“Anything that causes chaos is RT’s line”- new study lifts the lid on RT’s role in wreaking political havoc.

  • New analysis shows how RT (formerly Russia Today) is used as an instrument of the Russian defence policy against the West
  • The editorial policy and Soviet-style organisational structure of RT helps embed a strong anti-Western, anti-democracy narrative

New analysis from researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, shows how internal processes at RT contribute to the anti-West news agenda and its critical representation of Western government across all RT languages.  The Oxford study is the first of its kind to go behind the scenes, with researchers speaking to former and current staff, lifting the lid on daily newsroom practices at RT.

In this paper, co-authored by lead researcher Mona Elswah, Oxford Internet Institute and Professor Philip N. Howard, Director, Oxford Internet Institute, ‘The Organisational Behaviour of Russia Today’, the Oxford academics examine the current media system followed within RT and the ways in which its organisational behaviour ensures that editorial content is in line with the Russian government’s foreign policy positions.  The paper is published in the Journal of Communication.

The Oxford researchers explore the organisational structure that forms the foundation of the process of content control, socialization of its journalists and the adaptability of the channel and its journalists.   They also examine the ‘gatekeeping’ processes used at RT to reframe the news, such as the extent of the Russian governments’ involvement in hiring top managers, imposing story angles and in some instances, disapproving of stories.  The researchers also explore how RT uses social controls such as rewarding loyalty to RT with greater career progression opportunities.

In addition, they set out a framework for examining state-backed media operations, using RT as a case study to show how understanding historical and domestic contexts can help scholars assess the level of propaganda prevalent within news output from domestic and foreign news bureaus.

Mona Elswah, doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said:

“Our case study shines a light on the organisational behaviour of RT and the way in which RT uses gatekeeping processes and social controls through their daily practices.  We hope that our analysis provides a useful framework for other scholars researching news organisational behaviour, information warfare and international broadcasting.”

Researchers conducted face to face interviews with twenty-three RT journalists between January 2018 and March 2019. The interviews addressed the following areas:  their experience at RT, the sources they relied on to gather news and to write their stories, the political crises that shaped their RT experience and the gatekeeping process at the channel.

Key findings

  • According to the study participants, shifts in the RT news agenda took place in 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. This is considered the first time the channel started spreading disinformation.
  • The 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict also impacted the channel’s editorial process: cancelling non-political shows and employing NDAs on non-Russian journalists.
  • The channel follows a similar model of journalism to the one employed during the Soviet era, including being fully funded by the state, hiring loyalists at key positions, and assigning stories to journalists.
  • RT is not about Russia. Editorial focus is on non-Russian related content instead of representing Russian positively.
  • Research demonstrates that Russia’s Internet Research Agency made use of RT content to promote Trump over social media during the 2016 elections and beyond, though according to these study participants, RT journalists were not specifically instructed to promote Trump.
  • Socialisation of journalists is done mainly through monetary incentives and job promotions. RT does not use coercion against its journalists – none of the participants has been fired or been threatened to be fired.

Adds Professor Philip N Howard, co-author of the paper and Director of the Oxford Internet Institute:

“We expose and explain the internal processes of an important instrument of Russia’s information warfare infrastructure.  RT alone does not have the power to break Western democracies, and RT isn’t driving the Russian government’s disinformation strategy.  But it is one of the most important content sources for disinformation campaigns of all kinds, whether organized by the Russian Government or extremist groups in the West.”

For more information or to request an interview, please contact Sara Spinks on 01865 287220 or email press@oii.ox.ac.uk

Notes for editors

Download the memo

For previous data memos visit the OII’s Computational Propaganda Project website.

About the Oxford Internet Institute

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/