post over this period provides a good illustration of this dynamic. A post about penguins in South Africa generated almost 58,000 interactions and was shared more than 9,000 times:
In any given week over this period, the most popular coronavirus-related content on RT was more likely to be related to international aid and human-interest stories (including the penguins) than content about government overreach and restrictions.
Other scholars have noted that a fundamental antimony underlies RT’s narrative approach: it must seek simultaneously to a) burnish the reputation of the semi-authoritarian Russian state abroad and b) encourage anti-establishment forces in countries that are its ideological foes. Our analysis suggests that RT’s English-language Facebook Page exhibited the same contradiction over the period January 1 to June 1, 2020. RT encouraged resistance in Western countries to the very same measures it praised in others.
One of the hallmarks of RT is that it does not even attempt to appear internally consistent; on Monday, contract tracing can be presented as a breach of the final rampart protecting democratic societies, and on Tuesday it can be presented as a tech-savvy government’s advantage in halting the spread of the virus. This is the paradigm that Peter Pomerantsev, following Hannah Arendt, famously called “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Thus, it is crucial to focus on questions of power: who is empowered by RT’s coverage, and whose power is undermined. Future blog posts will follow these themes across RT’s other regional pages.