Russia’s state media actively promoted Brexit supporters and undermined Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential bid as part of a yearslong campaign to sow doubt among Western democracies, according to almost two dozen current and former journalists for RT, the Kremlin-backed outlet.
The strategy, outlined in a report from the Oxford Internet Institute published Monday, involved Moscow using RT’s global network of news sites in more than 30 languages to push anti-West narratives, sow conspiracy theories to cast doubt on traditional media outlets and foment controversy to boost Russia’s presence on the global stage, based on anonymous interviews with the RT journalists.
They spoke to the academics on the condition of anonymity in part because many had signed nondisclosure agreements that included hefty financial penalties for speaking publicly.
“Creating controversy for RT was the whole point,” said Mona Elswah, who co-authored the study and is a Ph.D. student at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Bad publicity is good publicity for them.”
The inside look at RT’s activities comes as national security agencies and disinformation experts remain concerned about Russian efforts to interfere in Western elections. With just over a month to go before the U.S. presidential vote, the Kremlin has been trying to sow division among an already-polarized electorate, while in Europe, local officials accused Moscow of trying to interfere in last year’s European Parliament election.
The United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election were key moments in RT’s strategy.
Many of these activities have been covert, including using sophisticated campaigns on social media networks that often portrayed Russian operatives as local voters.
But RT — which has tens of millions of followers across social media — is a vocal part of the country’s propaganda operation, according to the 23 journalists who spoke to the University of Oxford academics. Their efforts included skewing news output to promote narratives that showed the West as corrupt, divided and out of touch. During the recent unrest and violence amid protests against racism in the United States, for instance, RT pushed hard to spread that message to its millions of online followers, according to an analysis of recent Twitter posts by POLITICO.
“Would they twist stories, or make facts, or reshape things, or twist a narrative? Absolutely,” one of the reporters told the researchers. “It’s less than about changing the story, just omitting facts.”
The United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election were key moments in RT’s strategy — tactics that have grown more sophisticated over the last four years, according to the interviews that took place between January 2018 and March 2019.
Ahead of the 2016 U.K. vote, RT journalists were urged to give more airtime to Brexit supporters, including Nigel Farage. When one reporter asked his editor what was the Kremlin-backed outlet’s goal during the referendum, the response was: “Anything that causes chaos is RT’s line,” based on one of the anonymous interviews.
While U.S. national intelligence agencies have alleged the Kremlin actively sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election, RT journalists said they were never told to promote Donald Trump. Instead, the goal was to run stories attacking Clinton, his Democratic opponent.
“During the run-up to the election, I remember bashing Clinton, criticizing Clinton all the time because RT themselves did not believe that Trump would win,” said one of the reporters.
When Elswah, the Oxford researcher, asked the journalists if they felt guilty for their role in Russia’s propaganda machine, many — but not all — admitted that they were ashamed for how they had portrayed global events on behalf of RT.
“They definitely felt guilty,” she said. “The most common feeling was guilt.”