The European Journal of Cultural Studies (EJCS) has published a special issue entitled ‘The Cultural Politics of Commemoration: Media and Remembrance of the Russian Revolutions’, which the ‘Reframing Russia’ project team edited and contributed to. You can view the full list of articles on our Academic Publications page.
Russia’s international broadcasters RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik international have been widely criticised for granting airtime to members of left- and right-wing fringes. Research has identified both far-left and far-right commentary in RT’s news and its presenters and regular contributors similarly range from Slavoj Žižek to Nigel Farage. But thus far there has been little research into RT’s younger sibling, Sputnik.
Sputnik is principally a digital radio broadcaster and multi-media web platform. It was founded in November 2014 following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Sputnik’s two English languages hubs are based in Washington DC (producing five shows) and Edinburgh (producing two). Sputnik’s shows are fairly typical of the “talk radio” genre – discussion of news and current affairs. However, my doctoral research into Sputnik’s English language channels shows how the broadcaster’s content is shaped by a star line-up featuring four key categories of anti-establishment characters:
1. The “lefty”
On the US side, Garland Nixon, co-host of Fault Lines, is a National Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who previously sued the Department of Natural Resources for race discrimination and harassment. Dr Wilmer Leon, presenter of The Critical Hour, is a public intellectual and columnist interested in racial inequality in the United States. Sean Blackmon, co-host of By Any Means Necessary (a phrase famously uttered by 1960’s civil activist Malcom X), is the organiser of Stop Police Terror Project DC, born out of Black Lives Matter.
Several more presenters are prominent members of the anti-war and civil rights organisation Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition (ANSWER). Eugene Puryear, Blackmon’s co-host on By Any Means Necessary, is one of ANSWER’s national organisers whilst Brian Becker, host of Loud and Clear, is its national director. Puryear and Becker also have close links to a Marxist/Leninist political party, The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), with Becker being a founding member, and Puryear having been the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2016.
However, radical left-wing politics is exceptionally marginal in the United States. It is hard to see how this kind of Sputnik content could garner large swathes of the American population.
In the UK, however, this political perspective is slightly more mainstream. This is reflected in the choice of presenters.
George Galloway, former MP turned anti-establishment commentator, is Sputnik’s newest left-wing presenter. Galloway is a prolific anti-war spokesman, founder of charity Viva Palestine, supporter of Corbyn and a proponent of Brexit. He is also one of the longest serving figures on RT, having presented Sputnik: Orbiting the World, since 2013. His Mother of All Talk Shows appeared on Sputnik in June 2019, probably intended to build on his popularity on RT.
But where does Russia come in, for Sputnik’s left-wing pundits and anti-racist activists?
Sputnik’s commentators see Russia as a counterweight to American hegemony. Sometimes, this translates to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, as in a Loud and Clear episode marking the Russian Revolution’s centenary. Here Becker and his guest exhibited particular nostalgic reverence for the Soviet Union. Becker’s guest that time was his colleague from Sputnik, ANSWER and the PSL – Eugene Puryear.
2. The “Whistle-blower”
The Sputnik journalist with arguably the highest international profile is John Kiriakou. The co-host (with Becker) on Loud and Clear, Kiriakou rose to fame as a whistle-blower. He was the first CIA agent to be convicted, and sentenced, for passing on classified information to a reporter, after a 2007 televised ABC interview in which Kiriakou disclosed the CIA’s use of waterboarding, a form of torture, on terrorist captives.
Since his release from federal prison in 2015, Kiriakou has become a prolific anti-establishment voice, orator and author (having written three books). Kiriakou has campaigned for Julian Assange’s release, using his Sputnik show as a platform. He has also discussed the impossibility of Assange receiving a fair trial on mainstream media outlets.
Sputnik’s defence of and support for Assange (who regularly appeared on RT) and Chelsea Manning, brings to mind the case of illustrious whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia. By supporting and employing whistle-blowers including Kiriakou, Sputnik can discuss in detail the failings of the US and its corrupt institutions from an insider’s perspective. The network can also present itself – and by implication Russia – as the defender of free speech, in contrast to the USA.
