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Foreign State-Sponsored Media Outlets and Presence on Reddit

Foreign State-Sponsored Media Outlets and Presence on Reddit

August 5, 2020 

Post by Paakhi Bhatnagar

The dissemination of foreign state-sponsored media via different social media platforms is key to understanding how state-sponsored content spreads across the web and is received by social media users. Reddit, especially notable for its engagement with political content, is an important platform for understanding where discussions regarding the 2020 election are facilitated and how content from foreign state-sponsored media outlets is received. 

After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Reddit began investigating content and discussion spaces attributed to the spread of disinformation further, creating a public list of suspicious accounts investigated by the platform it linked to suspected Russian influence efforts and updating users about its site security efforts. Among users, Reddit is an important medium for information sharing—a 2016 PBS story reported that 78 percent of Reddit users in a survey said they relied on the platform for consuming news. Given that, leading up to the 2020 U.S. election, Reddit should be counted among the platforms important for examining potential state-sponsored influence efforts aimed at the American populace.

FIE 2020 has examined news articles from Russia’s Sputnik News and Russia Today (RT), China’s Global Times, and Iran’s PressTV shared across Reddit from April 1 to June 17, 2020, that explicitly mention the 2020 election, 2016 election, 2020 presidential candidates and/or contemporary U.S. political issues, like COVID-19. The dominant themes in these posts were analyzed by examining the types of news articles and their contents from the aforementioned media outlets that were shared on Reddit. Engagement with the posts was recorded as upvotes and comments.

A few broad trends surface with regard to the types of observed state-sponsored news articles posted on Reddit from May 17 to June 17:

  • Content from RT (98 posts counted citing or mentioning appears to be shared more often than content from the Global Times (23 posts counted), Press TV (17 posts counted) or Sputnik News (79 posts counted).
  • Discussion posts featuring RT content received more public engagement on Reddit compared to content from the other state-sponsored outlets. For example, one popular post citing RT received more than 2,000 upvotes. None of the counted posts from the other three outlets saw more than 100 upvotes.
  • The following general content themes surfaced most often: 
    • World news/international relations
    • Criticism of mainstream media and social media companies
    • Conspiracy theories

While PressTV and RT have subreddits of their own, there is typically little observable engagement with their posts in the subreddits. Stories from state-sponsored news outlets appear to get shared most frequently in separate political or news subreddits. Aligning with its general theme of criticizing American tech companies for alleged bias or censorship, RT even published an op-ed about one such popular political subreddit, r/The_Donald, claiming that “Reddit seems to have decided that special rules need to be enforced for the most popular pro-Trump subreddit.” RT has also published stories more recently on the subreddit after Reddit banned r/The_Donald (which reportedly had nearly 800,000 users) for abusive posts. RT has also criticized Reddit’s moderation of content.

From May 17 to June 17, many of the discussion posts that included RT content appeared in the r/NewsFeed subreddit. Content from RT was posted in at least 20 subreddits, including r/russia, r/WikiLeaks, r/Bitcoin, r/MH17 and r/UkrainianConflict. As noted above, some posts citing RT content see outsized public engagement when compared to posts citing the other state-sponsored media outlets. From May 17 to June 17, a search for RT content turned up a post of video showing a group of people rescuing a man from a burning building that received 129 comments and 10.6K votes (as of June 17).

In contrast to Russia’s state-sponsored content, articles from China’s Global Times and Iran’s PressTV appear to be shared less frequently and saw far fewer engagements on Reddit. As of June 17, the most popular observed discussion post (71 votes, 4 comments) that included a Global Times article featured a story about Japan seeing a shortage of tombstones amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The most popular observed post (50 votes, 18 comments) with an article from PressTV (as of June 17) shared a story about the U.S. warning Israel about the COVID-19 outbreak.

Reddit’s efforts to combat mis- and disinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election will be more important than ever given the amount of conspiracy content available for peddlers to push. Defending the integrity of the 2020 election requires the “front page of the internet” and other social media platforms to continue to investigate and fight disinformation from both domestic and foreign actors, especially in the coming months.