Russian Bias in the coverage of the post-George Floyd/Black Lives Matter movement
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Élève-officier Thomas Turmel, Collège militaire royal du Canada
The use of diverse mediums to target and shape the public views of foreign audiences is not unique to our digital age, or novel for that matter. In fact, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) made use of the radio in the 1930s to support Britain’s imperialism (Rush, 2011) and Hollywood was used as a significant influencing power during the Cold War and beyond (Mirrlees, 2016). Yet, in the pre-digital age, putting in place a mediatic entity targeting a foreign audience was a colossal enterprise, as establishing viewership, credibility and putting in place the infrastructure to produce content is very resource intensive. Also, a media’s ability to reach foreign audiences was diminished by the state’s control on media inside their geographic boundaries (Price, 2002). Social media as a technology of the information age has changed just that by significantly reducing the amount of resources necessary to export content to a foreign audience and by enabling foreign states to access the Western public with greater ease, a consequence of the state’s eroded sovereignty in cyberspace. In fact, the exact challenge that foreign media represents on social platforms is yet to be known with certainty; as of 2018, 60 percent of North Americans declared getting news from social media daily, surpassing every other medium, even television and news sites, a number that has likely grown since (Mitchell et al., 2018 January 11).
The intent of this research paper is to study the challenge that foreign publically funded media represent in the North American news space by considering the case of Russia Today (RT). It will be conducted through a case-study comparing the representation of two U.S. institutions in relation to the post-George Floyd/Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement offered by the Russian media RT and the German outlet Deutsche Welle (DW). A comparative approach is used to better understand and contrast the content produced by the Russian public funded media, since it has been identified as a severe threat on North American social media platforms (Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, 2019) and its recent history has been punctuated by controversies (Goldman, 2017; Erlanger, 2017). DW is used as a comparison to obtain a coverage thought to (better) represent the ideal of independent reporting by foreign public funded media.
In order to build the necessary theoretical framework for this research, the expression 'foreign publically funded media' will be defined as it constitutes the common link between the chosen media. Then, the 'government independence' variable will be defined. Finally, RT and DW will be examined to evaluate their level of independence.
Foreign Public Media
Foreign publically funded media are media organizations producing content for foreign audiences that mostly rely on funds coming from or allotted by the government. Consequently, unlike most private media, these organizations don’t rely on advertisements, membership or sponsorship to operate (Pew Research Center, 2014), rather, they rely on government funding. Even more defining, the goal of publically funded news organizations is not to generate revenue, but rather to serve cultural mandates (Benson & Powers, 2011). In addition, perhaps one of the most recognizable characteristics of a foreign publically funded media is the fact that they produce content in a language often not native to their country of origin, highlighting their mission to target foreign audiences. This definition, albeit very inclusive, highlights the fact that foreign publically funded news agencies have a tangible link with their government, increasing the risk of governmental interference, and that they are designed to interact with foreign audiences.
The level of independence of RT and DW will be evaluated in order to better contextualize the results and discussion. Media independence will be defined as the ability of media organizations to publish without governmental restriction. On one end of a much disputed and theoretical spectrum there is ‘independent media,’ free of governmental restriction and, on the other end, there is ‘state media,’ mediatic organization being restricted by state power (Karppinen & Moe, 2016).
Russia Today (RT) and Deutsche Welle (DW)
RT was formerly created in 2013 by a Russian presidential decree titled On Measures on Increasing Effectiveness of State Media, signed into law by Putin himself. The objective of the new organization now encompassing RT, International News Agency Russia Today, is to "highlight abroad the state policy and public life of the Russian Federation" and to "secure the national interests of the Russian Federation in the information field" (Postnikova, 2017). This unambiguous objective is a sign of government dependence as the purpose the Russian State indirectly gave to RT is to positively represent it and to serve a State mandate, both not coinciding with the aims of an independent media.
