Alexandra A. Siegel, University of Colorado – Boulder
International broadcasters, or state-funded media aimed at foreign publics, have long been an integral component of public diplomacy and foreign policy for authoritarian and democratic regimes alike. From Soviet use of Radio Moscow to spread communist ideology abroad beginning in the late 1920s to US sponsorship of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War, international broadcasting has often been deployed to shape global narratives and advance states’ strategic goals.1 In the aftermath of 9/11, international broadcasters—including the US-funded Alhurra and Radio Sawa—targeted Arabic speaking audiences to shape narratives in the MENA region. These outlets compete with regionally funded outlets such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya, as well as national broadcasters.2
These state-funded media outlets have successfully adapted to the digital age, running influence campaigns both through traditional media channels and online. Such operations are clearly visible in the Arab online sphere, where international broadcasters have cultivated large audiences on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms. State-sponsored media accounts have used targeted advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as tactics like clickbait headlines and hashtag campaigns, to gain followers and spread their narratives across platforms.3
From RT (formerly Russia Today)’s efforts to shape the regional narrative on the Syria conflict to Iran’s Al-Alam campaigns to portray Iran as a dominant regional power, online campaigns by state media outlets are increasingly used to help foreign state actors advance their goals in the Arab World. While bots, trolls, and sock-puppets receive the lion’s share of scholarly and journalistic attention—
and are discussed in detail in contributions from Alexei Abrahams, Andrew Leber, Marc Owen Jones, Shelby Grossman, and Renee DiResta—international broadcasters are an important but understudied tool deployed in online influence operations. These accounts are extremely popular, often receiving some of the highest levels of engagement in the Arabic-language online sphere. Understanding the reach and influence of state-sponsored media accounts is perhaps particularly consequential in the Arab World, where trust in domestic media sources is relatively low.4
Labeling State-Backed Media
Recognizing the potential harms of foreign state-media operations in diverse global contexts, social media platforms have developed policies to label content produced by state-controlled media. YouTube was the first platform to label state-sponsored accounts in 2018, with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram following in June, August, and September 2020 respectively. Facebook stated that this policy was enacted to “to provide an extra layer of protection against various types of foreign influence in the public debate.”5
However, like all forms of content moderation, labeling state-sponsored media accounts is not a clear-cut task. As a result, labels have been inconsistently applied on several dimensions. First, only certain state-controlled media outlets have been labeled, and the list of flagged accounts differs across platforms. For example, Iran’s English language PressTV accounts are labeled by Facebook and YouTube, but not by Twitter. Both YouTube and Facebook have periodically blocked the account entirely for violating its terms of service, most recently in late March 2021.6 Other popular state-controlled outlets, including Iranian, Turkish, and Israeli international broadcasters have not been labeled at all. Moreover, Western international broadcasters appear to be exempt from labeling, presumably because they have “sufficient editorial independence,”7 though how this is determined remains unclear. Additionally, labels are applied differently across types of content, often not appearing in platform search results or on live content or “stories.”8
Here I examine four international broadcasters that are particularly popular in the Arab online sphere: Russia’s RT Arabic, China’s CGTN Arabic, Iran’s Al-Alam, and Turkey’s TRT Arabi. Both RT and CGTN have been labeled as state controlled foreign media by social media platforms, while Al-Alam and TRT have not. Analyzing about 700K tweets and 500K public Facebook posts produced by these international broadcasters’ accounts, I show a decrease in both followers and engagement in the aftermath of the platforms’ labeling policy for RT and CGTN Arabic, relative to the unlabeled Al-Alam and TRT accounts. Before presenting this descriptive analysis, I first provide a brief overview of each outlet’s origin and presence across Arabic-language social media platforms.
RT (formerly Russia Today) launched in 2005 with the stated goal of bringing “the Russian view on global news,” and launched its Arabic language channel in 2009. But RT soon changed its slogan to “Question More” on both its English and Arabic language channels, framing itself as an alternative to “biased” Western news sources. RT’s Arabic language website does not include a mission statement and simply lists it as a subsidiary of RIANovosti while highlighting the satellite stations through which it transmits its broadcasts to the region.9 Vladimir Putin has described RT’s purpose as “break[ing] the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global media.”10 RT’s editor in chief has even stated that RT is “conducting [an] information war,” playing a role as vital as the Ministry of Defense. She elaborated that the outlet’s strategy is to cultivate an audience that considers RT a source for trusted news, with the goal of helping the Russian state disseminate its message during critical moments.11 RT Arabic has 17.5 million followers on Facebook and 5.2 million followers on Twitter. Recent research suggests that RT Arabic has been particularly influential in spreading online narratives on the Syria conflict, surpassing engagement of mainstream news outlets in both Arabic and English.12 These social media posts portray Russia as effective in fighting extremism, accuse the US of committing human rights abuses, and highlight Western military failures.
