PDI Workshop Series: When State-Sponsored Media Goes Viral – Russia’s Use of RT to Shape Global Discourse on Syria

May 14th, 2019 - 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm

Stanford , CA

Note: This workshop is open only to faculty and scholars at Stanford University and other academic institutions, not the general public. 

When State-Sponsored Media Goes Viral: Russia’s Use of RT to Shape Global Discourse on Syria 

Governments around the globe are increasingly using social media platforms to spread state-sponsored news abroad. One of the most notorious examples of this phenomenon is the Russian government’s use of RT (formerly Russia Today) in the online sphere. Here we evaluate when, how, and to what degree RT is shaping global political narratives. We focus on Russia’s use of RT on Twitter during the months surrounding the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Using a dataset of over 21.8 million English and 11.3 million Arabic tweets collected between August 2015 and November 2015, we find that RT was remarkably successful on Twitter. First, RT was the most shared news source about Syria, outperforming well-respected Western outlets like the New York Times and the BBC in the English language data, and strong regional players like the Saudi Al-Arabiya network and the Qatari Al-Jazeera Arabic network in the Arabic language data. In addition, RT’s content successfully advanced narratives that provided favorable coverage of the Russian intervention and undermined Western involvement in Syria. Surprisingly, we find no evidence to suggest that RT’s success was driven by bots or trolls. Instead, it appears that RT employed a more effective social media strategy than other outlets, using more salient hashtags and producing a larger volume of tweets to amplify its reach.

This is joint work with Alexandra Siegel, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Immigration Policy Lab, Stanford University. 

About the Project on Democracy and the Internet Workshop Series:

The Project on Democracy and the Internet organizes regular workshops, hosted by Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford, for scholars studying democracy in the digital age. The goal of this workshop series is to increase the sense of intellectual community and enhance the overall quality of research as we build this new field of study. 


  • Megan Metzger - Research Scholar and Associate Director for Research at Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator Program