What It Is, Why It Matters
By Anna Borshchevskaya & Catherine Cleveland
Information manipulation is a key foreign policy tool that Russia utilizes to pursue its anti-Western agenda. Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s main propagandists, describes journalism as a warfare tactic: “If you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him.
The Middle East Media Landscape
Because Arabic is spoken in so many countries, state actors can reach sympathetic audiences beyond their own borders, and independent centers of journalism can flourish where state censorship is weak and existing domestic options are limited, providing alternatives to official opinions.
Yet the challenges of funding independent media in the region have created a milieu that favors those voices with a definitive point of view and the ability to rally monetary support. Many ostensibly independent news sources in reality receive indirect support from state-connected actors. Moreover, even non-government-funded outlets in the Middle East often reflect a specific political angle.
Separate from political orientation is the wide variability in media quality in the region. Differences from Western standards are illustrated by a journalist at a workshop on photo verification, who readily admitted to using doctored photos in order to better portray “the evils of ISIS.”
Surveys of media studies programs in Arab countries demonstrate that available course materials—often published in Britain or the United States—often do not accurately reflect the challenging realities of reporting in the Middle East.
Moreover, Middle East journalists are in many cases vulnerable to censorship and arrest if self-censorship is not judiciously exercised. These constraints on journalism make it all the more difficult for the public to obtain accurately verified information and contribute to the reliance instead on informal reporting methods, from social media to citizen journalism.
In addition, social media has revolutionized news readership in the Arab world even more than in the United States. According to a recent Northwestern University in Qatar poll, a majority of respondents from all countries surveyed in 2017 (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates) report heavy use of both smartphones and television for access to news.
This reflects a tremendous shift from the past decade—in 2008, 52 percent of Arab-country respondents to a Zogby poll said they never used the Internet at all, and only 8 percent said they used the Internet as a primary source of international news.
Most important, trust in news sources is increasing in the Arab world, moving in the opposite direction of the trend among U.S. audiences.
The current media environment of the Middle East—with news more readily accessible online but generally driven by state-funded or indirectly monitored media—provides useful openings for Moscow.
Simply put, Kremlin propaganda tends to be more successful in an environment already receptive to its message. Today’s Middle East media landscape provides such an environment.
Social Media Strategy
Given the media landscape just outlined, the RT Arabic and Sputnik platforms are set to benefit on several fronts. As Arab viewers increasingly turn to social media, especially Facebook, for news, RT Arabic is proving adept at disseminating its message through these new channels—its website, social media, video sites such as YouTube, and “reposts” of RT’s content on other websites.
Using these avenues, RT Arabic in particular focuses on putting out a near constant stream of media through articles, video, and interactive content.
Back in late 2011 and early 2012, when Russia experienced the largest anti-government protests since the fall of the Soviet Union, the leadership understood the importance of the Internet.
During these protests, the opposition organized through online social networks, and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny emerged as one of the most prominent Kremlin critics.
Vladimir Putin learned that to retain influence he had to control cyberspace, which he did not only through growing censorship at home but also through aggressively filling information space abroad.
RT Arabic produces a huge amount of online content relative to other sites. On Twitter, for example, RT Arabic has published 524,000 tweets, significantly more content than has Al Jazeera at 229,000, Al-Arabiya at 164,000, CNN Arabic at 138,000, BBC Arabic at 111,000, and Alhurra at 86,000 as of December 2018.
On Facebook, RT Arabic publishes at a rate approximately five times that of the Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya Arabic pages, respectively, with approximately ten posts per hour in contrast to the two other pages’ relatively steady rate of two per hour.
All three pages are able to regularly achieve over a thousand “interactions” on a single post, and—as tabulated by Facebook—RT Arabic’s video content appears to track similar view numbers to Al-Arabiya’s video content posted at the same time, although fewer than Al Jazeera’s tracked Facebook views.
RT and Sputnik’s pages also engage audiences through active and diverse posting. On RT Arabic’s Facebook page—with a purported 14.9 million followers, dwarfing the still extremely large 5.4 million RT English likes—posts are rapid and additionally spread over a number of themed pages, including RT Play Arabic (video), RT Arabic Knowledge, and RT Arabic Sport.
This focus on consistent, heavy social media posting, with a good deal of content specifically designed to be read in the social media context, suggests that RT seeks to target a younger, increasingly tech-savvy audience.
This is a vital demographic given the youth boom in the Arab world, and suggests the Kremlin is investing long term in reaching Arabic-speaking audiences.