China’s CGTN (formerly CCTV) launched its free-to-air Arabic-language international channel in 2009, announcing that the channel would “serve as an important bridge to strengthen communication and understanding between China and Arab countries.”13 The outlet soon created accounts on Twitter and Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, which are blocked inside China. The CGTN Arabic Twitter account has about 700K followers, while its Facebook page has over 15 million followers. CGTN Arabic accounts often produce anti-Western content that advances China’s foreign policy interests. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 as former President Trump blamed China for the spread of the virus, CGTN Arabic began to push content emphasizing that the pandemic started in the US, criticizing the US pandemic response, and charging the US with human rights abuses.14
Iran’s Al-Alam is an Arabic-language channel, which relies on financial and logistic support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.15 In February 2003, Al-Alam began broadcasting from Iran into Iraq, with the goal of targeting Iraq’s majority Shia population.16 The following year, Al-Alam launched a website, ww.alalam.ir, and expanded its audience to target Shia Arabs more broadly. Al-Alam launched its public Facebook page in 2010, which now has about 6 million followers,17 and has an active presence on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. The channel’s goal, whether over the airwaves or online, is to diminish the influence of Iran’s rivals in the region, while advancing Iran’s foreign policy objectives. The outlet regularly highlights Iran’s accomplishments and successes from technological advances to soccer victories. It also emphasizes pan-Islamic identity, downplaying sectarian and national identities and portraying Iran as the true defender of Islam. The channel frequently portrays Western countries as threats to Islam in the context of ongoing regional conflicts.18
Lastly, Turkey’s TRT Arabic language channel was launched in 2010 to reach the Arabic-speaking and Islamic world with its broadcasts. The goal of the media outlet was to advance the AKP’s transnational agenda “to exert a form of soft power in the MENA region.”19 Along these lines, Erdoğan announced at the launch of TRT’s Arabic channel, that Turks and Arabs “share the same history, culture and civilization… They are like the fingers of a hand. They are as close as the flesh and the nail of a finger.”20 The AKP government has used TRT to enhance its political and economic standing by “strategically constructing an attractive neo-Ottoman nation brand.”21 Alongside its satellite channel, TRT Arabi has also become popular on social media, with about 3 million followers on Facebook and 1.1 million followers on Twitter. These accounts disseminate a range of TRT Arabic media content highlighting Turkish strength and supporting Turkish foreign policy goals in the Arab online sphere.
Did labeling matter? The data.
Did platform labels impact the reach of state-sponsored accounts in the Arab online sphere? Examining account followers and engagement over time offers suggestive evidence that platform labels reduced the reach of accounts on Twitter and Facebook, relative to unlabeled accounts. To look at changes in follower counts over time on Twitter, I used archive.org snapshots of international broadcaster Twitter accounts’ historical profiles.22 As Figure 1 displays, while RT Arabic and CGTN Arabic’s follower counts were growing consistently in the leadup to Twitter labeling the accounts in August 2020 (marked by a black vertical line in the plots below), the growth flattened and slightly decreased following the labeling. Each vertical blue line in the plot represents a snapshot of the account’s follower count captured by the internet archive. This contrasts with the growth patters we see for Al-Alam and TRT Arabi, which were not labeled by Twitter, and experienced increased growth over the entire period.
Figure 1: Change in Followers Over Time Labeled State Media Accounts
Figure 2: Change in Followers Over Time
Unlabeled State Media Accounts
Using Facebook monthly follower counts at the time of each post obtained using the CrowdTangle API,23 we see largely similar patterns. The growth in followers of the RT Arabic and CGTN Arabic public pages displayed in Figure 3 starts to level off in the aftermath of Facebook’s labeling policy in June 2020, though the change is less immediate than what we observe in the Twitter data. Looking at unlabeled pages in Figure 4, we see that TRT Arabic’s follower count continued to grow steadily, while Al-Alam’s page gained followers sharply and then has a subsequent decline in followers. In these figures the announcement of Facebook’s labeling policy is marked by a red vertical line.
Figure 3: Change in Followers Over Time
Labeled State Media Pages
Figure 4: Change in Followers Over Time Unlabeled State Media Pages
Examining changes in engagement on Twitter over time, measured as retweets, likes, quote tweets, and comments collected with the academic Twitter API,24 Figures 5 and 6 show a decline in engagement with RT Arabic immediately following the account labeling in August 2020 and a decline in engagement with CGTN Arabic, which begins before the account labeling and continues in its aftermath. By contrast, engagement with Al-Alam tweets continued to grow over the entire period, and engagement with TRT Arabi continued to grow and then declined in early 2021.
Figure 5: Change in Engagement Over Time
Labeled State Media Accounts
Figure 6: Change in Engagement Over Time Unlabeled State Media Accounts
Changes in engagement with Facebook pages are less clear, with expected declines in engagement with CGTN Arabic and RT in the aftermath of Facebook’s labels announcement, but also a similar decline in engagement with Al-Alam Arabic, which was not—to my knowledge—labeled by Facebook in this period. It is possible, however, that Facebook’s restrictions of advertisements from state-sponsored outlets may have affected some of these accounts as well. This dramatic spike in activity followed by a decline could also be related to the use of inauthentic accounts to boost follower numbers.
