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The real viral hoax Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation says ‘RT’ has been buying comments and faking view counts. ‘RT’ says it's the most popular news source on YouTube.

The Russian state-funded international TV network RT (formerly Russia Today), led by Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, has been paying to fake its YouTube view and comment counts, according to a new investigation by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). The FBK is led by opposition politician Alexey Navalny.

In January, RT announced that it had become the very first news channel to exceed 10 billion views on YouTube. “In terms of the total number of views on all [our] accounts, RT is ahead of all news channels offered by BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Euronews, and Fox News,” a press release from the Russian outlet announced. Simonyan regularly tweets about the rising figures of individual accounts.

To argue that RT has been faking its YouTube view counts, the FBK’s report points to an unusually low number of comments under videos with an ostensibly large number of views. The report highlighted two videos on RT’s Spanish-language YouTube channel as examples: each had more than a million views, but one had only 96 comments, while the other had 38. For comparison, videos on the BBC News YouTube channel that reach more than a million views typically see anywhere from hundreds of comments to tens of thousands.

The nature of the comments posted on RT’s channels also raised red flags for the FBK. In Russian, a number of comments on RT’s videos are composed of nonsensical strings of words, while foreign-language comments frequently repeat themselves, include only the name of the person who wrote them, or simply say “A comment in English” or “Congrats I am an English comment.” The FBK saw the comments as an indication that RT has been buying comments through online markets.

The organization also found comments from pornography accounts under one of RT’s videos and interpreted them as an indication that RT has been using porn websites to boost its YouTube view numbers.

To find more quantitative evidence, the FBK used a video analysis service called VidIQ to track the view counts for RT’s YouTube videos over time. The organization found that every RT channel includes clips that suddenly seem to gain popularity months or even years after they are first posted, with hundreds of thousands or even millions of views rolling in all at once.

For example, one video about youth soccer players reenacting the final match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup was first published in July 2018. In the next six months, it was viewed 30,000 times. Then, in January 2019, the view count shot up, reaching eight million and counting by April. Now, the video has 21 million views, making it the most popular clip on RT’s Russian-language YouTube channel.

The FBK believes sudden spikes in the view counts of old videos point to purchases of non-genuine viewer interest. “They’re using these fake statistics to ask for more and more money for their outlet. The presidential administration sees those fake numbers and gives them astronomical budgets. They think they’re pouring this money into propaganda, but they’re actually pouring it into thin air. Into sketching up statistics. And into porno-comments,” the FBK report asserted.

Lyubov Sobol, an FBK attorney who produces the YouTube channel Navalny Live, said Russia’s government should fire Margarita Simonyan from her role as RT editor-in-chief and open a criminal case to investigate the channel for misuse of public funds.

Navalny LIVE

The FBK’s latest report is its third in the last month about Margarita Simonyan. The first of the three accused Simonyan and her family of making 720 million rubles through advertising agencies, and the second detailed how the family made 46 million rubles on a government-funded romance film about the Crimean Bridge.

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Summary by Olga Korelina

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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