Ellen Mickiewicz: Re: “New York Times on RT and YouTube”

File Image of Laptop Computer, Tables and Mobile Device, adapted from image at energy.gov

Subject: New York Times on RT and YouTube
Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2017
From: Ellen Mickiewicz <ellen.mickiewicz@duke.edu>

New York Times on RT and YouTube

Ellen Mickiewicz
James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy and Political Science
Duke University

In the New York Times of October 24, 2017, a front-page story repeats some of the errors about the U.S. audience for RT on YouTube and then adds its own mistakes. RT has very high numbers on YouTube, because they show sensationalist videos from foreign countries under the RT logo. The Times article quaintly says “The viral videos, which were often borrowed from other sources, helped build up RT’s subscribers [who then go on to the Kremlin’s political content on YouTube]. You do not “borrow” other videographers’ stories, any more than you “borrow” someone else’s film and slap your logo on top. What they do, according to Kirill Karnovich-Valua, head of the English-language operation, is to rush to secure rights to stories with sensationalist (viral) potential, get them to search engines, and put the RT logo on top. The explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “their” biggest story. [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/technology/youtube-russia-rt.html]

When Karnovich-Valua described this process in an interview, he was asked if they were RT’s videos. His answer, “Of course, not.” 81% of RT’S 100 most popular videos over 5 years were created by foreign countries. Political videos account for only 1% of RT’s total exposure on YouTube. These are not the old television days, when in the United States, each of the three national networks had its audience that stuck with them all day. On YouTube, users chase a story wherever it is; it’s not a linear process. The story on the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion-RT’s biggest hit-did not drive the huge number of viewers to Russian politics programs. That is of no interest to the Times’ reporters, who quote an official of “the Alliance for Securing Democracy,” as saying that audiences “eventually land on videos that the Kremlin wants them to see.” That statement, provides no evidence and, in any case, would be an impossibility, since the numbers for the Fukushima video, for example, are gigantic and would have changed the numbers for the political programs dramatically, but it didn’t happen.

As a scholar, I am curious about sources. The “Alliance for Securing Democracy,” of the German Marshall Fund, says on its webpage, that it “tracks Russian influence on Twitter.” This would be a singular effort, since Twitter has 328 million monthly users. The Alliance website indicates it follows 600 accounts. Monitored content includes 1. That which is “attributable Russian media and influence operations,” a “relatively small proportion” of the content. Second: “content amplified to reflect Russian influence themes.” And the third category is “less relevant content.” It would seem to a researcher, like myself, that the 2nd and 3rd categories hold by far most of the information on which conclusions are based. But, we are told, “it is NOT CORRECT to describe sites linked by this network as Russian propaganda sites. Rather, content linked by this network is RELEVANT to Russian messaging themes.”[emphasis in the original]

In order to use these results, a researcher would have to know much more about the precise methodology, definitions, and algorithms operationalizing “propaganda” to constitute the Alliance’s base of evidence. We have seen that in the online ads traced to Russia, the themes range broadly over race relations, economic hardships, the general state of this country. These are themes that have been part of American discourse for its entire history. So, what exactly is being called evidence? A researcher would need to know in order to evaluate the results.

But here’s what’s really important about Russia and YouTube: the video site can show and the arguments can be heard as a public outlet for opposition leaders within Russia, who have no space and no chance to present their ideas to a public, any public. In 2017, the leader of the liberal opposition, Alexei Navalny, uploaded a professionally made, arresting documentary detailing corruption in the Kremlin. “He is not Dimon to You” tracks down through false fronts, bribes, and hidden partnerships a story of corruption by Dmitry Medvedev, former President and now Prime Minister of Russia. Navalny has virtually no outlet for his investigative work on corruption, making this channel on YouTube tremendously important for a largely silenced opposition. Why isn’t that written about in the same article?