Anglophone pro-Russian media and the war: data from Twitter.

For the past while I’ve been trying to get a sense of how Russian speakers react to the war by looking at reaction information — information about how many and what sort of reactions readers have to messages they read (see here, for example, for one story among many; see also my daily Twitter bot which posts the most reacted-to stories from some main Telegram channels). An interesting question I didn’t previously consider is how non-Russian, but potentially Russia-allied, readers react. What do they care about the most?

Thanks to a recent change of jurisdiction, which brought with it access to RT, a Russian government-funded news channel, I became able to answer this question. RT is in many languages, but, at least on Twitter, it’s its English language channel that has the most followers, with around 3 million. Moreover, and this is a fundamental premise (but questionable), I assume RT’s audience is primarily pro-Russian in a way that we can’t say for other big outlets. So, using a simple and I believe unspammy app (you could also do it, a bit more laboriously, via the API), I downloaded the most recent 3200 messages, including users’ responses in the form of likes and retweets. Below I present some findings. Before doing that, an exercise. If you have been following events, what do you think has made the most impact?

The right-most column is retweets, the second-right-most likes. Period covered is today to roughly start of July.

It’s not what you think. Here’s the top ten stories ranked by likes (with retweets as the final column):

“India to accept Russian Mir debit and credit cards, while Russia to ‘clear the way’ for Indian RuPay, Tue Aug 23 04:30:00, 15027, 3603

“Thousands rally in support of ousted Pakistani PM Khan, 2022–08–25T10:31:20,9128,4393

‘There is a cipher — a conversation between the Pakistani envoy in Washington and a US diplomat, where the latter threatens the Pakistani ambassador, saying: ‘unless Imran Khan is removed as PM, there will be consequences for Pakistan’… that is blatant interference’ — Imran Khan, Thu Aug 25 14:17:26,7833, 4244

“Hundreds of people gather outside former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s house after he’s been charged with violating the country’s anti-terrorism laws, Sun Aug 21 23:00:00, 7706, 3636

“‘Country’s foreign policy must be for the benefit of the public’ — Imran Khan to RT, Thu Aug 25 14:18:43, 7378, 3704

Pakistan’s big shots appear to take a page out of the US playbook on how to beat a political opponent, as ousted Premier Imran Khan faces arrest, censorship and criminal charges, much like Donald Trump, Tue Aug 23 14:00:03, 5543, 3407

“Russian Parliament Introduces Bill to Completely Ban LGBTQ+ Imagery. The new bill has entered Russia’s State Duma and would prohibit any depictions of LGBTQ+ imagery online, in media and in public. Its intention is to prevent children from being exposed to LGBTQ+ propaganda, Mon Jul 18 13:00:17, 5246, 1732

“‘Pakistan descending into fascism, current government has no credibility amongst the people, inflation gone through the roof’ — Imran Khan to RT. Watch full exclusive interview., Thu Aug 25 14:02:13, 4967, 2624

“A McDonald’s employee is in critical condition after being shot in the neck by an irate customer’s son. Matthew Webb, 23, was on shift at a McDonald’s restaurant in New York, when a woman approached him complaining that her fries were cold, Wed Aug 03 15:14:07,3941, 543

“Hundreds of Imran Khan supporters gather outside his house in Islamabad as he’s being charged with terrorism over vow to sue police officers and judge after a close aid was allegedly tortured following arrest, Mon Aug 22 10:00:02 +0000 2022, 3636, 2191

Weird, right? A preponderance of stories concerning events in and around the Indian subcontinent. What explains this? A hypothesis I won’t test, at least this evening, is that it’s simply a function of (often Anglophone) population. If this were so, any English channel’s stories about India and Pakistan would get a lot of engagement, simply because there’s a lot of Anglophone people there.

Another possibility is that this is artificial, and reveals something about the bot problem that is supposed to blight Twitter; that only really ought to be a live possibility if we can adduce positive reason for thinking it.