3. The network friend
Sputnik shows have many repeat guests including other presenters from Sputnik and RT. As well as Galloway’s expansion from RT to Sputnik, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert have built on their long-running RT economics show, Keiser Report, with a similar concept for Sputnik, called Double Down.
But the recurrence of ‘external’ guests in Sputnik is no less remarkable. In particular, John Kavanaugh, the New York based editor of online left-wing “social analysis” platform Polemicist.net appears so frequently on Sputnik’s US based shows, Loud and Clear, The Critical Hour and By Any Means Necessary, that he could almost be described as one of Sputnik’s principal voices. Indeed, whilst Kavanaugh’s Polemicist affiliation appears to indicate a journalistic profile independent of Sputnik, his meagre Twitter following of 654 belies this.
Alexander Mercouris is another maverick media personality with multiple guest appearances on Sputnik’s shows. Mercouris, based in London, is the editor-in-chief of alternative multimedia news platform the Duran. The Duran describes itself as: “a conservative news-media platform that advances a realpolitik position” and Peter Lavelle – host of RT’s Cross Talk – is one of its co-founders. Unsurprisingly, Mercouris is a frequent guest on his show, too. While the fringe media platform has a larger following than that of Kavanaugh’s, its 89.7 K followers on YouTube is still negligible for a global internet platform.
Sputnik so frequently hosts fringe media figures promoting their own material that it acts as a hub in a network of various non-mainstream media publications. The profiles of its few right-wing presenters – and their approach to contemporary journalism – gives further indication of how this works.
4. The right-wing populist
The two stark exceptions to Sputnik’s left-wing activist presenter model are the right-wing populist personalities Lee Stranahan (US) and Jon Gaunt (UK). Reactionary views notwithstanding, Stranhan and Gaunt are still staunchly “anti-establishment”.
A former investigative reporter for HuffPost and the far-right American Breitbart News Network and a self-proclaimed “populist Republican”, Stranhan has co-hosted the Sputnik US show, Fault Lines, since April 2017. Alongside his Sputnik show, Stranahan sells online courses in citizen journalism, as he claims that the online dissemination of news by everyday citizens is the only antidote to the biased mainstream media. Stranahan promotes a similar line on his website, Populist.TV. With a tagline “making you smarter”, Stranahan uses the website to promote his own journalistic material, including that of his Sputnik show Fault Lines.
Across the Atlantic, Gaunt displays an analogously right-wing populist stance on politics and journalism. He is a supporter of Brexit and Farage’s Brexit party. As with Stranahan, Gaunt has previous experience in journalism. He has presented on BBC London and several BBC regional outposts as well as Talksport , and is also a former columnist for British tabloid paper The Sun.
Gaunt has presented Shooting From the Lip since its launch in July 2018 when the UK’s divisions were laid bare. The show’s name refers to speaking confidently on a subject without possessing expertise or prior knowledge. Together with its tagline, “real opinions for real people”, this clearly establishes the show as a populist platform. Amongst the show’s most controversial guests, is British far right activist and founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.
Stranahan and Gaunt’s appointments demonstrate that Sputnik’s producers are responding to new waves of right-wing populism unleashed by Trump and Brexit respectively. It is notable that Gaunt’s hit the air a few weeks before the left-leaning Hard Facts was axed from the UK service. Crucially though, these personalities are not only railing against the elite, but also, against the practices and dominance of Western mainstream journalism that Sputnik seeks to challenge.
Sputnik: mavericks, markets and memberships
Sputnik actively promotes anti-establishment voices from both ends of the political spectrum. Often these come from activist-type backgrounds whose concern with racial and financial injustices resonates with particular audiences. Sometimes, they have professional experience in more conventional outlets, which makes their criticism of Western mainstream media more credible. Sputnik can then discuss the biases and malpractices of Western mainstream media at first hand. In turn, Sputnik projects Russia as an impartial pioneer of the new digital journalism.
Sputnik is clearly attuned to market considerations: it has commissioned new shows from successful RT presenters; and has included more right-leaning populist content in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, as my research has revealed, Sputnik’s commentators are predominantly left-wing. But how do we account for Sputnik’s left-wing orientation in the USA – a country where such views are extremely marginal?
