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News

No, RT is Really Quite Successful as a Russian Influence Operation

A Daily Beast article claims that RT, Putin's pet propaganda network, is a failure.

From 2005 to 2013, the Russian government spent 61.6 billion rubles—about $2 billion—on RT despite one of the current documents calling it “essentially an internet media company.”...

The RIA Novosti team also contested RT’s much-hyped online presence, especially the meaning of its outwardly circulated statistic—“chief object of pride for the channel”—that its YouTube account has had over 1 billion views. Most of the views, however, have come from videos “not pertaining to the main goals of the channel”—that is, providing a “Russian viewpoint” on global politics.

It also seems that “soft news”—described mordantly by the RIA Novosti team as “bums, metrosexuals, etc.”—accounted for 23 million views of RT's top 100 clips, which was far more traffic than any videos on Russian or Western politics or those featuring Vladimir Putin. Only 200,000, for example, watched Putin’s inauguration for his third term as Russia’s president; a meager 45,000 an exclusive interview he gave to RT. Putin’s most popular video? Singing “Blueberry Hill” at a charity benefit in St. Petersburg in 2010.

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.

Katie Zavdavski, who lied about Hamas' kidnapping and murder of Israeli teens, misses the point. Most sites, even "serious" news sites have viral videos about animals as their most popular content. The Huffington Post probably gets a lot more clicks on celebrities than its politics. Slate's most popular feature is an advice column. That doesn't stop them from effectively projecting their politics.

Arguing that RT is a failure because its 'side' material is what gets the clicks misses the point. The side material helps normalize the use of RT videos, which is widespread even on conservative sites, and guides some percentage of viewers to its political stuff. And even the seemingly apolitical videos play into the larger classical Russian propaganda about the impending collapse of the West.

An RT reel has an apocalyptic feel. Its overall message is that everything is coming apart. At least in the West. This appeals to a particular demographic.

In the post-Soviet era, Putin can't count on the natural support of the left. He has instead cleverly conducted an influence operation on the far left, the far right and people who are just fed up with it all and distrust their governments.

And it paid off. Both Corbyn, the new radical left Labour leader in the UK, and UKIP on the right, were RT 'gets'. What do they have in common? They appeal to people who distrust everything. Putin has courted opposition groups without caring much about their ideology. RT, like Al Jazeera, is favored by people who are skeptical about everything... except the fact that their news comes from a brutal dictatorship. But it's "alternative". Never mind that the alternative manages to be even worse than the thing it's an alternative to.

The Putin coalition in the West is just as confused and angry as RT's programming. But it works. And that's what counts.

Old style ratings don't particularly matter. Al Jazeera's huge investment in getting a cable network in the US crashed and burned. Putin has spent $2 billion much more cleverly on RT and gotten more bang for his buck.

Has it paid off? Consider the dividends from getting a Ron Paul fanboy like Edward Snowden as an agent. It's not quite up there with some of the KGB's old coups among Communist fellow travelers, but it's not that far off. Wikileaks has been nearly as effective as the ACLU at its mission of disguising espionage and sabotage as civil rights activism.

The KGB usually ate the CIA's lunch and RT proves that it didn't need to rely solely on the support of the left as a prop. Even without the left, the KGB could find fellow travelers, spies and useful idiots in the West.