When the unclassified version of the intelligence briefing on Russian meddling in the U.S. elections was released two weeks ago, it was surprising to see that so much of the document focused on the reach of Russian propaganda outlet RT. People in the intelligence community assured the press that the conclusions in the unclassified documents were identical to the ones found in the highly classified version. Others whispered that the IC did its best to follow Obama’s order to declassify as much as possible, but that given the nature of the evidence, this is the best they could do.
Whether intentionally or not—it’s not clear how much attention was paid to how unbalanced the final report looked—the document turned the spotlight on RT. And as this week’s Economist points out, that’s unfortunate, because in truth, there’s little evidence that RT is all that effective:
More than half of the report on Russian electoral interference which America’s intelligence agencies released on January 6th was devoted to warning of the network’s growing influence. The report noted the “rapid expansion” of RT’s operations and budget—now $300m a year—and cited impressive audience numbers listed on the RT website. The channel, whose professed mission is to present the Russian point of view to foreign audiences, claims to reach 550m people worldwide, with America and Britain as its most successful markets. Conclusion: RT is part of a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government”.
That is no doubt true, but whether it is succeeding is a different question. RT has a clever way with numbers. Its “audience” of 550m refers to the number of people who can access its channel, not those who actually watch it. RT has never released the latter figure, but a 2015 survey of the top 94 cable channels in America by Nielsen, a research firm, found that RT did not even make it into the rankings. In Britain last month, it captured just 0.04% of viewers, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Board.
On Twitter and Facebook, RT’s reach is narrower than that of other news networks (see chart). Its biggest claim to dominance is on YouTube, where it bills itself as the “most watched news network” on the platform. As the intelligence report fretfully notes, RT videos get 1m views a day, far surpassing other outlets. But this is mostly down to the network’s practice of buying the rights to sensational footage, for instance of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, and repackaging it with the company logo. RT hopes that the authenticity of such raw content will draw viewers to its political stories too, explains Ellen Mickiewicz of Duke University. This sounds like a canny strategy, but it does not work. RT’s most popular videos are of earthquakes and grisly accidents. Among the top 15, the closest to a political clip is one of Vladimir Putin singing “Blueberry Hill”.
In the current panicked mood about all things Russia, it’s hard to drive this point home hard enough: no one really watches RT. Our own Karina Orlova noted all of this early last year, and pointed out that RT is not just lying to the outside world when it misreports its impact figures; it’s lying to its own government in order to secure funding for itself:
To understand why RT has been so lavishly financed despite various controversies swirling about it, one should keep in mind a key principle about how government financing works in Russia: “For every stolen ruble, there are five being wasted.” (This theorem of the modern Russian state was sublimely, and more profanely, articulated by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.) I have my own corollary: Whatever state-financed project is being planned in Russia, in 99 percent of the cases, its major purpose is to steal governmental money. In Russia, we even have a special term for this phenomenon: to disburse the budget.
While RT appears to continue to founder, however, the online news efforts of Sputnik have proven more successful. Especially in countries like Serbia, where sympathy for the Russian perspective was already organically pretty high for historical reasons, budgetary cuts at local media outlets have pushed some sites to recycle articles directly from the Russian agency, thereby magnifying their impact. As a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists last year put it:
Part of Sputnik’s appeal is its slick design, use of social media, and accessibility. Many Serbian media outlets cannot afford to pay for content from agencies such as Reuters or The Associated Press, and Russian sources are usually free of charge. Under Sputnik’s terms and policies, anyone can republish its content for free as long as Sputnik is credited.
Russian propaganda efforts are real enough, and they are well-financed. But like all such efforts, their exact impacts are hard to measure. It’s critical that we in the West do our measuring with a clear head as we consider how to respond.