Further, the editorial policy of Russia’s largest foreign news agency is veiled in secrecy. Indeed, nowhere on RT’s website is there mention of an editorial or administrative board and its composition. If there is such a thing, it has never been disclosed, even though this is typical public funded media practice (Benson & Powers, 2011). In addition, RT has been recognized for its very directed editorial line; it has been argued that the outlet publishes a pro-Putin and pro-Russia narrative (Ajir & Vailliant, 2018). Its lack of journalistic freedom has been illustrated by the dramatic on-air resignation of American reporter Liz Wahl following strict directives to defend Russia’s claim to have rightfully annexed Crimea in 2014 (Watson, 2014). Additionally, academics have long studied the Russian outlet, finding it guilty of propagating lies and conspiracy theories challenging the Western narrative (Flaherty & Roselle, 2017). The description of RT demonstrates a lack of journalistic freedom and what appears to be a clear link between the Kremlin and the news outlet. This lack of independence brought the United States to force RT to register as a foreign agent (Stubbs & Gibson, 2017).
DW has been Germany’s publically funded international broadcaster since its creation in 1995 (Vissol, 2005). The operation of the news platform is regulated in a legislative act, the Deutsche Welle Act, which states that DW’s objective is to:
convey the image of Germany as a cultural state in the European tradition and as a free and democratic constitutional state. [It] should provide a forum in Europe and on other continents for German (and other) points of view on important topics, primarily in the areas of politics, culture, and economics, with the aim of promoting understanding and the exchange of ideas among different cultures and peoples (Deutsche Welle, 2017).
DW’s mandate is more cultural and educational than political, inline with independent media practices since it is dissociated by law from German government interests. Also, the German network’s editorial structure is clearly outlined in the DW Act, highlighting the roles and parameters surrounding the nomination of the Broadcasting Boards, the Administrative Board and the Director General (Deutsche Welle, 2017). In addition, no less than three times, the independent nature of DW is highlighted in the document. These factors have led this research to establish that DW is an independent foreign public media.
Far from being the first study on foreign public media bias or even RT’s directed reporting (Flaherty & Roselle, 2018), this study generates new findings using a case-study approach of a specific event and employs original data collection methods. The challenge posed by foreign publically funded outlets will be evaluated by comparing the representation of American institutions offered by RT and DW articulated around the research question: How do the representation of American institutions, specifically, 1) law enforcement and 2) any entity of the American government) differ in relation to the post-George Floyd/Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests?
To draw conclusions about the representation of these institutions, RT and DW’s coverage of post-George Floyd/BLM protests are qualitatively examined in order to determine whether or not there is a difference in the portrayal of the above-mentioned American institutions. Defined in line with sociological principles as organizations cohesive in the common view, they were chosen for the large amount of criticism they have received during the studied event (Andrews, 2020; Abrams, 2020) and for the fact that foreign adversaries would benefit from weakening these corner stones of American society. In addition, social media is used as a data collection point instead of the usual news article analysis with complementary RSS feed in an effort to offer a more contemporary approach to a question that has already been approached by scholars.
Consequently, at the end of June 2020, the Facebook pages of RT and DW were visited simultaneously and the last 10 pieces of content (including linked article, photo with caption, videos, etc.) published on the Post-George Floyd/BLM protests were compiled and analyzed (DW 2020a, 2020b, 2020c, 2020d, 2020e, 2020f, 2020g, 2020h, 2020i, 2020j; RT 2020a, 2020b, 2020c, 2020d, 2020e, 2020f, 2020g, 2020h, 2020i, 2020j). The major events happening at the time of the data collection were the large-scale protests in Portland, the controversial decision of President Trump to send federal agents in turbulent US cities and the toppling of monuments related to racism.