RT by the Numbers
In February 2015, an RT-reported Nielsen poll rated RT Arabic as among the top three most-watched news channels in six Arabic countries surveyed:
Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and Iraq. According to the survey, RT’s daily audience was greater than Britain’s BBC Arabic and Sky News Arabia, America’s Alhurra, and China’s CCTV in Arabic.
According to Kremlin propaganda expert Donald Jensen, “Anecdotal evidence suggests the rate today may be even higher.”
When RT Arabic began airing through satellite television in 2007, broadcasting reach was a primary metric of success. Based on available information for broadcasting reach, RT Arabic’s appeal is actually less consistent across the region than other major broadcasters for which data is available.
One of the difficulties facing previous researchers of RT Arabic was a lack of accessible independently reported information on the channel’s satellite TV reach; yet based on a variety of other reported sources RT’s broadcasting in Arabic had a large audience in some countries but was quite limited in its overall regional reach.
Most recently, RT reported in 2018 that according to an Ipsos study, 11 million people view RT Arabic on a weekly basis, with its largest viewership in Iraq.
In comparison, AlHurra’s most recent available statistics report 17 million viewers each week, and the Middle East broadcasting networks which hosts AlHurra and AlHurra Iraq reports 25.7 million.
RT’s most recent broadcasting numbers do demonstrate an overall increase from RT’s earlier reported numbers, included in the previously cited Nielsen survey, which indicated 11.5 million viewers per month in 2015.
Given the relatively limited success of RT Arabic’s reach on traditional broadcasting media, RT Arabic appears to have greatly benefited from shifting norms of media consumption, with the Internet becoming a primary source for news.
The website statistics aggregator Alexa provides another window into RT Arabic’s reach, suggesting that the news company’s website is able to reach a much larger audience than through television broadcasting.
According to Alexa metrics obtained in November 2018, RT is the 301st most popular website worldwide, a ranking based on total unique viewership and page views.
Moreover, 1.79 percent of traffic to RT comes from the search term “YouTube” in Arabic, making it the third most common director of traffic to all RT pages.
Although the Alexa website notes that RT metrics are “estimated” rather than certified, these numbers give a ballpark idea of RT website access in the Arab world. According to this data, the RT website is remarkably popular in Arabic-speaking countries across the board, often ranking higher than the websites of both Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
Despite these findings, web and broadcasting numbers are increasingly insufficient for understanding the overall reach of media information disseminated online. Moreover, RT is itself infamous for using bots and other methods to inflate numbers of followers and viewers of its English-language services.
Yet this approach also successfully games the system to promote actual increased viewership based on algorithms on online platforms. As already mentioned, RT’s emphasis on social media reflects a particular interest in spreading its message to younger consumers.
Indeed, a 2018 poll found that more Arab youth use social media to access news than television (63% vs. 51%). In December 2014, RT boasted that its five channels combined reached 2 billion views on YouTube.
A recent study of RT’s impact on YouTube—the easiest to track because YouTube provides a view count —reveals that RT Arabic has a large and growing following. In 2016, the same study recorded a viewership of nearly 300,000 for this channel.
As of December 2018, RT Arabic had 125 videos on its YouTube page, each with more than 1 million views, falling between Al Jazeera with 97 videos and Al-Arabiya with over 200 exceeding 1 million views.
While many of these videos may have gone viral due to content designed to be simply appealing rather than promote a particular message, other videos do explicitly relate to the region’s politics, such as the RT Arabic video “The Moment of a ‘Daesh’ Child Suicide Bomber’s Capture in Iraq,” which has received 7.2 million views.
Even taking inflation efforts into account, RT Arabic has an impressive number of followers on Facebook—especially important given the primacy of Facebook as a social and news site for Arab millennial.
As of December 2018, RT Arabic had approximately 15,100,000 likes, and while it trails media powerhouses such as Al-Arabiya (22,150,000 likes) and Al Jazeera (22,950,000), it still outpaces many other international media outlets, including Sky News Arabic (12,150,000), Alhurra (11,080,000), BBC Arabic (10,010,000), and CNN Arabic (2,490,000). This is also significantly larger than RT English’s following of 5.4 million noted earlier.
While these numbers can be padded by creating fake accounts to interact with content on a Facebook page or Twitter account, author review of different pages suggest that users interact with RT Arabic Facebook posts at a rate comparable to Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
Anna Borshchevsk is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East. A doctoral candidate at George Mason University, she is also a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Her analysis is published widely in venues such as Foreign Affairs, The Hill, The New Criterion, the Middle East Quarterly, and Forbes.
Catherine Cleveland is a Washington Institute senior fellow and editor of Fikra Forum. She recently received a master’s degree in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago.