The field of conspiracy theories has previously focused primarily on the role of conspiracy theories in U.S. politics, neglecting the use of conspiracy theories as strategic narratives more broadly. A subset of question-raising conspiracy theories codes was developed for this study to include a more nuanced look at conspiracy theories and the techniques used to undermine existing narratives. Question-raising theories do not use the words “conspiracy” or “theory.” This study analyzed daily RT RSS feeds from June-July 2016 using the application of codes pertaining to Brexit, the EU, EU member nations, conspiracy theories, question-raising keywords, and categories of news. It was hypothesized that if RT was involved in promoting conspiracy theories, there would be a difference between the use of such theories in Brexit and non-Brexit EU stories. Specifically, we predicted that the Brexit news stories would contain fewer question-raising code words in Brexit news stories than in other types of news stories about the EU. With strong support for Brexit already challenging European Union cohesion, conspiracy theories would not be a necessary strategic tool for challenging a positive European narrative. The evidence supports this prediction. Question-raising code applications were less common among Brexit stories (4.3%) than in the non-Brexit news stories from the same time period (7.7%). These findings show that Brexit itself could be perceived as an event undermining traditional European system narratives and as such question-raising theories are directed to other news topics that can more usefully undermine system and identity narratives about a European liberal order.
In June 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world with its decision, via referendum, to leave the European Union (EU). During the months leading up to the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016, much of the UK was split into the Leave and Remain campaigns, and coverage of the referendum dominated the British news cycle.1 Our research is about whether the RT news site, formerly known as Russia Today, used conspiracy theories to challenge European actors through its news coverage of Brexit and Europe more broadly. We coded conspiracy theories into two types: blatant conspiracy theories and question-raising. Question-raising is another method for challenging information by suggesting alternative narratives or questioning existing ones. The analysis of RT RSS feeds from 1 June 2016 to 31 July 2016 shows that RT presented extremely few blatant conspiracy theories in its coverage of Europe; however, the analysis shows evidence of question-raising. Overall, Brexit news coverage was a small percentage of the total European news sample, 11.6 percent, and Brexit excerpts had a smaller percentage of question- raising code applications, 4.3 percent, than the non-Brexit European news sample, 7.1 percent. The difference in question-raising coverage between the Brexit and non-Brexit data samples is statistically significant (p = 0.0247). This supported our hypothesis that Brexit already served to challenge EU narratives that emphasized the strength and importance of the EU, and therefore question-raising would be less strategically important in those stories.
Strategic Narratives, Conspiracies, and RT
The changing political and media environment after the Cold War has led scholars to study how political actors such as states communicate with each other and with global audiences, seeking to influence viewers at home and abroad.2 Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle outline the important role of strategic nar- ratives to describe the changing new world order in the wake of the Cold War, defining strategic narratives as “a means for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors.”3 Narratives describe the structure of and expectations about the international system, as well as the roles actors play within this system. The growing field of strategic narratives helps conceptually tie together international relations and communication theory by formulating ways of analyzing the messages actors send through the new media system as they attempt to structure the international system. An important component of this analysis is understanding contentious narratives.
Increasingly over the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian and Western narratives about the international order and the identity of political actors have been contentious. The rise in tensions between Russia and Europe, particularly after the annexation of Crimea, makes it even more important that scholars address the strategic narratives broadcast by Russia about its relationship with its European neighbors. Beginning in 2008, far-right parties across Europe have supported Russia, which they see as a protector of the traditional values being eroded by mainstream political parties.4 Closer ties with these far-right political parties gives Russian President Vladimir Putin an additional method to try to weaken European and NATO cohesion, particularly since far-right parties recently won seats in the European Parliament’s 2014 election.5 One of the far-right parties that has been vocal in its support of Putin is UKIP, a key pro-Leave party during the Brexit campaign.6 The link between UKIP and Putin illustrates why political scientists and world leaders expected that Russia would support Brexit: the Leave campaign championed policies that the Kremlin favored, and as such posed a strategic opportunity to support anti-EU allies while undermining the dominant strategic narratives in Europe.
One of the developments of the media system in Russia in the past few decades is the rise of RT, an international broadcasting network and news site that aims to influence international audiences.7 This outreach to viewers abroad falls within the category of public diplomacy, a strategy that seeks to “make sure ideals, values, policies, and behavior are attractive to a target population” and directly speaks to issues related to strategic narratives.8 Our research studied RT’s website, while other current scholarship on RT has focused primarily on its international television network.9 RT’s website states that “more than 3 million unique visitors access RT.com’s multilingual news content daily, according to Google Analytics.”10 The data analytics site Alexa, owned by Amazon, rates RT.com 341 on its list of popular international sites.11 Most RT.com visitors are from Russia, though the next four countries with the most readers are Germany, the United States, France, and Spain.12 Our study seeks to understand whether and how RT.com used conspiracy theories in its stories about Europe.
Conspiracy theories are “subversive alternatives to establishment narratives.”13 The study of conspiracy theories is not new, but the field of research has been relatively narrow in scope. Many authors focus on conspiracy theories and their role in U.S. politics, rather than looking at the role these theories play in other areas.14 For example, Yablokov’s study of RT investigates the role that conspiracy theories play in its international broadcasting content about the United States, and he notes that Russia seeks to “undermine the position and reputation of another actor”15 through the use of conspiracy theories.
Uscinski and Parent suggest that conspiracy theories arise from a position of vulnerability, such as when a group within a nation or a nation itself feels threatened by powers beyond its control.16 This position of vulnerability accurately describes Russia’s position in the international community after the end of the Cold War and suggests that Russia would be inclined to utilize conspiracy theories to rectify its reduced position. Using this framework, conspiracy theories can be used to counter narratives associated with political adversaries—in the case presented here, the EU. One gap in the conspiracy theory literature is that many of these studies do not identify different types of conspiracy theories, electing instead to focus on these theories broadly.17 A potential sub-set of conspiracy theories is that of question-raising, a conspiracy theory that does not use the word “conspiracy” or “theory,” but questions the legitimacy, the actors, or the information involved in the news coverage.
Our analysis of RT.com sought to understand whether and how question-raising was used in news stories about Europe. Did RT.com stories about Brexit and European countries more broadly use conspiracy theories—either explicitly or implicitly through question-raising—to attempt to challenge or contest an EU narrative emphasizing a strong, united, democratic, and human-rights-protecting Europe?
We analyzed RT coverage of Brexit by coding RSS feeds collected daily from the English language version of RT.com from 1 June 2016 through 31 July 2016. We uploaded these feeds into the qualitative data software Dedoose. In order to identify the strategic narratives present in news coverage of European actors in comparison to the Brexit news coverage, we created excerpts of every news story during June and July 2016 that mentioned an EU member country, the EU, Europe, NATO, and/or “Brexit.” We coded each excerpt with a category of news story to enable the identification of trends across areas of news coverage; these categories were political, economic, society, sports, and other. The news categories were not mutually exclusive, as current events rarely fall neatly into one category, with the exception of the “other” category, which grouped news topics that did not meet any of the other category rules. This study of the Brexit data sample utilized two subsets of conspiracy theories: blatant and question-raising. Question-raising conspiracy theories question the actors, information, and/or legitimacy of the news without directly utilizing the words “conspiracy” or “theory.” Coding for question- raising identified news excerpts that contained ten words using the following search terminology:18 claim*, alleg*, allegation(s), apparent*, suspect*, secre*, sus- picious, question*, so-called, and supposed*. We also coded traditional, blatant conspiracy theories that explicitly used the words “conspiracy” or “theory” in the news coverage and we coded for prominent political leaders in the UK in both the Brexit and non-Brexit samples. The intercoder reliability rate, when two coders tested approximately 2 percent of excerpts, was 0.81. After the coding process, we analyzed the data using R software, as it enabled the identification of two levels of code co-occurrences.
This research addressed two hypotheses:
H1: RT will utilize question-raising rather than blatant conspiracy theories to challenge dominant pro-EU strategic narratives.
H2: Non-Brexit news stories will contain more question-raising code words than the Brexit European news sample. The rationale for this hypothesis is that Brexit already served to challenge European narratives about unity, strength, and collaboration, as those who supported Brexit called into question the need for the UK’s participation in the EU. One might expect that further challenging this European narrative would be less necessary than in other stories related to Europe.
Analysis and Findings
During the time period from 1 June 2016 to 31 July 2016, there were a total of 3,966 RT.com news story excerpts that explicitly named the EU, an EU member state, NATO, and/or Brexit. Out of this European data sample, Brexit coverage was 11.6 percent of excerpts. Question-raising code words were less common in the Brexit news coverage (4.3 percent) than the non-Brexit data sample (7.1 percent), which is a statistically significant difference (p=.0247). Out of the entire dataset, there were only two blatant “conspiracy” code applications, which occurred in the non-Brexit sample. The larger percentage of question-raising code words in the non-Brexit sample supports the hypothesis that the non-Brexit coverage would contain more question-raising code words than the remainder of the data sample. Question-raising theories in the non-Brexit sample were used in stories that sought to highlight discord and corruption in Europe, in an attempt to challenge the domi- nant pro-EU strategic narratives.
Supporters of Brexit challenged existing strategic narratives about the EU and Europe, thus requiring little additional explication on RT’s part. The placement of Euroskeptic politicians in RT coverage explicitly challenged dominant, positive-EU strategic narratives in a way that fringe far-right parties across Europe had previ- ously been unable to do.19 By grouping Euroskeptic politicians in the mainstream, RT was able to give a measure of credibility to the anti-EU ideology these political parties support while attempting to undermine the previously mainstream, dominant strategic narrative in the UK that viewed the EU positively. To those in the UK, Nigel Farage has been the unofficial spokesperson of Euroskepticism for the past twenty years. Farage is best known as the leader of UKIP and a long-time campaigner for a British exit from the EU, even before the announcement of the 2016 referendum.20 When comparing Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and Nigel Farage in the data sample, Farage had the largest number of code applications in the Brexit sample, appearing in 7.1 percent of excerpts. Johnson and Corbyn were infrequently mentioned in the Brexit coverage with 1.7 percent and 0.87 percent, respectively, of Brexit excerpts mentioning them. Nigel Farage is the only politician that appeared in the Brexit question-raising sample; he is mentioned in 5 out of 17 excerpts, or 29.4 percent.
Within the Brexit question-raising sample, which contained 17 excerpts, there were a few recurring headlines that focused on contentious narratives themselves. For example, RT covered disputes over Farage’s claim21 that “lax EU migration rules have led to 5,000 jihadist fighters entering Europe.” The coverage noted that Europol chief Rob Wainwright “scolded” Farage for misquoting what was said, but it left the question of who was correct unanswered. RT also covered a “crowdfunding page determined to prosecute those who supposedly engineered the “Leave” vote with spin and lies.” It read: Brexiteers Beware. Overall, there was not extensive use of question-raising conspiracy theories themselves in Brexit coverage on RT.com.
Out of the European news stories that did not include “Brexit,” 7.1 percent of these excerpts contained question-raising code applications; this number was significantly higher than the 4.3 percent of question-raising excerpts in the Brexit sample. In the non-Brexit segment of the data sample, the UK had 137 question- raising code applications, France 57, Germany 38, the EU 30, and Europe 22.22 In the non-Brexit UK data sample, 81 percent of question-raising code applica- tions appeared in political news stories. Some of the other topics covered, such as the Chilcot report investigating Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, were mainly independent of one political party. Others highlighted scandals within the Conservative and Labour parties.
Some RT.com news stories about Europe that raised questions were related to Russian-European relations:
MSM headlines have accused Russia of everything from hybrid warfare to weaponizing dolphins and infiltrating Europe with secret martial arts sleeper agents–all in a bid for world domination. Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence... but who cares?
Allegations that Moscow has violated the basic Russia-NATO agreement do not bear scrutiny, and it is actually the Western military bloc that is constantly boosting its potential near Russian borders, says the head of the Lower House Committee for Defense.
The German broadcaster ARD, which released several documentaries alleg- edly exposing doping in Russian sports has no solid evidence to back its claims, a lawyer from the All-Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) said after a court hearing in Moscow.
These excerpts raise questions by using the words allege and accuse, casting doubt on Western claims. In many cases they sought to defend Russia. There are more examples of question-raising in the non-Brexit RT.com news coverage than in the Brexit coverage.
Our analysis of RT.com RSS feeds shows that there was a difference in the use of question-raising between Brexit and other European stories. Brexit itself already challenged European strategic narratives that set out the EU as an impor- tant organization that fostered unity, collaboration, and strength. The non-Brexit stories were more often set out to include question raising, highlighting discord and corruption in Europe. These types of stories challenged the narrative of a peaceful and safe Europe. Overall, the percentage of these types of stories was relatively low.
In sum, our analysis sought to understand the structure of the news stories on RT.com. This was an analysis of content and how news stories can be structured to contest narratives. It shows that there are differences across content areas—even related to Europe. These differences point to the complexity of understanding strategic narratives, and the need for more nuanced research to understand the full range of tools that can be employed to challenge narratives in the world today.
Emma Flaherty is a graduate of Elon University with majors in Political Science and International Studies. She has spent the last two years analyzing RT RSS feeds for her thesis work on the Russian news organization’s utilization of conspiracy theories and strategic narra- tives. Flaherty has worked as a Polling Associate at the Elon University Poll. She has studied at St. Andrews and has interned with the U.S. Department of State’s Public Affairs team at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. A paper derived from her thesis work was presented at the International Association for Political Science Students World Congress in Paris, France in April 2018.
Laura Roselle is Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies at Elon University where she is a senior faculty fellow. Roselle holds degrees from Emory University (Math/ Computer Science and Russian) and Stanford University (Ph.D. Political Science). She has served as president of the International Communication Section of the International Studies Association and of the Internet Technology and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. She is the author of Media and the Politics of Failure: Great Powers, Communication Strategies, and Military Defeats (Palgrave, 2006 and 2011), and with co- authors Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin, Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order (Routledge, 2013) and Forging the World: Strategic Narratives & International Relations (University of Michigan Press, 2017). Roselle is co-editor of the journal Media, War and Conflict, and co-editor of the book series, Routledge Studies in Global Information, Politics and Society. She won the 2017 Distinguished Scholar Award from the International Communication Section of the International Studies Association.
2 Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle, Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 3; Monroe E. Price, Free Expression, Globalism and the New Strategic Communication (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 3.
7 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 (1 November 2015), 273–86, https://doi. org /10.1111/1467-9256.12104.
9 Peter Pomerantsev, “Yes, Russia Matters: Putin’s Guerilla Strategy,” World Affairs 177, no. 3 (October 2014): 16–23; Rawnsley (2015); Ilya Yablokov, “Conspiracy Theories as a Russian Public Diplomacy Tool: The Case of Russia Today (RT),” Politics 35, nos. 3–4 (1 November 2015), 301–15, https://doi.org /10.1111/1467-9256.12097.
14 Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Richard Sakwa, “Conspiracy Narratives as a Mode of Engagement in International Politics: The Case of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War,” The Russian Review 71, no. 4 (1 October 2012), 581–609, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9434.2012.00670.x.
20 Stephen Castle and Steven Erlanger, “Nigel Farage, Who Spurred ‘Brexit,’ Resigns as Head of U.K. Independence Party,” The New York Times, 4 July 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/05/world/ europe/nigel-farage-ukip-brexit.html.
22 Due to the tendency of excerpts to contain multiple country-code applications and more than one question-raising code application, the total of question-raising code applications when summed by individual code co-occurrences with countries and question-raising code applications is higher than the total number of question-raising applications, 356 compared to 270.