Findings and Analysis
The first key difference between the coverage offered by each media is the medium used to cover the Portland protests and its message. With regard to the Portland protests, only two out of the five DW posts were videos while six out of the seven RT posts were videos. Although the quantitative disparity is significant, a second difference was noted. The qualitative difference is even more distinctive, leading to disparity in the portrayal of the law enforcement institution. In fact, the videos published by RT placed much more emphasis on police-on-protester violence, showing clips of vigorous arrests, shield charges and tear gassing, with very few clips negatively representing the protesters (RT, 2020a, 2020d). On the contrary, the videos and articles published by DW offered a more balanced portrayal of the events by showing the police-on-protester violence, as well as, protesters engaging in violent or otherwise unpeaceful behaviour such as rock throwing and vandalism (DW, 2020i).
The third major difference was related to the vocabulary used and its significance for the understanding viewers could have of the Portland protests. To illustrate the stark contrast, DW titled a video showing violent interactions between the police force and the protesters as: "Police, protesters clash in several US cities during rallies" (DW, 2020i) while RT seems to have the police take the burden of the escalation of violence by titling its video: "Portland clashes | Projectiles fired by law enforcement agents as unrest becomes violent" (RT, 2020c). This choice of caption is especially revealing as, even if the videos presented were similar, the captions were very different and it has been proven that captions can "radically change the way viewers may perceive the image[s]" (Mielczarek & Perlmutter, 2014). Also, RT incorrectly designated the federal agents sent in Portland by Washington as "heavily armed soldiers" (RT, 2020b) while DW designated them correctly, but severely, as "paramilitary-equipped federal police" (DW, 2020b). Such a difference in the representation of the law enforcement institution can be explained by DW’s non-partisan nature and by the underlying objective of the Kremlin to polarize Americans around divisive issues, racism and police brutality in this case (Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, 2019).
Finally, both RT and DW highlighted the alleged unconstitutionality and divisive nature of President Trump’s resolve to deploy additional federal agents in American cities (RT, 2020d; DW, 2020g). However, some of RT’s coverage of the political institution was inconsistent with correct journalistic practices. For example, a news report’s title on the Portland protest seemed to question the credibility of President Trump by ridiculing him and challenging the role of the US abroad by reading: "World’s policeman’ struggles to keep peace on its own streets" (RT, 2020f). Such a defining critique of the American government and of its foreign policy, outside a warranted news context, is improper journalism and an obvious effort by the Russian media to undermine the United States’ political institutions. In addition, as identified in Flaherty and Roselle (2017), RT made use of question-raising theory to challenge existing narratives. Comparable, but more subtle than conspiracy theories, this strategy was used to question the credibility of the American government and it’s supposed tyrannical nature: "A cease-fire with its own citizens, is the US crossing over the line from social unrest to something more serious? Judge for yourself…" (RT, 2020f) followed by the footage of scuffles between protesters and police officers, following the proposal of Portland mayor, Ted Wheeler, to discuss a cease-fire between police and protesters. This coverage is considered an attempt to undermine and destabilize America’s political institution by challenging its competency and its ability to maintain stability
This analysis of the coverage of the Post-George Floyd/BLM protests shows a tangible difference in the coverage offered by DW and RT, although in a certain number of cases, the coverage offered by both media was found to be similar. DW offered a significantly more impartial coverage of the protests while RT’s coverage seems to have been designed to undermine the American government and law enforcement institutions by the means of selective reporting, polarizing content, and biased coverage.
In sum, this research sought to understand the differences between the news coverage offered by a German independent foreign public funded media and a Russian State foreign public media, in order to understand the challenges that modern communication technologies and their employment pose on North American social media platforms. The analysis of the post-George Floyd/BLM protests confirmed that RT is used to pursue Russian political objectives through reporting aimed at fragilizing and dividing the American people and that DW is an independent source posing no foreseeable threat. Although quite distinguishable when identified and analyzed, the differences and bias for that matter in the coverage offered by RT and DW, may be too subtle for unwary North Americans scouring social media for news, highlighting the need for an impact study to determine the possible effects of bias in social media reporting.
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