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New report uncovers the dissemination of Russian-backed content in EU countries

The research project AlterPublics at Roskilde University show in a new report how the two Russian state-affiliated media RT and Sputnik have been shared up to the invasion of Ukraine in alternative news environments in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Austria.
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Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU decided to ban the two Russian state-affiliated media RT and Sputnik. A new AlterPublics report now shows how content from the two has spread in alternative news environments in four EU countries up until the invasion.

Using a network approach, the report investigates the flow of Russian-backed news content across multiple social media platforms. It finds that the news content has been shared across all platforms with Facebook and Twitter as the most used platforms in a Danish and Swedish context, while Telegram, Gab and VKontakte has been the preferred platforms in a German language context.

When zooming in on the ideological differences, the report reveals that the content has been shared in both anti-systems, left-, and right-wing communities, but that generally the flow has been larger and stronger in right-wing communities.

– We find that the coverage has resonated most with right-wing actors in all four countries. The Swedish and Danish shares predominantly come from right-wing actors, but the balance here is more level than the German language link shares where the balance is tipped much more towards the right, says Frederik Møller Henriksen, PhD fellow at the AlterPublics project.

The network – which reflects the alternative news environments in the four countries – is made up of millions of accounts on several social media platforms who are connected to alternative news media in their respective countries. In this network, links to RT and Sputnik make up around one percent of all Danish, Swedish, and German language link shares from January 2019 to March 2022.

– We have looked at the dissemination of Russian-backed content in these environments because RT and Sputnik have attempted across many years to position themselves as alternative news media. So when their articles have been disseminated in the four EU countries, they have likely been disseminated in these environments, says PI Eva Mayerhöffer.

In addition to platforms and ideological positions of the actors behind the dissemination, the report also analyses the thematic context of the RT and Sputnik shares. Even though both media are Russian-backed, the shares rarely touch upon Russian politics or culture. Instead, themes such as Covid-19 and immigration that generally divide populations in Western countries make up the majority of shares.

The results thus indicate that RT and Sputnik have been used in alternative news environments to criticise Western institutions, actors, and norms in much the same ways alternative news media have.

The report is published by Centre for News Research at Roskilde University and supported by the Carlsberg Foundation. You can read the full report here.