Differentiated Visibilities in Russia’s Role in the Syrian War: RT Arabic on Social Media | Deena Dajani, Marie Gillespie, Rhys Crilley

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 RTs 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 Arabics 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: marie.gillespie@open.ac.uk