Understanding RT’s Audiences: Exposure Not Endorsement for Twitter Followers of Russian State-Sponsored Media

Crilley, Rhys; Gillespie, Marie; Vidgen, Bertie and Willis, Alistair (2020). Understanding RT’s Audiences: Exposure Not Endorsement for Twitter Followers of Russian State-Sponsored Media. The International Journal of Press/Politics (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161220980692

Abstract

The Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) has attracted much attention as a purveyor of Russian propaganda. To date, most studies of RT have focused on its broadcast, website, and social media content, with little research on its audiences. Through a data-driven application of network science and other computational methods, we address this gap to provide insight into the demographics and interests of RT’s Twitter followers, as well as how they engage with RT. Building upon recent studies of Russian state-sponsored media, we report three main results. First, we find that most of RT’s Twitter followers only very rarely engage with its content and tend to be exposed to RT’s content alongside other mainstream news channels. This indicates that RT is not a central part of their online news media environment. Second, using probabilistic computational methods, we show that followers of RT are slightly more likely to be older and male than average Twitter users, and they are far more likely to be bots. Third, we identify thirty-five distinct audience segments, which vary in terms of their nationality, languages, and interests. This audience segmentation reveals the considerable heterogeneity of RT’s Twitter followers. Accordingly, we conclude that generalizations about RT’s audience based on analyses of RT’s media content, or on vocal minorities among its wider audiences, are unhelpful and limit our understanding of RT and its appeal to international audiences.

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