YouTube’s Kremlin Disinformation Problem

Kremlin-funded content is *really* good at baiting YouTube’s search results

(Source: @DFRLab)

YouTube may be a video sharing platform, but it is also currently the second largest online search engine, processing more than three billion searches a month. Like most technology companies, it has recently come under fire for contributing to the increasingly toxic online discourse.

In fact, YouTube has long had a conspiracy theory and misinformation problem, best illustrated by a recent video accusing Parkland shooting survivors of being “crisis actors” becoming the top trending clip on the platform. As harmful as conspiracy theory videos are to the public discourse, state-sponsored disinformation super-charged by YouTube’s recommendation algorithms presents an even greater threat to the video sharing platform and its users.

RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is a Kremlin-funded media outlet, which was dubbed by its editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan as Russia’s “information weapon.” RT is also the most-watched news network on YouTube, its videos to date have been watched more than five billion times on the video sharing platform.

(Source: YouTube / RT)

RT Networks

RT has a network of 20 channels broadcasting on YouTube. Its main channel has 2,517,681 subscribers.

(Source: YouTube / RT)

In total, 20 RT channels have more than eight million subscribers, each channel catering to different audiences based not only on language, but also age demographics and political preferences.

One of the RT’s channels In The Now, for example, is digitally native and only produces social media content with short, shareable videos on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter that target millennials and young social media users. Redacted Tonight, RT’s comedy and satire show that “tackles all the real news stories the mainstream media failed to mention and provides new angles on the ones they do” and targets an audience of users who consume their news through political satire akin to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. RT show Underground RT caters exclusively to a British audience and targets left-leaning viewers, who distrust the mainstream British media. RT’s Boom Bust show focuses on financial news and the “Western banking” system, attracting viewers who mistrust the financial sector.

RT’s high view and subscriber count is a contributing factor in ensuring the network a favorable position in the YouTube’s trending news section, an auto-generated channel featuring “comprehensive up-to-date coverage on the latest top stories, sports, business, entertainment, politics, and more.” News channel has more than 33 million subscribers.

To illustrate, YouTube’s Top Story in the News category around the time of this report, was RT’s video on Kim Jong Un visiting South Korea.

This is an image of a search conducted in the United States, an important detail in terms of results yielded. (Source: YouTube)

RT’s coverage dominates not only YouTube’s ‘World News’, but also America’s “National News” channels.

RT was the only source on a story titled “Credibility crisis in the mainstream media” covering the homophobic comments allegedly made by American TV personality Joy Reid. The story was featured on YouTube’s AI-curated “National News” channel and suggested three RT-made videos only.

This is an image of a search conducted in the United States, an important detail in terms of results yielded.(Source: YouTube)

In the same channel, RT’s video was the top recommendation for news about Arizona teacher protests.

This is an image of a search conducted in the United States, an important detail in terms of results yielded.(Source: YouTube)

It is important to note that RT’s reporting on the Arizona protests, Joy Reid’s homophobic comments, and North Korea leader visiting South Korean were all factually accurate. They may have been chosen against other factual news items to fit certain themes, but the stories should be considered journalism. In fact, these videos help RT build credibility with its audiences and YouTube’s algorithms that is then used to promote RT-made disinformation on chosen topics like the Syrian war, chemical weapons attacks, the White Helmets, separatists in Ukraine, and the Skripal case in the United Kingdom.

Dominating Search Results

In fact, in a neutral YouTube search for “Douma” keyword, top five results came from RT, four of which denied the Douma chemical attack took place.

This is an image of a search conducted in the United States, an important detail in terms of results yielded.(Source: YouTube)

A similar search for “White Helmets”, a volunteer search and rescue group made up of Syrian civilians, delivered four RT videos, three at the top of the search results. Of the four, all shared a negative sentiment towards the White Helmets and the top result accused the White Helmets of staging the chemical attack in Douma.

This is an image of a search conducted in the United States, an important detail in terms of results yielded.(Source: YouTube)

Not Only Syria

RT’s content dominated search results not only for Syria. Keyword “Skripal” returned five RT videos among the top six results. Of those, one attempted to discredit OPCW’s investigation into the case, another two proposed different theories about why Russia could not have poisoned the Skripals — one saying it would destroy Russia’s credibility and another floating a theory that the Skripals were poisoned by a Russian organized crime group. The top recommendation was a video titled “Novichok: Behind nerve agent (Inconvenient facts surrounding Skripal saga)”, mocking the British government’s accusations and suggesting “anyone could have made the nerve agent with appropriate knowledge of organic chemistry”.

This is an image of a search conducted in the United Kingdom, an important detail in terms of results yielded.(Source: YouTube )

Conclusion

Our research shows that RT holds a number of popular channels and has a large presence ion YouTube that is benefiting greatly from YouTube’s news recommendation algorithm in the United States. RT is the top recommended source for news concerning Douma’s chemical weapons attack, Skripal poisoning and the Syrian White Helmets — the three topics that the Kremlin has a vested interest in spreading disinformation about.

Back in February 2018, YouTube announced that it would start tagging content from state-funded news outlets. Over the course of our research, we did find that all RT videos were tagged as “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government”.

This tag, however, was only available when the user’s location was set to the United States.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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