Figure 7: Change in Engagement Over Time
Labeled State Media Pages
Figure 8: Change in Engagement Over Time Unlabeled State Media Pages
Together, publicly available social media data suggests that platform applications of labels to state-sponsored media accounts may have reduced follower counts and engagement in the Arab online sphere, relative to unlabeled accounts. This was particularly true on Twitter, where changes in follower counts and engagement dropped most dramatically for labeled accounts compared to unlabeled ones.
Discussion and Implications
Given the potential of social media platforms’ policies to shape the visibility of state-sponsored content, this preliminary analysis raises important questions regarding how these policies are applied. Why are some state-sponsored accounts flagged while other similar platforms are not? In addition to decreasing engagement and follower counts, do platform labels make these sources less credible to their audiences? What proportion of these accounts’ followers are authentic? Considering the large followings of international broadcaster accounts across social media platforms, future research on foreign influence operations should examine how these overt campaigns interact with more covert strategies—such as those explored in the contributions from Akin Unver, Mark Owen Jones, Shelby Grossman and Renee DiResta—as well as their impact on attitudes and behaviors in diverse contexts.
1 Gary D. Rawnsley “To know us is to love us: Public diplomacy and international broadcasting in contemporary Russia and China.” Politics 35, no. 3-4 (2015): 273-286.
2 Deena Dajani, Marie Gillespie, and Rhys Crilley. “Differentiated visibilities: RT Arabic’s narration of Russia’s role in the Syrian war.” Media, War & Conflict (2019)
3 Megan M. Metzger, and Alexandra A. Siegel. “When State-Sponsored Media Goes Viral: Russia’s Use of RT to Shape Global Discourse on Syria.” Working paper (2021); Cook, Sarah. “Beijing’s Global Megaphone.” Freedom House (2020).
4 Nadine Sika. “Contentious activism and political trust in non-democratic regimes: evidence from the MENA.” Democratization 27, no. 8 (2020): 1515-1532.
5 France 24, “Facebook Labels State-Controlled Media Posts, Will Block Ads,” (June 4, 2020), https://www.france24.com/en/20200604-facebook-labels-state-controlled-media-posts-will-block-ads
6 Press TV’s Twitter account, accessed May 23, 2021: https://twitter.com/presstv/status/1377304326868197389?lang=en
7 Facebook’s content announcement, accessed May 23, 2021: https://about.fb.com/news/2020/06/labeling-state-controlled-media/
8 Morgan Wack. “Inconsistencies in State-Controlled Media Labeling.” Election Integrity Partnership. Election Integrity Partnership, October 6, 2020. https://www.eipartnership.net/policy-analysis/inconsistencies-in-state-controlled-media-labeling.
9 Deena Dajani, Marie Gillespie, and Rhys Crilley. “Differentiated visibilities: RT Arabic’s narration of Russia’s role in the Syrian war.” Media, War & Conflict (2019)
10 Max Fisher. “In Case You Weren’t Clear on Russia Today’s Relationship to Moscow, Putin Clears It Up.” The Washington Post. April 29, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/06/13/in-case-you-werent-clear-on-russia-todays-relationship-to-moscow-putin-clears-it-up/.
11 “Question That: RT’s Military Mission.” Medium. DFRLab, November 23, 2018. https://medium.com/dfrlab/question-that-rts-military-mission-4c4bd9f72c88.
12 Megan M. Metzger, and Alexandra A. Siegel. “When State-Sponsored Media Goes Viral: Russia’s Use of RT to Shape Global Discourse on Syria.” Working paper (2021)
13 Sarah Cook. “Beijing’s Global Megaphone.” Freedom House (2020).
14 Sarah Cook. “Beijing’s Global Megaphone.” Freedom House (2020).
15 Massoumeh Torfeh. The Role of Iran’s Regional Media in its Soft War Policy. Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, 2016.
16 Khalaf M. Tahat, and Gilbert Fowler. “Iranian Propaganda in the Middle East: Al Alam” The World” as Model.” Southwestern Mass Communication Journal 26, no. 2 (2011).
17 Al-Alam’s Facebook page. Accessed: May 23, 2021 https://www.facebook.com/alalamarabic/
18 Khalaf M. Tahat, and Gilbert Fowler. “Iranian Propaganda in the Middle East: Al Alam” The World” as Model.” Southwestern Mass Communication Journal 26, no. 2 (2011).
19 Gökçen Karanfil. “Continuities and Changes in the Transnational Broadcasts of TRT.” In Television in Turkey, pp. 151-171. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2020.
20 Omar Al-Ghazzi, and Marwan M. Kraidy. “Turkey, the Middle East & the Media| neo-ottoman cool 2: Turkish nation branding and Arabic-language transnational broadcasting.” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 20.
21 Omar Al-Ghazzi, and Marwan M. Kraidy. “Turkey, the Middle East & the Media| neo-ottoman cool 2: Turkish nation branding and Arabic-language transnational broadcasting.” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 20.
22 Code repository for scraping past follower counts using the internet archive. Accessed: May 23, 2021. https://github.com/ChRauh/PastTwitter.
23 The Crowdtangle API home page. Accessed: May 23, 2021. https://www.crowdtangle.com/.
24 Code repository for accessing the Academic Twitter API. Accessed: May 23, 2021. https://github.com/cjbarrie/academictwitteR,