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Homegrown protesters who participated in Canada’s “Freedom Convoy” last year had no idea, but Russia used a state-funded propaganda outlet in an effort to exploit their grievances, amplify social divisions and delegitimize the Trudeau government. The convoy’s three-week occupation of downtown Ottawa clogged the capital and prompted the government to invoke the Emergencies Act before police cleared the blockades.
It’s hard to say how successful the Russian propaganda campaign was, but for the first time, we can see how it operated.
Russian state-funded propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today), which has been called an “information weapon” by its own editor-in-chief, produced a higher volume of convoy-related coverage than any other international media outlet. Fox News stepped up to produce the second-highest amount of coverage just as Russian propaganda decreased.
The RT site describes the outlet as a global TV news network providing news “overlooked by mainstream media,” current affairs and documentaries featuring “alternative” perspectives and acquainting international audiences with a Russian viewpoint on major global events. Despite RT’s description of its coverage, the “alternative” perspectives it offers are actually just news-like productions of Russia’s foreign policy goals and interests, according to the U.S. State Department.
As part of its coverage, RT sent correspondents to do on-the-ground reporting in Canada, which mostly consisted of interviews with convoy organizers and supporters. The sympathetic coverage and “exclusive” interviews with convoy participants cultivated support for the convoy, and as a result, RT’s coverage was shared relatively widely on social media by Canadian supporters. Connecting with domestic influencers and encouraging them to share foreign propaganda is a known tactic associated with foreign influence campaigns. It’s also a way to make foreign propaganda appear more legitimate to local audiences.
As the U.S. Department of State explains, outlets like RT disguise themselves as conventional media outlets to provide “disinformation and propaganda support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives.”
It is well documented that Russia tries to exploit domestic protest movements in an attempt to destabilize western democracies. It has been caught using a variety of tactics: providing support for certain politicians and political groups, starting local activist groups, even organizing rallies as it did south of the border, promoting Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter rallies on Facebook. Propagandists conspired to infiltrate BLM groups — for example, in one case, they insinuated themselves into a Baltimore group, contacting local activists who pretty quickly figured out that something was wrong. Russia has also produced and amplified media reports, created deceptive social media personas and more. Russian operatives have been known to work both sides of divisive issues by providing support for protesters while also inciting violence against them.
Russia used a state-funded propaganda outlet to try to exploit grievances during the “Freedom Convoy” @RVAwonk writes for @NatObserver #FreedomConvoy #RussianPropaganda #cdnpoli
Russian propaganda outlet provided more coverage of the convoy than any other international media outlet
My analysis showed Russian state-funded propaganda outlet RT devoted extensive coverage to the truck convoy, both online and on television. Using Google Jigsaw’s Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT), I analyzed trends in convoy-related television coverage across seven international media outlets: Al Jazeera, BBC News, CNN, DW, Fox News, MSNBC and RT. The study found RT spent more time covering the convoy than any other international media outlet and had a higher raw volume and percentage of convoy-related coverage than nearly all other international media outlets combined. Fox News had the second-highest volume of convoy-related coverage, but it didn’t even reach half the volume of RT.
Looking at convoy-related coverage over time, the study found RT was the first international media outlet to refer to the truck convoy in its on-air coverage, with the volume of coverage reaching its highest point on Feb. 13, 2022. RT’s early dominance of international convoy-related television coverage is important because it likely allowed RT to set the tone and influence of other coverage.
In addition to television, Russian state media also produced a significant amount of online content related to the truck convoy — the site RT.com alone published more than 250 articles. That’s just a baseline figure, as it’s likely RT also published additional articles about the convoy that did not contain the specific key phrases used in the search. Most of this coverage was supportive of the truck convoy and critical of the Canadian government and/or specific Canadian politicians, particularly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The dominant themes covered by RT included police intervention, fundraisers, the Emergencies Act, cryptocurrency and civil unrest. The tone of coverage emphasized clashes between protesters and police, framed the protesters as victims of an aggressive government and amplified divisions along political/ideological lines. One former RT employee described this style as “anything that causes chaos.”
This is just the first in a three-part series from Caroline Orr covering Russia's involvement in the truck convoy. Stay tuned for the second part, it's a doozy. If you want to get notified when part two comes out, sign up for updates on this page
It is unclear how many people were actually reached by RT’s coverage of the convoy, as RT’s own estimates of its viewership are known to be exaggerated, and the share of the population that sees RT each month varies widely by country. However, as the Nieman Lab put it in a 2022 report, “RT doesn’t need a huge audience to be influential — only the right one.” Furthermore, as stated above, RT should not be viewed as an isolated entity, but rather as one part of a complex disinformation ecosystem with roots that trace back to the Russian government and intelligence agencies.
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Note: This article is based on Caroline Orr Bueno’s research published as “Russia's Role in the Far-Right Truck Convoy: An analysis of Russian state media activity related to the 2022 Freedom Convoy” in The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare.