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How to measure the Kremlin’s propaganda on YouTube?

26.01.2019

Recently, there have been many discussions about manipulations with public opinion which are launched on social media and carried out for political or ideological purposes. There are evidences about malicious online activities promoted by numerous pages on social media. Their content was created and disseminated by several pro-Kremlin actors, often affiliated with propagandistic channels such as BaltNews, Sputnik and Russia Today (aka RT).

Back in May of 2018, analysts from the National Centre of Defence & Security Awareness (NCDSA) brought to the public’s attention the presence of coordinated hostile information campaigns which are being conducted in Russian on the Baltic states’ segment of social media. More information on this can be found from the profound psycholinguistic study entitled “Virtual Russian world in the Baltics”.

Having focused on the most popular social media networks (e.g. Facebook, VK and OK), analysists did not studied properly another important channel used for delivering and spreading hostile disinformation – that is YouTube. It is proven that, both formally and factually, visual content of short videos attracts more viewers and inspires a deeper interest than just a plain text.

Communication expert Raul Rebane wrote recently about Russian-language information campaigns on YouTube, referring to a large amount of certain videos, which contain brutally false information about the Baltic states as well as propagate an extremely negative attitude against them. The expert also mentions 15 foundational myths, upon which most of the anti-Baltic videos are based. Their viewership varies from a few thousand to four million views. Some key memes propagated in these videos are also noteworthy: “Dying Baltics”, “Latvian sprats”, “Euro dead end” etc.

Moreover, the artificial nature of some trending slogans on social media could be also clearly proven by the following simple fact. NCDSA analysts found that #ESTexitEU became the most widespread hashtag within the Estonia’s Russian-speaking community on Facebook in December 2018.

Before going viral, this hashtag was practically non-existing until December 2018, but has started spreading widely because of a coordinated activity that was orchestrated by the network of fake accounts. Now it is clear that these accounts have been created by Russian online-instigators in order to influence the information space. NCDSA analysists are also monitoring similar malicious operations related to other topics: for example, spreading anti-NATO sentiments in Estonia.

Ideologically charged videos in YouTube are being successfully disseminated through the aforementioned social media networks. NCDSA experts analyzed the public data array from Facebook and VK. These big data consisted of all posts, written in Russian by roughly 414,000 users from Estonia throughout the entire 2018. After processing these open-sourced text data, analysists concluded that YouTube is undisputedly one of the most frequently mentioned resources among all external links, reaching 13% mark on average. NCDSA analysts discovered also an interesting difference within so-called ideological posts on various social media networks. Such labeling is done for those public posts and comments, which in one way or another concern politics, ideology, history and other topics, often utilized in propaganda.

In total, 115,000 ideological public posts in Russian were created by Estonian users in 2018. 67,000 posts were on VK, 48,000 – on Facebook. On average, 23% of the analyzed VK ideological posts contained YouTube links. The respective amount on Facebook was only 5%. In other words, link to YouTube was present practically in every fourth VK public ideological post, created by a user in Estonia in 2018, and in every twentieth ideological post on Facebook. Relatively low indicator for Facebook can be probably explained by the fact that, being a competitor to Google (which owns YouTube), Facebook develops its own video service, and often merely does not allow to promote YouTube videos on its platform.

Evidently, YouTube videos are widely referred in social media based Russian-language public discussions in Estonia. Furthermore, NCDSA analysists were interested to get an in-depth understanding of the videos which content is thematically associated with politics, ideology, history, propaganda and other relevant topics.

By the end of 2018, there were approximately 15,030,000 targeted videos on YouTube in Russian, out of which 31% (~4,600,000) were thematically associated with President Putin. Thus, on average, practically every third video in Russian out of all social-political, ideological or historical videos on YouTube, shows and talks in one way or another about Putin. Moreover, around 17,000 new videos of this kind are uploaded to YouTube monthly. According to YouTube statistics, the most popular video about Putin has more than 66 million views. The second topical place is held by the Soviet-related content which is present in 21% (~3,200,000) of all ideological YouTube videos in Russian. Production of new videos on these issues reaches around 15,000 pieces a month, whereas the total viewership of the most popular one is about 43 million. NCDSA experts have already called public’s attention to intensifying reincarnation and massive coverage of Soviet-themed content in Baltics’ Russian-speaking segment of social media, as well as in the cognitive space. On the third place among the ideological YouTube videos in Russian, there is anti-Ukrainian sentiment (in total ~1,150,000, around 8%), which is also present, on average, in 11,500 new videos monthly.

Eventually, it can be concluded that propagandistic videos in Russian are spreading globally through YouTube. Notably, most of these videos are loaded with distorted values and they project pro-Russian world outlook that supports hostile and aggressive foreign policy of the Kremlin. In public social-political or historical discussions, Estonian social media users refer often to ideological YouTube videos in Russian, thus reinforcing the amplification of the pro-Kremlin narratives. In order to evaluate the efficiency of the ideological videos, further in-depth analysis of audience reach and their engagement is necessary.

Authors: Dmitri Teperik, Grigori Senkiv

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Youtube Grigori Senkiv Dmitri Teperik Behaviour Estonia Baltics Ideological Content Social networks Hostile influence

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