Russian state-funded news organisation RT recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary by throwing a beach party at Cannes’ MIPCOM. The channel was created to represent the Russian point of view in the global media landscape and is frequently criticised for doing so, especially on topics such as the conflict in Ukraine, the downing of flight MH17, and recently Syria. Euronews met with Ivor Crotty, head of the English-language social media team, tasked to counter point-per-point the Russian narrative on world events. We talked about RT’s future strategy on social media, the channel’s disruption mission, and the so-called ‘information war,’ an expression he despises.
An Irishman relocated to Moscow, Crotty has large, warm grin, sharp eyes and an even sharper wit. He has been working for RT for almost 6 years, initially in their TV newsroom. Back then, “digital was an afterthought, the website was a very confusing mosaic of ideas. I guess they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do with it.” He speaks with a hint of an Irish accent generously peppered with American colloquialisms, many of them edited out, like, for clarity, you know?
Over the years, “the big developments have been the move to digital; the embracing of the impact of digital on the instrument, and the development of Ruptly, [RT’s] video agency” which he says freed the channel to rely on news agencies or expensive correspondents and bureaux. Today, his team of six to eight people, all native Russian speakers, work in shifts, 24/7. One team member works from Washington DC, two from London. They are tasked to publish content to Youtube and Facebook, and news flow, discover news thanks and promote content published on RT.
“I think Achorman is a documentary”
If he also mentions the market changes and the “very turbulent political environment” as changes since he started, he does not look back to his TV days with nostalgia. “I think [the movie] Anchorman is a documentary. I find the idea of TV news to be almost oxymoronic. I don’t think they go together particularly well when you compare it to the cost-effectiveness, the speed of the digital news creation and transmission mechanisms.”
“Now, the dialogue between digital and analogue in RT is really live, and it’s absolutely understood that digital will be the primary news discovery and publishing mechanism for the organisation for the years to come.” But not quite yet. “In terms of news discovery, an awful lot is done through the wires still. And that’s fine, that’s great. RT is definitely a TV-first news organisation right now, and in the digital space, it’s a video-first news organisation.”
Video is at the core of RT’s digital success. It has almost 3 billion views and 4 million subscribers across its Youtube channels. A success Crotty is hugely proud to have taken part in “I was actually in the TV newsroom when Krill [Karnovich-Valua, currently Head of Online Projects & Digital Media Director at RT] took over Youtube and we worked together to develop a copy style, and approach to Youtube, and the guys are putting an enormous amount of effort.”
In addition to a mix of inspiration and perspiration, “we got lucky in a way” he explains, attributing the success to “being there at the right time.” “When the tsunami and Fukushima came, we were really lucky that we were allowed to publish this content on Youtube and we were just thinking ahead of the game. More systematically, our relationship, in particular with [news agency] APTN, was great, to take raw content to Youtube, it became a new news model. AP tells us that.” Google, Youtube’s owner, “looked after us really well. Their advice has been instrumental in maintaining the level of success,” says Crotty. Equally, Twitter has worked closely with RT: “Our Twitter partnership is really growing, they have been helpful, and I am looking forward to using Lightning when it gets released. “
He is also aware of the “huge responsibility to make sure that [their] platform strategy is not too focused on Youtube. We need to diversify, the digital market is fragmenting, everybody is trying to wall their own garden.” Now, you can’t apply the same story across all platforms. “That’s a challenge for us.”
Finding a solution to this challenge is one of the reasons why he’s at MIPCOM, which he admits is not his home turf. “We have looked at consolidating the amazing engagement we have on the website, Facebook and Youtube, but haven’t had the resources or capacity to do it.” The goal is to “consolidate [RT’s] fanbase into a single space that we can control and moderate, rather than to be at the mercy of other platforms’ algorithms. We are interested in engaging in a new way with our audience.” Crotty would later be a guest at a panel organized by Victorious, a digital platform offering this type of service.
Back in Moscow, RT faces more digital challenges. While it regularly has traffic spikes from viral stories according to Crotty, other traffic spikes come from breaking news, a domain he has heavily invested in to be more competitive. “We have really boosted our capacity to discover and break news quickly with a Dataminr partnership, built over the last six months.”
“Being in the first two minutes of the story… Mark Little, [fellow Irishman and founder of the social media news agency] Storyful always said ‘you’ve got to be in the first three minutes of the story or you are not in the race.’ So if you take for instance the Virginia shooting, we were able to be on the Twitter feed of the murderer as he uploaded the video… “
This shooting, Crotty says, created a bigger traffic spike than MH17, “and what’s really interesting is that it was the first time over 50%, and almost 60% of our traffic, was from mobile for that event. We normally cruise at about 40%-45%.” He is happy, he says, that people get RT onto their mobile and let them tell the news. “At some point RT will not only be digital-first, but also be mobile-first.”
Corporate culture change is also, as often in a media industry disrupted by technology, an obstacle. “Everybody knows, the TV guys and the digital guys all realise, that discovery and curation will primarily be digital in two years’ time in RT, and almost exclusively through social. However, “on the publishing side, I think RT will always, at the top, consider itself a television-first news network. It’s just a question of legacy, it was created and developed as a TV.” To counter this, Crotty wants to set up “an education process that’s maybe two years long, and people coming to work in RT should know it’s a best practice environment, with a couple of good years of training guaranteed, making them more employable, with a better skills set.”
New international competitors also shove RT’s social media habits around. Crotty’s team try to make videos related to the news of the day, not yesterday’s and “will stylistically challenge [Al-Jazeera’s social media initiative] AJ+.” Lucky for RT, timezones play in its favor. “We need content by the time the UK wakes up, 11AM in Moscow, so by midday we’ve got a good idea of what we’ve got to work with.” Then, they must “make sure that it is in the market by the time the US wakes up at about 4pm Moscow time.”
“I don’t understand the policy behind what Sputnik is becoming”
Closer to home, the reorganisation of the Russian state-funded media, especially Sputnik, perplexes the Irishman, who worked shortly for Russian news agency RIA Novosti a decade ago. “I know of the guys who work [at Sputnik but] I don’t understand personally the policy behind what Sputnik is becoming and what RT is. I think there’s way too much overlap there, with big inefficiencies, in my opinion. I am kind of confused by its emergence from RIA, because frankly I thought that RIA was a pretty good news agency.”
If Sputnik sometimes picks up on angles, run stories “that are great, that RT has not done,” making it “almost like a reflection of yourself,” RT managed to work with them closely on the audio side, Crotty explains. “They absorbed Voice of Russia, a great opportunity for us to access their content archive for our Soundcloud page. Where we found efficiencies between us, we tried to take advantage of them.” But “officially, there is not structure for cooperation or synthesis.”
For Crotty, what RT’s missing is “to disrupt narratives, meta-narratives in particular. This is marketing, and parts of RT’s message. My background is in sociology and I am perfectly comfortable discussing post-modernism or the disruption of meta-narratives.”
“One thing I really like with my work is that one of our raisons d‘être is to expose the contradictions within modernity, or within narratives that are keystones to what we would call mainstream media storytelling. The most relevant example right now would be the refugees and migrants crisis that Europe is experiencing. A lot of focus is put on these tragedies, and media have told these stories often brilliantly,” he says. “But I quite enjoy being able to do it to point out that an awful lot of what’s going there is the result of policy failures, particularly in Libya and Syria. That’s not really part of what quote-unquote the mainstream media is happy to tell people.”
“We should de-escalate the ‘information war’ rhetoric”
As an Irishman, Crotty says his country’s history made him a contrarian, he sees as “an almost typical element of Irishness” and parts of it as “a social and personal value.” He believes this contrarianism resonates in a large audience. “It’s obvious that there is a space in the market for a brand like RT, at least on the digital side the numbers prove it. Praising the “creative space” he can work in, he adds “critique of meta-narratives carries much more powerfully on social media than it does on television. There’s a disruptive element to the channel’s positioning, the technology we use is disruptive, and we are just going with the flow, but keeping our facts straight.”
RT is often criticised for its contrarian positions and repeatedly receives slaps on the wrist from UK’s media watchdog OFCOM, more recently after it breached UK broadcasting rules. But Crotty does “absolutely” not believe an “information war” is being waged right now between Western media and Russia.
“I don’t like the use of that phrase, I think it’s unhelpful and you and I, across this couch, we work in the same business, the same industry. “He continues: “The idea of the information war is just crazy, it’s a really unfortunate symptom of the state of the media industry. Stories are politicised, however you tell them. RT does not in any systematic way, shape or form, criticise Putin or the Kremlin. That is a fact. I don’t believe euronews systematically criticises Barroso or the European Union. Does Murdoch media criticise Murdoch? The last time the BBC criticised, or deeply undermined its own government with a story, its chief executive was fired and the man committed suicide, you know what I mean? I genuinely don’t believe we should use that phrase, I think we should as they say ‘de-escalate’ the rhetoric.”
[Editor’s note : euronews frequently carries euroskeptic voices and those critical of European institutions although we are proud of our objective newsgathering and do not espouse any political opinions]