Playing Both Sides: Russian State-Backed Media Coverage of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Russian influence operations on social media have received significant attention following the 2016 US presidential elections. Here, scholarship has largely focused on the covert strategies of the Russia-based Internet Research Agency and the overt strategies of Russia's largest international broadcaster RT (Russia Today). But since 2017, a number of new news media providers linked to the Russian state have emerged, and less research has focused on these channels and how they may support contemporary influence operations. We conduct a qualitative content analysis of 2,014 Facebook posts about the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) protests in the United States over the summer of 2020 to comparatively examine the overt propaganda strategies of six Russian-linked news organizations—RT, Ruptly, Soapbox, In The NOW, Sputnik, and Redfish. We found that RT and Sputnik diverged in their framing of the BLM movement from the newer media properties. RT and Sputnik primarily produced negative coverage of the BLM movement, painting protestors as violent, or discussed the hypocrisy of racial justice in America. In contrast, newer media properties like In The NOW, Soapbox, and Redfish supported the BLM movement with clickbait-style videos highlighting racism in America. Video footage bearing the Ruptly brandmark appears in both traditional and new media properties, to illustrate, in real time, civil unrest across the US. By focusing on overt propaganda from the broad array of Russian-affiliated media, our data allows us to further understand the “full spectrum” and “counter-hegemonic” strategies at play in contemporary information operations.