Name-calling is ramping up in preparation for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. But there is a new dimension: because Russia puts out broadcast and digital material for consumption in the United States (so-called weaponized information), then Russia’s positive coverage is quite enough to define that candidate in the U.S. as foreign pawn. NBC, in a flawed report, seemed to have bought in to this unprofessional brand of journalism. There is powerful evidence to nullify it. Is anyone listening, viewing, reading the output of the Russia-linked entities? That, after all, is the first step to persuasion.
The scale of the internet is staggering: The lawyer for Google, when he estimated 126 million as the potential audience for Russia-linked messages, he said he doubted they had all read them; he was talking about messages that could be seen. That has to be proven before anything can be said about changing attitudes (i.e. persuasion).
How can a message, a story get through the enormous chaos of activity on the internet? As of 2017, there were 3.74 billion internet users world wide and 1.24 billion sites. Only 51.8% of all internet traffic comes from human beings; the rest are bots, and China has been a leading actor in that. There are 2.79 billion active social users in the world. As of 2017, during 1 month, 2 billion monthly active users logged in to Facebook; Twitter, 328 million. Competition is huge. As for RT, it is not making significant inroads in America: of the top 94 cable news sites [cable only], RT doesn’t appear at all. In the UK, S4C the Welsh-language public-service channel gets 0.6% share; RT brings in 0.5% of the population. These are extremely low exposure figures; RT itself will often give a figure representing the potential audience: i.e. the population in an area that can receive it and, if they want to, turn it on. It’s far from counting an audience.
What about advertisements? Competition here is gigantic. On your computer or mobile screen, ads of postage stamp size will quickly flit by you or land in your newsfeed and be pushed down and away by the horde of ads on the way. Russians bought ads on Facebook, at the cheapest level. If you spend a great deal more, the ad department will help you to configure graphics and videos and possibly give you the banner place at the top and even let it stay longer. That’s expensive; well beyond the allowance of RT. You can also customize your ad by checking off the features you’d like to reach: demographic, ideological, etc. The Russian buys were overly loaded with desirable user features; there was no population on Facebook to match ¼ of them.
Navigating the internet requires a lot of savvy. Look at the frantic, fast-moving ads, videos, friends’ pictures chronicling practically every corner of their lives, and political, social, and other posts that clutter the screen noisily. Very few advertisements can make it through that clutter. Look at the competition. Between 2015 and 2017, 80,000 Russia-linked posts appeared on Facebook. At the same time, Americans saw 10 trillion posts.
Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign will need millions of supporters, and the somewhat old-fashioned non-kinetic RT is not the answer. But a more important question should be asked: how far do you bend the rules of good journalism, NBC’s hallmark, to end up with an ideologically tinted article, with poor sourcing? NBC has not been and should—for the sake of its reputation—stay out of the persuasion game and take the time to examine why some of us are referred to as experts.
Duke University; Author of No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders (Oxford University Press, paperback edition, Duke University Press); Board Member, The American Committee for East-West Accord.