To me it seems there is a twofold answer. On the one hand, it seems plausible that Sputnik has a harder time attracting right-wing pundits who, in light of Russiagate, may be disinclined to associate with Russian government funded media outlets like Sputnik. On the other hand, Sputnik appears to be establishing itself as a platform for a particular community with shared affiliations and memberships. Whether Sputnik can boast any real impact on these groups, though, my project will endeavour to elucidate.
Lucy Birge (@BirgeLucy) is a third year PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester. Lucy holds a degree in Russian Studies from the University of Sheffield (2012) and an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from the University of Cambridge (2014). She has studied and lived in Yaroslavl and St Petersburg, Russia. Lucy’s research explores Russia’s outward projection strategy via its international broadcasting outlet, Sputnik.
Our briefing note, produced to coincide with our Policy@Manchester blog in June, is now available to read in full.
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.
You can access their full article on Manchester Policy blogs, here.
Despite Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Syria, there is a significant gap in research on how Russian state-funded media represents its presence in Syria to Middle Eastern audiences. Our work redresses this gap. It focuses on how RT’s social media output in Arabic represents Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria.
Our key finding is that while Russia’s military presence is rendered almost invisible, its role as a political and diplomatic actor is highly visible. Although Syrian civilians feature as the most prominent actors, they do so mostly as helpless victims and passive witnesses. Syria is represented as a non-sovereign, dysfunctional state, vulnerable to incursion by foreign forces who are vying for power and control in the region. Russia is portrayed as coming to the aid of Syrians and Syria, as a benign presence promoting the establishment of good governance, and skilfully managing the complexdiplomatic relations surrounding the conflict.
By modulating quite subtle shifts in optics and vantage points, rather than by using straightforward propagandastic or hardline ideological narratives, RT Arabic creates its own style of persuasive soft power on social media. This style ischaracterised by the differentiated visbilities afforded to Russia’s military, diplomatic and political roles. Deftly balancing exposure and concealment, RT Arabic performs alegitimating function – rendering Russia’s presence and power in a positive light – especially for the younger, social media savvy, Middle Eastern audiences who engage with RT’soutputs. But does this style of strategic representation work on audiences?
Our research suggests that Middle Eastern social media usersdisplay only a very superficial engagement with RT Arabic’s output, and so caution is required before making assertions about RT’s influence.
Our findings challenge common perceptions of RT as unworthy of either scholarly or political attention, given its presumed status as purely a Putin mouthpiece. Our work shows that RT is forging its own regimes of strategic representation to project Russia’s Great Power status around the world and serve its interests. But it does so in different ways, in different parts of the world, across different platforms. It experiences variable levels of success and probably limited influence, especially given the superficial levels of engagement identified. Let’s examine the context and the research in more detail.
Russian media is on the rise in the Middle East
Among the broadcasters delivering content to Middle Eastern audiences, RT Arabic remains understudied. This is the case despite research carried out by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)’s international audience research department that suggests that some 11 million people watch RT Arabic weekly in North Africa and the Middle East. According to the BBG findings, 2.4 million people in Syria, 2.1 million people in Iraq, and 1.2 people in Libya watch RT Arabic on a weekly basis. Moreover it seems that RT’s TV audiences are rising more and faster in the Middle East than elsewhere.
RT Arabic’s social media platforms also reveal significant interaction levels. In a study that examined the top 100 commented on posts on the Facebook feeds of 10 Arabic language news outlets, RT Arabic came in third position for the most active audience engagement after BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera – with Al Arabiya and Sky News Arabia lagging behind.
To find out more about RT’s Arabic social media output and whether and how it is engaging Middle Eastern audiences, we conducted a qualitative content analysis of RT Arabic’s social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) and the RT Arabic website articles they link to. The analysis covered all postings relating to Syria over a week chosen at random: 15-21st March 2018. This amounted to 402 social media posts and website articles. Arabic social media content was coded in terms of key actors and the actions they were associated with, and the main frames and narrative themes displayed. Of the 402 entries, 232 were social media posts about Syria across the three social media platforms, and 170 were website articles they linked to. Here are our main findings.