But there is a positive reason. The screenshot above shows that there is also an outsized number of stories about the recent Pelosi-Taiwan events. Unlike Pakistan, there is much less widespread English spoken both in Taiwan and on mainland China. So the English explanation doesn’t cut it. What does? It’s unclear, but here arguably it does seem like there is something artificial going on.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t help us with our question. So let’s concentrate on the top ten that are explicitly about Russia, again ranked by likes:

1. “Russian Parliament Introduces Bill to Completely Ban LGBTQ+ Imagery. The new bill has entered Russia’s State Duma and would prohibit any depictions of LGBTQ+ imagery online, in media and in public. Its intention is to prevent children from being exposed to LGBTQ+ propaganda, Mon Jul 18 13:00:17, 5246 1732
2. “Putin arrives in Tehran for talks with Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Tue Jul 19 13:13:07, 1660, 468
3. Russia and Iran may move away from trading in US dollars as economic cooperation develops — Kremlin, Mon Jul 18 09:43:06 2022,1620, 342
4. Putin Will Not Meet With Israeli Delegation To Discuss Justice Ministry’s Shutdown Of Jewish Agency In Russia — Kremlin, Wed Jul 27 14:53:03 2022, 1574, 370
5. “Russia and India no longer need US dollar — BRICS president, Thu Aug 25 09:45:52,1454, 399
6. “‘Whoever endangers Russia’s sovereignty will be met with a strong response’, Sun Jul 31 15:00:02 2022, 1421, 427
7. “❗️President Putin offers condolences to family of Darya Dugina. ‘A vile, cruel crime that cut short the life of Darya Dugina, a bright, talented person with a real Russian heart — kind, loving, sympathetic and open.’, Mon Aug 22 13:26:56, 1219, 280
8. Antony Blinken traveled to South Africa in a bid to convince the nation to curb ties with Russia and China — yet, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor says her country won’t be pushed around — while many in Africa seem to have more faith in ties with BRICS countries than with the West, Wed Aug 10 00:00:02 2022, 1209, 507
9. African leaders welcome Lavrov despite West’s objections, Sun Jul 31 17:00:00 2022, 1091, 354
10. US wants Ukrainian conflict to last as long as possible, Tue Aug 16 07:31:04 2022, 935, 254

It’s a mixed bag. It’s distinctly noticeable that the very first occurrence of ‘Ukraine’ comes in at 30. This is surely surprising! One would be forgiven for thinking that a Russia-directed channel directed to a Russia-friendly audience would talk about Russia’s ongoing war much more often. There are 394 occurrence of ‘Ukraine’ and a mere 62 of Zelensky. There are 83 of the US, 99 of Biden (not necessarily exclusive.) I’ve pondered in earlier posts whether the Russian media seems more directed towards Ukraine or towards some more elusive ‘West’, tentatively suggesting the latter — that Russia views itself as primarily fighting the West (this doesn’t mean that the war isn’t in Ukraine, that Ukrainians aren’t the ones suffering the most, or so on.) Arguably this data, facts such as that Biden is more mentioned than Zelensky, bear this out, but this time for an interestingly different data set. That’s tentative takeaway one.

The rest? It’s noticeable that many of the biggest stories involve international relations. I’m not sure what to make of this, and am open to theories — in general, this is an angle that I don’t think has come up in my investigations. That the most popular story is about LGBTQ+ is interesting and arguably not surprising; again, in a previous post I noted how it was a frequent rhetorical weapon of the Russians. Similar stories come in at 58, 231, 326, 330, 740, 816, and 986, and that’s only counting the occurrences in the top 100. It’s fair to say that the Russian media’s obsession with such issues is, if anything, even more pronounced in its English language output. Even without taking a look, I think we can say with some certainty that one wouldn’t find the same for, say, the BBC.

This post is short, and more the presentation of a useful area of analysis rather than any great conclusions about that area. But nevertheless we can maybe say some things with some confidence. Maybe it’s a useful corrective to the Western-centrism we might instinctively lapse into; maybe it backs up Elon Musk’s claim about bots and such on Twitter. There is arguably an interesting fit between the Russian language output I’ve discussed previously and the English language output.

At the same time, there are differences. My daily ‘most popular’ tracker bot often does involve reference to events in Ukraine. It often, too, involves references to Russian culture that, at least to this non-native, require some deciphering. RT is a more international voice, it seems, but it’s one that still hits many of the same notes as its Russophone peers, and any adequate theory of how propaganda works, of the sort I’ve been trying to develop, needs to attend to these inter-linguistic similarities and differences.

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