Speaking via Omission: RT’s Primary Coverage in English and Russian

August 29, 2019 • Insikt Group®

Insikt Group

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Insikt Group® examined Recorded Future’s collection of references from the source RT in both English and Russian in order to assess what, if any, differences exist between the outlet’s reporting in the two languages. This analysis also examines what those differences may say about RT’s goals related to messaging and desired influence over the English and Russian information spaces.

This report will be most useful to organizations that engage with Russian-speaking populations or clients or seek to possess a fuller understanding of the goals and motivations of the Kremlin, for which state media is an important tool.

Executive Summary

RT is a news outlet funded by the Russian government. It is an important complement to Russia’s intelligence services. While RT obviously lacks the kinetic and cyber capabilities of those agencies, it is essential to conducting information warfare and priming the information space for Russian influence. Although RT’s English-language content has been well covered in the existing literature, little has been written about how this content compares to and interfaces with its Russian-language reporting. This report uses the Recorded Future® Platform to analyze references from RT and construct an image of how it not only functions as an “active measure” against the Western world, but also how it seeks to mold the Russian-speaking world.

Through this analysis, Insikt Group establishes with high confidence that RT’s output can be generally described as geared toward sowing discord abroad and establishing the Kremlin’s perspective as valid at home, a modus operandi that is in line with that of Russia’s intelligence community.

Key Judgments

  • RT shows a strong regional bias in Russian, reporting on Russia in the native language far more than it reports on the U.S. or the U.K. in the English edition.
  • RT’s English coverage has consistently attempted to focus on entities related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election up to two years after the election, most notably including then-candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
  • RT covers issues such as immigration and race relations for its English audience, but not for its Russian audience, and is likely to exploit controversies over these issues.
  • RT supplies far more information to Russian audiences on the conflict in Ukraine, bans on Russian athletes’ participation in the Olympics, and pro-secession narratives about regions such as Catalonia, likely in support of the Kremlin’s own ambitions.
  • RT shows a readiness to platform whistleblowers and increase the visibility of leaks when they are damaging to Western states, individuals, and organizations, but not if they concern alleged Russian misdeeds.
  • RT seeks to be an influential voice in the Russian language narrative surrounding Russian involvement in the Crimean annexation, the conflict in the Donbas, and in Ukrainian affairs writ large.
  • RT often seeks to reinforce its narrative in Ukraine by supporting analogous cases and stories in other parts of the world.

Background and Literature Review

The phrase “Russian disinformation” has been in vogue among national security experts and, increasingly, regular citizens. While the term might evoke images of a shadowy conspiracy, distortion of the information space is often carried out by organizations operating in the open. RT is a well-used weapon in the country’s hybrid warfare arsenal. This report seeks to add an additional dimension to this: RT’s Russian-speaking audience.

Existing literature notes that the pressure points exploited by the Kremlin in the course of informational or political warfare are not random; they all ultimately serve to shore up the Russian state. These studies have demonstrated that topics favored by the Kremlin are necessarily dual purpose. For example, polarizing coverage of police brutality in the U.S. obviously widens political divisions there, but in Russia, where those divisions are not as apparent, it normalizes the state’s use of force. Kremlin-linked media operating in Balkan and Baltic states notably promote Euroscepticism via consistently negative coverage of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The cycle is often self-reinforcing: negative portrayals of Western international organizations breed nationalist sentiment; the Kremlin publicly supports this sentiment; and, finally, domestic Russian nationalism is further legitimized. In sum, support for nationalism has been bolstered in both foreign and domestic arenas. Theoretically, this strategy would condition both arenas to be more tolerant of aggressive actions such as the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, an act justified using rhetoric about the protection of Russian-speaking people.

What these analyses omit, however, is what role RT plays as a domestic news organization. A definitive judgment on the goals of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign cannot be reached without comparing the narratives shown to English-speaking and Russian-speaking audiences; this report seeks to make inroads on providing that judgment. Additionally, although it is not a primary goal of this report, the success of the Kremlin’s information warfare in relation to its domestic audience will also be assessed.

