Chinese, Iranian and Russian State-Sponsored News: Which Stories Spread the Most?
May 12, 2020
Post by Cyrena Kokolis
FIE 2020 recently evaluated the social media presence and reach of Russian, Iranian and Chinese state-sponsored news outlets. But which of the outlets’ articles gain the most traction on social media platforms, and how do the overarching narratives contained in such articles differ from country to country? To answer this question, FIE 2020 analyzed more than 15,500 catalogued articles, published from January 1, 2019 to April 21, 2020, for public Facebook engagement. (The articles were catalogued based on explicit mentions of the 2020 election, 2020 candidates or a relevant political issue, like COVID-19 or American tech companies. See FIE 2020’s project methodology here.)
The common thread connecting the most popular RT and Sputnik News stories is more related to tone than content: Russia’s stories seeing the most public Facebook engagement are those that appear to offer alternative takes on mainstream news stories, regardless of subject matter. Popular pieces from Russian outlets often feature snarky headlines and sensationalist language, increasing their potential for virality online. Recently, articles using sensationalist or conspiratorial rhetoric concerning the COVID-19 crisis have been gaining popularity. For example, an RT article titled “Coronavirus may be a product of US ‘biological attack’ aimed at Iran & China, IRGC chief claims” received nearly 21,000 shares as of May 7. Another story, titled “Run for the hills! Pentagon sends teams into MOUNTAIN BUNKERS as pandemic preparations go into full swing” received more than 12,000 shares as of May 7. One RT op-ed, titled “I am an American Constitutional Lawyer—and I See Our Government Using COVID-19 to Take Away Our Fundamental Rights,” opens with a rhetorical question: “Could we quarantine the constitution?” The article was shared more than 40,000 times as of May 7.
Ultimately, the most popular articles from each country’s state media outlets accurately reflect the general sentiment of each country’s collective attitude towards the United States. Chinese media presents the U.S.-China relationship as a zero-sum game with a focus on the two powers’ struggle for economic dominance. Iranian media rails consistently against the United States’s unmatched geopolitical influence and ability to shape international norms of state behavior. And Russian media describes the hypocrisies and failures of American public figures with incredulity and contempt. Understanding the lenses through which state-owned media outlets interpret the world, and the virality of stories that contain the narratives these lenses construct, is crucial to ensuring that we as consumers of news continue to perceive information through none except the lens of reality.