RT’s and Sputnik’s website and mobile app reach

On 24 February 2022, Russia started its full-scale war against Ukraine. Since then, policymakers around the world have taken measures to curb the influence of Russia’s foreign communication outlets, RT and Sputnik. The Council of the European Union (EU) claimed that these two state-owned news agencies have been “essential and instrumental in bringing forward and supporting the military aggression against Ukraine, and for the destabilisation of its neighbouring countries”. As a result, the EU has banned the dissemination of both outlets’ content via any means, including their official websites and mobile apps.

Researchers have undertaken extensive investigations into the content of these agencies (e.g. ). For example, even before Russia’s invasion, scholars found that RT had disseminated conspiracy theories alongside other content and furthermore had been described as “one of the most important organizations in the global political economy of disinformation”.

Prior to the invasion, RT primarily focused on Social Networking Sites (SNSs) to distribute its content, particularly on the video-sharing platform YouTube. Orttung and Nelson reported that by 2017 RT’s English-language YouTube channel was performing slightly better even than leading global news channels, CNN and the BBC. In March 2022, YouTube decided to block RT and Sputnik, since which time their websites and mobile apps seem to have taken a more central role in the outlets’ informational ecosystems.

To date, we know little about these agencies’ SNS audiences and even less about their website and mobile app audiences. and even less about their website and mobile app users. Relevant academic studies have used either cross-national or national surveys to investigate the outlets’ multiplatform audiences (including SNSs, websites and mobile apps). Consequently, researchers still have only a rather coarse-grained picture of these two outlets’ popularity.

In our new study with co-authors Neil Thurman (Department of Media and Communication, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany) and Richard Fletcher (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, UK), we have investigated audiences from both agencies’ websites and mobile apps across 21 countries (see Figures for list of countries) immediately before Russia’s invasion.

Kling, J., Toepfl, F., Thurman, N., & Fletcher, R. (2022). Mapping the website and mobile app audiences of Russia’s foreign communication outlets, RT and Sputnik, across 21 countries. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review, 3(6).

Our analysis is based on data from Comscore, a leading analytics company, which provides audience estimates of website and mobile app entities based on data from samples of online-recruited panellists and server-side measurements. In regard to RT and Sputnik, we studied their websites and mobile apps between 2019 and 2021, looking particularly at:

  1. audience size
  2. reach
  3. demographics
  4. changes over time

RT and Sputnik reached small audiences at least via their websites and mobile apps immediately prior to Russia’s invasion

Our findings demonstrate that the two outlets each attracted rather limited audiences via their official websites and mobile apps in the quarter before Russia’s invasion. As our data show, RT and Sputnik reached less than 5% of the digital population each month in all countries (see Figure 1). Their audiences are much smaller than, for example, the UK news outlets, BBC News Online and MailOnline, which each have an average monthly website and mobile app reach of more than 50% of the digital population in the UK.

However, these two Russian agencies’ impact on foreign audiences and politics generally should not be underestimated for a number of reasons. Firstly, many prominent news outlets in a number of countries have online coverage of only single digit percentage reach. Secondly, in comparison with other alternative news websites, for instance in Germany, these outlets’ websites are among the most popular. ). Thirdly, the outlets’ websites and mobile apps may be less important than their SNSs in reaching foreign audiences. Finally, both RT and Sputnik may fulfil a broader range of tasks for Russia’s authoritarian elites.

RT’s and Sputnik’s websites and mobile apps were more likely to reach men and those in the older age groups

Moreover, we show that the outlets’ website/app content was more likely to be consumed by men (see Figure 2) and that audience reach increased among the older age groups (see Figure 3, 4). In our research paper, we call for future research that investigates why members of these groups are more likely to receive Russia’s state media contents.

RT’s and Sputnik’s website and mobile app audience size and development varied substantially across the 21 countries

Finally, our new study demonstrates that the agencies’ website and mobile app audience size and development differed substantially across the 21 countries between 2019 and 2021. Thus, we argue that the influence of these two outlets via their websites and mobile apps on foreign audiences has to be assessed separately on the basis of each national context. In certain EU countries, such as Ireland, Finland and Italy, both RT’s and Sputnik’s monthly website and mobile app reach was, on average, less than 1% prior to Russia’s invasion. In other countries, such as Spain, Germany and France, the outlets reached higher proportions of the populations (see Figure 5,6).

ERC-Funded Project

RUSINFORM – The Consequences of the Internet for Russia's Informational Influence Abroad

References and Further Readings

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