Superficial engagement with RT’s social media
Of the 232 social media posts, the majority were posted via Twitter (68%), followed by Facebook (18%) and YouTube (14%). However, Facebook was the most engaged with of all three platforms, accounting for 92% of the total sum of likes, shares, comments, and other responses (including dislikes), while Twitter and YouTube’s shares were 4% each. Despite this, engagement with and reactions to Facebook posts were much higher than the actual clicks/views of the link posted in 57% of cases. In other words, in 57% of all posts on Facebook, audiences on RT Arabic’s Facebook page tended to like or comment on a post without actually reading the article itself.
We call this engagement “superficial” because it was generating reactions but those reactions were not in response to the actual content itself. For example, an article from RT Arabic’s website posted on their Facebook Page on 17 March 2018 entitled “Turkish Army consolidates control over Afrin” generated 2.2k likes, but the website article itself has only been viewed 725 times. This suggests RT’s Arabic audiences are responding to headlines rather than reading its content.
Syrian civilians represented as helpless and in need of Russia’s help
The next step involved identifying key agents/actors in RT Arabic’s Syria coverage, their prominence, theircharacteristics and the actions they are associated with. We also sought to study how some actors and actions were given prominence visually and narratively.
The most visible actors were Syrian civilians, appearing as primary or secondary actors in 80 out of 232 social media posts. However, they are represented as helpless victims. This portrayal emerges through the most frequent depictions of civilians migrating (in hundreds of thousands, as an undifferentiated mass) or as under attack, or as witnessingatrocities at the hands of Syrian Opposition Groups.
Representations of Syrian civilians in RT Arabic videos of Syria: 15 March 2018 https://twitter.com/rtarabic/status/974240994584489985 and 16 March 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzifXQCZMQU.
It is the regularity and consistency of such depictions that conveys such a potent image of Syrians as powerless victims, endangered, unable to govern themselves, and in need of help.Who, then, is to govern and help them?
Russia’s military presence is obscured
The governments and armies of Turkey, Syria, and Russia all appear among the most frequently depicted actors, albeit after Syrian civilians and the Syrian Opposition. Turkey and Syria appear most frequently through their armies (62 and 30 times respectively), rather than through representatives of their governments (13 and 12 times). In contrast, Russia is most frequently represented through a member of its government (22 times) while its army appears only 14 times. Across the coverage, Russia is represented mainly as promoting governance rather than military force.
While state actors from Turkey and Syria both appear more frequently, the focus is firmly on their military presence. The Turkish and Syrian armies are both highly visible in the coverage, the Russian army considerably less so. In fact, the Russian army appears much less frequently than the YPG Kurdish forces. The Turkish army and Turkish incursion into Syria is made highly visible while the Russian military intervention in Syria is rendered invisible. Russia appears visible as a legitimate presence, protecting helpless Syrian civilians and the Syrian regime against hostile ‘foreign’ forces.
Syria as a dysfunctional non-sovereign state in need of Russia’s help
One of the most frequent media frames used in the outputs analysed was “Syria as a non-sovereign state” incapable of governing itself. This frame was closely linked to an ongoing narrative of Syria as a global battleground being fought overby predatory and/or hostile states vying for power and a stake in Syria and in the region. For example, it included posts reporting the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, news stories about American, French, and Israeli plans to “intervene” in Syria, and stories describing the many ways in which the Russian government strongly rejected ‘foreign meddling’ in Syria. Such stories were used to affirm Russia’spresence as protector and peacemaker.
The narrative of the war in Syria as being caused by or exacerbated by “foreign meddling” was much more prominent than portrayals of the impact of the war on Syria itself, the devastating death toll on civilians, the advances of the Syrian military, the deepening tragedy of the civil war, and the continuing fighting and negotiations between the Syrian regime and Opposition Groups.
RT Arabic presents a narrative of the war in Syria as a geopolitical conflict between various political players with questionable motives. Its coverage of the Syrian conflictrenders Russia’s military intervention invisible, clean and bloodless. The predatory meddling and violence of otherstates is made much more visible.
Through such representations, social media users are encouraged to see Russia as a good governance actor whosepresence is not only legitimate but essential in order to resolve the conflict in Syria. Whether they do so, of course, is another matter.
