By Evgenia Olimpieva, Geneva Cole and Ipek Cinar
With the 2020 Presidential election looming and the United States in disarray due to COVID-19 and sweeping protests around police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, the specter of international interference has fallen from view, but perhaps this should not be the case. Our research, which focused on the content published by RT and RT America channels on YouTube in the period from 2015-2018, suggests that the Russia-funded international broadcaster takes advantage of political moments of unrest, and especially the salient episodes of police brutality. We argue that such events provide opportunities for the broadcaster to build trust with the viewers and influence their political opinions by exposing them to other politically charged content.
Rachel Maddow described Russia’s interference and specifically the activity of Russian trolls in 2016 as “forcing their dirty fingernails into our various national open wounds.” This evocative imagery provides a framework for our research. To achieve its goals, we hypothesize that RT targets national wounds in the relevant media market. In the United States, this national wound is racism. In particular, RT zeroes in on police brutality as the manifestation of this national wound. This is an apt choice: Pew finds that attitudes about police brutality are moderated by race and partisanship.
Research on Russian interference and trolls in the previous presidential elections found that while targeting both political left and right, they specifically focused their activity on Black Americans. We find that while RT America mostly caters to the audiences on the left, there is evidence that Black Americans are particularly targeted by the channel as we discover its exceptionally high and persistent attention to the events related to the issue of police brutality. This comes both in specific advertising targeted at black audiences, and the coverage of specifically racialized police brutality. In particular, our research shows:
First, there is an extremely high prevalence of the videos with content of police in the RT Flagship and RT America channels. We find, for instance, that these channels devote nearly six times as much of their content to the topic of police as CNN and about three times as much as Al Jazeera.
Second, videos on police tend to get more views than videos published by RT on other topics—even elections during the 2016 cycle. In fact, 13 of the 20 most viewed videos on RT America were devoted to the topic of police. For example, the second most watched video on RT America, with 2,366,522 views, is titled “Police bust up filming of rap video to arrest felon with gun.” Our quantitative analysis across the entire sample also confirms this.
Third, videos about police drive viewership of RT America as a whole. We found that the proportion of police videos is a statistically significant predictor of channel viewership for RT Flagship and RT America. This was not the case for our comparison channels, CNN and Al Jazeera.
We also found qualitative differences in the way that RT covers instances of police brutality vis-à-vis its competitors. We analyzed the videos from RT America and CNN that covered the same viral instances of police brutality in April 2015 (Freddie Gray) and July 2016 (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the Dallas police shooting all in a 3-day period). The differences were stark. CNN was much more likely to take an institutional approach, focusing on official reports and the perspectives of police, police families, legislators, and other individuals with institutional power. RT, on the other hand, had a more populist approach, relying on raw footage and the perspectives of activists and the families of victims.
With the recent murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department, the wound of police brutality remains open and raw. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden remarked that “the original sin of this country still stains our nation today … we see it plainly that we’re a country with an open wound.” We approach the 2020 election with a gaping national wound and concerns about the potential interference from Russia remains. As our research shows, “populist” coverage of the political wounds and police brutality in particular drives the viewership of the network and exposes more viewers to its content. We worry that it might build trust for RT among viewers despite the labels introduced by YouTube, and expose the trusting viewers to biased content and ads that could influence how they vote in 2020. After all, the 3rd most watched video on RT America following during 2016 presidential election cycle covered the calls to lock up Hillary Clinton.
As protests erupted in response to George Floyd as legitimate expressions of real grief, a small number of “outside agitators” took advantage of the situation to sow chaos and division. We can think of RT’s coverage of police brutality in this same light: while they are providing coverage of newsworthy content and even providing a necessary perspective on police brutality, their ultimate purpose is to behave as an outside agitator.
Evgenia Olimpieva (@EvgeniaOlimp) studies comparative politics and quantitative methodology with a focus on authoritarian politics and institutions in post-Soviet context.
Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) studies American politics with a focus on the role of political and social identities in shaping political attitudes and behavior.
Ipek Cinar (@ipekcinar_ic) studies comparative politics with a focus on comparative democratization, quantitative & computational methods and their applications to political science research.