Project Scope and Methods

Insikt Group analyzed Russian- and English-language content from RT published between January 2017 and July 2019. The data was divided by language, and will mostly be examined over the entire three-year period. Each language’s data set consisted of a list of terms or entities as well as the number of times they were tagged in a reference over a set period of time.

These entities were cleaned, removing ones that were ambiguous to a degree that prevented their ready classification as well as ones that fell outside of the scope of this research. Some examples of entities that were removed include URLS, titles not connected to an individual (for example, “President” or “ambassador”), and other entities which did not clearly denote a subject of discussion (for example, “World” or “via”). Examples of entities that were removed because they fell outside of the research scope include news outlets likely cited as sources rather than discussed as entities themselves and international sports entities. Olympic and other international sports entities, such as FIFA, were kept because participation in them is analogous to representing one’s country.

This data was then organized and processed further in one of two ways. In the first method, the top 100 entities were sorted into one of the following categories:

United States Russia Regional/General Issues Removed/Miscellaneous Entities
U.S. (Geographically Defined) Russia (Geographically Defined) North America (Non-U.S.) Ukraine Non-Olympic Sports
U.S. Government U.S. Government Europe Skripal Assassination News Outlets as Sources
U.S. Intelligence Community Russian Intelligence Community Asia Whistleblowers/Leaks Not Subjects
Trump Family Africa Cyber (Non-Election)
U.S. Elections Central/Latin America Terrorism
International Organizations Resources (e.g., Oil, Natural Gas)
Tech/Social Media
Ethnic Group

 

These categories were usually ones that emerged during the cleaning and processing of the data. The appendix to this report elaborates on the types of entities that fell under each category or topic.

The second method of analysis involved collecting, for each year, the top 100 entities for each language, and examining how consistently they were discussed by RT in either language. To do this, Insikt Group calculated the number of times an entity was referenced by RT by month, from January 2017 to July 2019, and found the standard deviation of references by month for that entity, provided that the entity was in the top 100.

Entities that had appeared in fewer than 12 months over the entire period were removed from this second method of analysis, purging entities that did not develop past topics of passing interest in RT’s coverage, regardless of their total reference count. Thus, it should be noted that this second analysis measures the consistency of frequently covered entities, rather than of all entities. The lower the standard deviation of a given entity’s data set, the more consistently it appeared in RT’s reporting.

Threat Analysis

Chart

Breakdown of the top categories for the full English data set (2017 to 2019).

Chart

Breakdown of the top categories for the full Russian data set (2017 to 2019).

Graph

Top 10 most consistent entities by number of monthly references in the English data set.

Comparing the data gathered from both the English and Russian language versions leads to several interesting takeaways.

Regional Focus

The first observation is that the English version of RT discusses the United States and United Kingdom significantly less than the Russian version discusses Russia. The English-speaking world, here defined as consisting of the U.S., U.K., and Canada, makes up 18.7% of the entities found in RT’s English reporting. In the latter case, references to Russia make up 25.8% of the reporting over the period from 2017 to 2019.

Additionally, the Russian-language data shows that entities categorized as belonging to the Russian government or its intelligence community comprised 13.2% of the references, whereas entities belonging to the U.S. government and U.S. intelligence community make up just 3.1% of the content. While this finding can partly be explained by the idea that content in a given language tends to be about the region(s) in which that language is spoken, it does not account for the disparity in proportion of coverage.

2016 U.S. Presidential Election and Russian Interference

Graph

Coverage of entities related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election in the English data set.

The standard deviation data for the English-language content shows that entities related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election have been consistently reported on, even after the election. Among those entities are “Russian hackers,” “COLLUSION,” “Democratic National Convention,” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” It is unsurprising that RT would wish to have control over the narrative of an event that implicated Russia’s intelligence services in attempting to influence a U.S. election, but the appearance of 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s name is telling.