This initial research report will be published in extened form in an academic journal. It is part of a wider research project on Russian media in the Middle East. For further details of our research or to send feedback and comments please contact: email@example.com
This May, Reframing Russia’s Dr Rhys Crilley presented a cluster analysis of RT’s international Twitter followers in a lecture at the Aleksanteri Institute of Helsinki University. Given as part of Reframing Russia’s partnership with the Strategies of Persuasion in an Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA) project, the lecture introduced a new method for identifying and analysing similar clusters of Twitter followers, and applied this to Twitter followers of RT and other international broadcasters such as the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, and CNN. Through comparing the audience clusters of each broadcaster, the findings of this cluster analysis suggested that the majority of RT’s Twitter audience is similar to that of other international broadcasters, yet RT also has an audience who are more likely to follow celebrity accounts, special interest accounts (such as sport, technology and Bollywood accounts), and alternative news sources. In presenting these contrasts, the lecture demonstrated the importance of undertaking further detailed analysis of audiences in the digital age, in order to inform study of RT and contemporary Russian soft power more broadly.
This April, Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody presented some of the Reframing Russia team’s research to an international audience at the 2019 annual Russia Seminar of Finland’s National Defence University.
As part of a panel on Russian strategic narratives in the international arena, she gave a presentation entitled Politicians, people, power: RT and the curation of global news. You can view the full 20-minute presentation here.
This April saw the first of Reframing Russia’s planned partnership events with Helsinki University’s Strategies of Persuasion in an Algorithmic Age (STRAPPA) project. Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody attended Aleksanteri Institute as a Visiting Researcher to liaise with the project and presented some of Reframing Russia’s latest research at a joint workshop on “Persuasion, conspiracy thinking and the securitisation of information in Russia and beyond”. You can read Dr Chatterje-Doody’s interview with STRAPPA here.
This research visit marked just the first of a number of planned collaborations between Reframing Russia and STRAPPA, and helped set the groundwork for a joint panel proposal to this year’s Aleksanteri institute annual conference, as well as a jointly-hosted standalone research workshop planned for later this year.
From the 12 April – 14 April members of the project attended and presented at the annual BASEES conference which took place at Robinson College, Cambridge. BASEES is the UK national learned society for the study of Russia, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and the conference is one of the largest of its kind, comprising of over 400 participants from the UK, continental Europe and North America as well as Russia and Eastern Europe. You can find out more about BASEES here.
The team from Manchester put together a panel entitled Reframing Russia for the global mediasphere: from Cold War to ‘information war’? which consisted of three separate papers. Professor Stephen Hutchings presented ‘Rethinking Information War: The Spies Who Came Back From the Snow’ which was co-authored with Professor Vera Tolz and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody. Also, two of our affiliated PhD students presented papers related to their current research projects. Connell Beggs presented his paper entitled ‘Navigating a Crisis: The Russian Orthodox Church’s Shifting Framing during the Conflict in Ukraine’ and Lucy Birge gave a paper called ‘Projecting Russia onto the Global Media Ecology: the Case of Sputnik’.
Earlier in the day, in a panel entitled ‘Mediation, Reception, and Memory of Sports Mega Events in Russia and Beyond: From Cold War to ‘Information War’, another affiliated PhD student, Vitaly Kazakov, presented ‘From Sochi 2014 to Russia 2018: (Social) Media Memory and Interpretation of Russian Mega-Events’. He was joined by Dr Rhys Crilley from The Open University who gave a paper called ‘Reframing Russia through Football: Analysing RT’s World Cup 2018 Reporting and Audience Reception’ which was co- authored with Professor Marie Gillespie and Dr Alistair Willis, also from the OU.
Individual paper abstracts can be found here and in our ‘Publications’ section.
Amidst continuing uncertainty around Brexit, there has been significant discussion on social media about whether or not RT can be credited with taking centre stage in the promotion of Nigel Farage on YouTube. In this article for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Reframing Russia’s Dr Rhys Crilley and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody present analysis of YouTube data showing that multiple Euroskeptic media actors play important roles in increasing Farage’s YouTube profile – but so do mainstream British broadcasters.