The_Donald subreddit, a highly engaged bastion of alt-right conversation in the United States, has a penchant for Kremlin-controlled RT’s news stories on a number of subjects, including migrant and refugee-related crime, President Trump, the failings of the mainstream media and the conflict in Syria.
This presents a concerning new trend of a foreign agent of the Russian government, funded by the Russian state shaping The_Donald subredditor’s views on divisive issues in the United States.
At the end of September, Buzzfeed, NBC News and The Verge all reported about Reddit’s pro-Trump community The_Donald getting infiltrated with content from two sites linked to Russia’s influence operations — USA Really and the now-defunct brutalist.press.
The news broke after Reddit users discovered that users sharing content from Kremlin-controlled USA Really were using a URL shortener to hide the origin of the articles they were posting on the pro-Trump subreddit. Over the past year, more than 500 articles from USA Really and the brutalist.press were submitted on Reddit. Only two, however, were upvoted more than 1,000 times, indicating a low uptake of the content shared from the two domains.
The story, however, missed an important part of Kremlin’s influence ecosystem on Reddit, namely RT’s presence on the pro-Trump subreddit The_Donald, a forum originally devoted to Trump’s presidential campaign, which later turned into an alt-right hub currently known for its effectiveness in disseminating inaccurate and hyper-partisan content.
Over the past year alone (between October 2017 and October 2018), the 20 posts most upvoted by The_Donald subreddit linking to RT got more than 132,000 upvotes. The most upvoted post linking to RT got 14,600 upvotes. In contrast, the most upvoted post on The_Donald overall got 19,900 upvotes. This shows that Kremlin-controlled RT is an important part of the subreddit’s media diet.
The majority of the articles upvoted the most were either anti-U.S. mainstream media (“CNN, MSNBC look away as Trump hosts families of victims killed by illegal immigrants”), pro-Kremlin (“7 times Trump critics called Russia a ‘s***hole’ & worse, and no one cared”), or anti-refugee/Islamophobic (“Muslim population in Europe to triple by 2050 even with ‘zero migration’”, due to inaccuracy later changed to “Muslim population in Europe set to grow even with ‘zero migration’ — study”).
None of the articles reported outright falsehoods and therefore cannot be classified as disinformation, but they all had clear pro-Trump, pro-Kremlin and an anti-refugee biases, in line with the subreddit’s known stance.
For example, an article originally titled “Muslim population in Europe to triple by 2050 even with ‘zero migration’”, was accompanied by an RT-produced video, which opened with an Arabic-speaking man welcoming his viewers to his home in Sweden, while holding a loaded gun, with which he shoots the town sheriff.
Another article, “7 times Trump critics called Russia a ‘s***hole’ & worse, and no one cared” had a clear pro-Kremlin bias. The author implied Sen. Lindsay Graham’s remarks about Russia being a “one-man dictatorship” with “an economy the size of Italy” that is “playing a poker game with a pair of 2s” as offensive, comparing it to Trump’s “s***hole” remarks about African nations. It is worth pointing out, however, that Russia’s GDP is lower than Italy’s, making Senator Graham’s statements an overestimation of Russia’s economic might.
RT’s article about CNN and MSNBC “looking away” as Trump hosted families of victims killed by illegal immigrants was highly biased against the American mainstream media outlets. First of all, both CNN and MSNBC reported on the story and aired Trump’s remarks, but chose not to broadcast the entire event, instead focusing on another major story at the time, which was migrant family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Both CNN and MSNBC acknowledged that the loss the families who lost their loved ones was tragic and reaffirmed that “our hearts go out to them.”
The_Donald appears to be one focal point for RT content dissemination on Reddit. According to Buzzsumo data, articles from RT rarely get any engagements on Reddit, with most of the network’s articles being shared mostly on Facebook. To illustrate, out of six most-shared RT’s articles in the past six months, neither one got any engagements (upvotes) on Reddit.
The articles that were shared on The_Donald, however, had a disproportionately high rate of Reddit engagements, oftentimes exceeding the engagement they got on Facebook and Twitter. This indicates that if it was not for The_Donald, RT’s articles would fall on deaf ears on Reddit.
Instead, by upvoting RT’s articles thousands of times, The_Donald Redditors made it possible for RT’s content to reach Reddit’s home page, which is the first page users see when they enter the site.
RT’s popularity on The_Donald is concerning because the subreddit is known for its influence in the far-right and alt-right communities.
By seeding biased content into the subreddit, RT is tapping into a strong amplification network, which can organically disseminate pro-Kremlin content under an all-American brand. This overt influence is far more difficult to challenge than the Kremlin’s covert meddling in the 2016 elections, but nevertheless cannot be overlooked as it appears to be equally successful.