The literature surrounding the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the election notes that Clinton was targeted almost exclusively negatively. While the “Donald John Trump” entity does have a high volume of references, it appears that he is not as frequently discussed in the English-language data set as the aforementioned entities. Insikt Group assesses with high confidence that Clinton’s appearance as a consistently covered entity within a data set spanning over three years after the election likely points to a concerted effort to deflect attention from the investigation into Russian interference, especially as Clinton has not been a significant political figure since the end of 2016.

Secession

An examination of the data through standard deviation (the second method of analysis) shows that Catalonia is one of the most consistently covered entities in the Russian-language data set. Catalonia is an autonomous community in Spain that notably held an independence referendum in 2017 wherein 92% of Catalonians voted to secede from Spain.

Graph

Hits for Catalonia in the Russian data set by month.

Previous analysis of social media activity surrounding Catalonia shows that RT was a “top influencer” on the topic. The three accounts appearing as more influential than RT are linked to Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and WikiLeaks, all of which have links to Russia and appear to have had their posts on the issue amplified by bots. These entities reappear in the reference count analysis, suggesting that they serve to amplify more than one idea for RT.

While it is not clear why this topic would be covered more consistently in the Russian-language content than in the English alternative, one possibility is that it is to legitimate other separatist action, such as the separatist movement in Ukraine’s Donbas region or in the Crimean Peninsula, also in Ukraine. Insikt Group assesses with moderate confidence that this finding in the data set from Recorded Future’s sourcing of RT likely confirms the news agency’s bias in favor of pro-Russian separatism.

Whistleblowers and Leaks

The 2010s have been host to a number of significant leaks of sensitive documents, most all of which show up as well-covered entities in the English version of RT. Whistleblowers and leak-related entities such as Edward Snowden, William Binney, Julian Assange, Vault 7, and WikiLeaks constituted 1.9% of the 2017 to 2019 results. RT’s Russian-speaking audience, however, appears to be far less exposed to coverage of these entities, as just one related entity, Julian Assange, appears in the top 100 for any of the three surveyed years. When looking at the aggregated data over the full three-year period, this single whistleblower entity makes up just 0.1% of RT’s 2017 to 2019 coverage in Russian.

In July 2019, a threat actor by the name of 0v1ru$ breached SyTech, a contractor for the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s national intelligence service, and gathered information on a number of FSB projects. These projects included efforts to scrape social media data, deanonymize Tor traffic, monitor and log email traffic from Russian companies, and split the Russian internet away from the rest of the world. Although these projects were “known or expected,” the release of additional data on them is noteworthy because it increases their visibility, including their visibility to the Russian populace which they affect or target. To examine how RT might have responded to this leak, Insikt Group ran a query for references on RT which mentioned 0v1ru$, the threat actor responsible for this breach. The sole results from this search were three references from RT’s German-language version.

Recorded Future Query

Results from the query for 0v1ru$ on RT.

Ukraine

Graph

Breakdown of reporting on Ukrainian entities in the Russian-language version.

Ukraine has been in conflict with pro-Russian separatists located in the country’s Donbas region, which borders the Russian Federation, since 2014. In March of that year, the Crimean Peninsula was annexed by the Russian Federation. Since then, evidence of Russian support for the separatists in Ukraine’s east has surfaced. During this period, approval of the Kremlin — and especially of President Putin — rose significantly, with the latter’s approval peaking at nearly 90% in 2015, over a year after the Crimean annexation, after sitting at 65% in January 2014. Additionally, in response to the annexation, the European Council and the United States have issued “economic sanctions targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy,” as well as “sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

As mentioned, Russian involvement in Ukraine has shown itself to have both a powerful effect on the Russian populace’s perception of the Kremlin and a negative economic and reputational one. Coverage of Ukraine and related entities such as the Kerch Strait, Sevastopol, Crimea, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, constitutes the second-largest portion of RT’s Russian-language content at 13.3%, compared to 1.6% of RT’s English-language reporting. Notable, however, is Crimea’s appearance as the 11th most consistently discussed entity in the English data set.

Accordingly, Insikt Group assesses with high confidence that it is likely that control over the narrative of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, the Crimean annexation, and the conflict in the Donbas is a priority for RT. Insikt Group likewise concludes with high confidence that this is likely not a case of Ukrainian entities being overrepresented because of Ukraine’s proximity to Russia or because a considerable portion of the country speaks Russian, seeing as Belarussian entities constitute just 0.7% of RT’s Russian-language content over the same period, approximately 18 times less coverage than Ukrainian entities received despite Belarus also having a great number of Russian speakers and close ties to Russia.

Ethnic and Religious Groups

0.8% and 0.3% of RT’s English-language reporting discusses Jewish and Muslim people, respectively. In the Russian version, the category does not apply to any of the top 100 entities for any of the three years surveyed. This is in part significant because the Russian Federation is home to an estimated 20 million Muslims, making RT’s choice to cover that population in one language but not in another considerably suspect.

Extant literature discusses RT’s proclivity for inflaming racial and ethnic conflict. A study from King’s College in London describes RT and Sputnik, another Kremlin-funded news agency, as “highly specific aggregators of stories of immigrant crime and ethnic conflict across Europe.” In an incident known as the “Lisa case,” RT infamously promoted a fake story about the murder of a German girl by migrants and accused German authorities of covering up the matter once the girl was found alive.

It should also be noted that this tendency to provide inflammatory content on issues of ethnicity and religion is aligned with the concerns of both the Russian and English audiences. In a poll conducted by the Russia-based Levada Analytical Center in February of 2019, 14% of respondents in Russia stated they felt that the flow of migrants into Russia was the most pressing issue faced by the country. With regard to English-speaking countries, a Gallup poll conducted in January of 2019 showed that, when choosing among non-economic issues, 21% of Americans chose immigration as the “most important problem facing the country today.” Additionally, a poll conducted in the same month by U.K. pollster Ipsos MORI found that 19% of the British public believes immigration to be the most pressing issue facing the country. Although the perception of the threat of immigration appears moderately higher in the English-speaking world, this does not account for the relative absence of reporting on issues of race and ethnicity in RT’s Russian-language content.

The high incidence of entities such as “Jewish” and “Jew” is possibly a reflection of long-standing accusations by the Kremlin and associated news organizations, including RT, that the government in Ukraine is anti-Semitic. A more likely cause is that these terms often appear in reporting on Israel. RT’s reporting on Israeli entities constitutes 2.2% of its English-language content, compared to 1.6% for Ukrainian entities in the same.

Given existing proof of RT’s intent to mislead in covering stories related to ethnic and religious tensions, immigration, and similar issues, Insikt Group assesses with high confidence that RT’s lack of reporting on these issues in Russian is likely intended to preserve social stability, whereas its decision to cover these issues in English is intended to provoke and widen divisions in those societies.

Outlook

As this report shows, monitoring the activity of Kremlin-associated media such as RT in several languages, provided that it is available, can provide valuable insight into the Kremlin’s goals for both the foreign and domestic information environments. Moreover, examining the differences between reporting in several languages, as Insikt Group has done here, is another valuable method of ascertaining the goals of a news organization, and arguably provides greater depth of knowledge than would be possible with the examination of a single language, as much of the extant literature has done.

The examination of both English and Russian here is also important from a geopolitical perspective. Changing the behavior of an aggressive state such as Russia requires both an in-depth understanding of the disinformation employed by that state abroad for the purposes of destabilization as well as of disinformation employed at home for the purposes of maintaining power and restricting access to the truth. To this end, it would be beneficial to conduct a multilingual examination of other well-known Kremlin media associates, such as Sputnik International. This understanding may serve to inform preventative measures against disinformation and so-called “fake news.” It may also provide Western media with the tools necessary to fight disinformation in Russia and in regions neighboring it, namely the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Editor’s Note: This report was written by a member of our summer internship program.