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Sputnik News’s “Viral” Vertical: How Viral Is It?
September 25, 2020
Post by Aditi Bawa
Sputnik News, Russia’s state-sponsored media outlet, features a number of categories of articles on its website including “World,” “Business,” “Opinion,” “Tech,” “Radio,” “Multimedia,” and “Viral.” The “Viral” category, which serves as a vertical for the outlet’s entertainment and celebrity news, puts a particular focus on social media trends and reactions. Its stories are typically outlandish and frequently embed social media posts from celebrities and other well-known figures on platforms like Twitter.
Sputnik’s “Viral” content covers everything from the Royal Family’s fashion mishaps to the latest internet memes to Twitter users’ debates over President Trump’s foreign visits. At times, like in the case of one article published on September 25, 2020, titled “Watch Truck Mow Down Breonna Taylor Protesters in LA” content highlights chaos and violence in the U.S. However, many of Sputnik’s Viral stories center on small controversies surrounding President Trump and online discussion about him. All five of the most popular Viral stories published from January 2019 to July 2020 reference Trump, though the tone across the articles is mixed. For example, one story covers celebrity Alyssa Milano’s criticisms of Trump and his remarks about COVID-19, while another highlights a supporter of President Trump’s MAGA hat donned during a Trump rally.
Most of the Viral section’s stories do not actually go viral and receive only a few shares and retweets on social media. However, the section’s most popular story published between January 2019 and July 2020—of the more than 300 Viral stories catalogued by FIE—is a story among Russia’s most popular content across all its verticals to include RT content. The story, titled “Twitter Explodes After ‘Trump’ Yarmulkes Appear at Republican Jewish Coalition,” covered “Trump” yarmulkes at the Republican Jewish Coalition and gained nearly 223,000 Facebook interactions as of September 17, 2020. Sputnik’s Facebook post of the story received only 238 reactions, 77 comments and 338 shares, with the majority of interactions coming from other Facebook pages and groups.
Facebook Engagement (public interactions as of Sep 17, 2020)
The Sputnik News vertical’s focus on Trump is not surprising, given Russian outlets’ trend of publishing a large volume of content focused on the president and social media reactions. The section showcases Russian state media’s ability to adeptly cover online trends and capture cultural zeitgeist with regard to U.S. politics. Drawing eyeballs to its site through eye-catching and oftentimes light stories like those found in the Viral section, Sputnik can better grab the attention of U.S. audiences and potentially increase its readership on topics of higher consequence. The approach is subtle and effective.