The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Russia Today is Moscow’s propaganda arm, it’s not very good at its job

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the new studio complex of the state-owned English-language Russia Today television network in Moscow in 2013. (Yuri Kochetkov/AFP/Getty Images)

When Russia Today's top editor read the newly released report from the director of national intelligence on Russia's hack of the U.S. election, she had just one thought: “You're kidding, right?”

The Kremlin-funded news outlet plays a starring role in the report. According to its authors, “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine . . . contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.”

RT is credited with, among other things, “consistently cast[ing] President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment”; “denigrat[ing] Secretary Clinton” with segments like ‘Clinton and ISIS Funded by the Same Money’ ”; and casting doubt on the outcome of the U.S. election with clips like “Trump Will Not be Permitted to Win,” an English-language clip that garnered more than 2.2 million views.

According to the report, the channel “substantially expanded its repertoire of programming that highlights criticism of alleged U.S. shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.”

It's true that the station seemed to have a preference for Trump in the run-up to the 2016 campaign. It's clear, too, that RT enjoys obvious links to the Kremlin and that its editorial efforts illuminate the Putin line.

But it's not at all obvious that Americans were swayed by the channel's segments. “The main instrument of Russia propaganda, the RT channel, has a small audience — the U.S. intelligence agencies grossly inflated its importance,” Thomas de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote recently.

It's not even that easy to know how many Americans are tuning in. RT claims it has more than 500,000 unique viewers every day and more than 800 million views on its YouTube channel since 2005. On its website, RT says that it can reach 85 million people in the United States. When asked for comment, its spokesperson pointed to a November 2015 study (commissioned by the channel), which found that RT is watched by 8 million people weekly in America, and that it's among the top five international broadcasters in the country.

As journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted, RT is famous for fudging its ratings. A 2015 investigation by the Daily Beast found that the channel aggressively exaggerates its success, writing that the site is “pretending that it has had a far bigger impact in the Western media sphere than it has, particularly online.” (These findings were based on documents leaked by former employees at RIA Novosti, a separate and rival Russian state-funded media venture that was defunded in 2015. RT disputed them all. In a statement to the Daily Beast, spokeswoman Anna Belkina said, “The claims made about RT’s operations bear no resemblance to reality.”)

The same investigation found that the channel lied in claiming its English-, Spanish- and Arabic-language broadcasts reached 630 million people worldwide. “In reality, that number is just the theoretical geographical scope of the audience,” the Daily Beast wrote. It noted that RT was not listed in Nielsen ratings for the U.S. for 2012, which means it didn't garner an audience of more than 18 million households. Ditto the cable news channels rankings, meaning that, according to the documents, “the average daily viewership of RT programs in the U.S. does not reach [30,000] people.” RT is still largely absent from cable news rankings in 2015.

When RT does get attention — mostly through its viral video hits online — it's not for its political coverage. RT's biggest hits aren't scoops about the American election, but rather clips of insane weather patterns or people doing crazy things. Those videos, according to the Daily Beast, get “far more traffic than any videos on Russian or Western politics or those featuring Vladimir Putin.” As the Daily Beast writes:

Of the top 100 most-watched over five years, 81 percent — 344 million views — went to videos of natural disasters, accidents, crime, and natural phenomenon. RT’s political news videos, featuring the content by which it seeks to shape Western opinion and thus justify its existence, accounted for a mere 1 percent of its total YouTube exposure, with fewer than 4 million views. RT Documentary, cited as one of the brand’s least popular YouTube channels, got an average of 200 to 300 views per video in 2013. The Daily Beast found that now, only about 100 of RT Documentary’s videos have had more than 10,000 views. Many of the most-watched are part of a graphic birthing series called “newborn Russia.”

“The audience is extremely small,” said Ellen Mickiewicz, a Duke University-based expert on Russian media who's studied RT closely. She noted that the channel did not make it into a ranking of the top 94 cable news channels in the United States (the lowest ranking channel in that survey had less than 1 percent of total cable news viewers) and that just 1 percent of the videos it posts on YouTube are political in nature.*

Why, then, does the DNI's report rely so heavily on RT as evidence that Russia hacked the election, influencing voters enough to call the results into question? It most likely has to do with availability. RT is publicly accessible, so the DNI could point to its segments without fear of divulging classified material. And it's pretty good insight into how the Kremlin wants to portray the United States: “grim, divided, brutal, decadent, overrun with violent immigrants and unstable.”

But, as Mickiewicz told me, “analyzing content may tell you what government wants to put out. But it doesn't tell you anything about what the impact is.”

An earlier version of this story erroneously said that RT had not responded to The Post's requests for comment on its audience size. 
* This language has been updated to clarify that 1 percent of the videos it posts on YouTube are political in nature, not one percent of all RT programming.