Russia Today (RT) covered Canada’s so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests far more closely than any other international outlet, according to new research.
The Russian state-controlled television network used key words associated with the convoy protest during more than four and half hours of broadcasts between Jan. 13 and Feb. 12 — dwarfing the rate of any other international outlet’s coverage of the anti-mandate occupation that snarled Ottawa streets earlier this year.
That’s according to an analysis of Google Jigsaw’s Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT), which Ahmed Al-Rawi, director of Simon Fraser University’s Disinformation Project, published on his website on Tuesday. The analysis has not been peer-reviewed.
“I was surprised to see that Russia Today, the Russian government-run television channel, was well ahead of so many other news channels in covering the convoy protests,” Al-Rawi told Global News in an interview.
The only other outlet that came close to covering the protests this closely was Fox News, which dedicated two and a half hours of coverage to the so-called “freedom convoy.”
Al Jazeera devoted the third-most time to the topic, with just over an hour of coverage over the course of the month, while CNN, MSNBC, Deutsche Welle, BBC News and CBS spent less than 30 minutes on the topics.
Why was Russia Today so interested in the convoy?
The Russian network’s interest in Canada’s convoy protests wasn’t surprising to intelligence community experts who have followed the Kremlin’s tactics in recent months.
That’s because, recently, Russia has focused less on tipping the scale towards specific electoral outcomes. Rather, according to an FBI official who spoke out earlier this year, the country has focused on sowing chaos and distrust abroad.
“The primary objective is not to create a particular version of the truth but rather cloud the truth and erode our ability to find it, creating a sentiment that no narrative or news source can be trusted at all,” David Porter, an assistant section chief with the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force, told a U.S. election security conference in March.
“To put it simply, in this space, Russia wants to watch us tear ourselves apart.”
It makes sense that Russia would see the so-called “Freedom Convoy” as an opportune moment to sow this kind of division, according to Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and assistant professor at Carleton University.
She pointed to the protesters’ repeated critiques of the Canadian government as “corrupt” as evidence that anti-government seeds were already planted in the movement — and with the right amount of nurturing, Russia could help those ideas grow.
“(U.S. intelligence officials) think the Russian government is trying to … target democratic institutions, trying to target and amplify mistrust so that people no longer believe in democracy, that they believe their institutions are corrupt,” Carvin said.
For RT, the trucker convoy protests had “a dovetail of interests,” she said.
“It makes sense for RT to promote events like this.”
RT has a “history” of sowing dissension and spreading disinformation, according to Carmen Celestini, a lecturer at the University of Waterloo who used to work with Al-Rawi’s Disinformation Project.
The convoy protests earlier this year were “based on disinformation,” she said — from their unscientific claims about vaccines to their belief they could demand the government resign en masse.
“All of those things are notions that Russia is going to try and promote, just because that dissension everywhere else in the world pulls away from dissension in (Russia) and puts them in a stronger position,” Celestini said.
RT also chose to frame the protests in a specific way, Al-Rawi found after sifting through the terms different outlets used to describe the protests.
Rather than referring to the event as a “trucker protest” or “trucker convoy,” RT most often used the convoy’s own terminology, calling it the “Freedom Convoy.”
The Russian outlet used the term 1,032 times — five times more often than its next most-used term: “convoy protest.”
Fox News and the 'freedom convoy'
RT devoted a disproportionate amount of its time to covering the convoy protests — but experts think another outlet might have been able to have a much bigger impact on Canada, despite boasting fewer convoy-related broadcasts: Fox News.
Without clear sources, RT’s website claims its channel is available in more than 700 million households around the world. It’s unclear whether that number has changed since Canada banned RT from the airwaves in March.
Fox News, on the other hand, says it reaches 200 million people every single month.
“RT may have played a role in generating lots of content, possibly feeding content into the U.S. media ecosystem, but really, it was Fox News that was promoting this convoy,” Carvin said.
American news outlets have far more of a role in Canada’s media ecosystem than Russia’s outlets, Carvin added.
Convoy protesters used American rhetoric and symbols throughout their protests in Ottawa, with many carrying U.S. flags and other regalia that shows their support for former U.S. president Donald Trump.
“We have to remember this was, in effect, a Canadian movement led by Canadians, cheered on by Americans,” Carvin said.
It was a “homegrown movement” that Russia tried to amplify.
“This wasn’t something that was created by Russia…. The fact that RT was reporting on it is just kind of consistent with their overall goals,” she explained.
Navigating the media landscape
When pressed on how Canadians should navigate an information environment where foreign media may try to skew stories, Al-Rawi said he’s not suggesting everyone stop watching Fox News, or even RT.
Rather, we should try to “consume as many diverse channels as possible.”
“Watching them is important to compare and see their perspective,” he said.
“And from that, they would have a better idea about how different channels frame an event like this one — a very important event, actually — in our history.”
Wherever you get your information, it’s important to be mindful of the source you’re reading, Carvin said.
“People really do need to sit down and think, you know, ‘I’m on Facebook and I’m reading a story. Now, does it come from a reputable news source?'”
Canadians have a tendency to build social media bubbles where they get their information from sources that all think the same way they do — a reality that makes navigating the information ecosystem such a “vexing problem” in 2022, according to Carvin.
“Getting through that, it’s a very, very hard thing to do.”
— with files from The Associated Press