It’s been a bad week for RT, the English-language TV network funded by the Russian government. Accused by the West of spreading propaganda about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the network has been banned and restricted by a number of companies in recent days.
- Microsoft was first among the big tech companies to sever ties with the network, removing the RT app from its app store earlier this week and deranking its search results.
- The EU issued a ban of RT on Sunday, giving tech companies cover to restrict access to the channel in Europe as well.
- Meta, YouTube and TikTok did just that Tuesday, banning access to RT across the continent.
- Twitter and Google also began limiting the visibility of RT content globally this week, and Google dropped RT from its respective revenue-sharing programs.
- Apple removed RT from its app stores outside of Russia Tuesday.
- Roku announced late Tuesday that it would remove the RT app globally. The streaming-device-maker had previously restricted access to RT in Europe.
- DirecTV dumped RT America on Tuesday and indicated that the channel had already been on the chopping block ahead of a potential renewal this year.
- Spotify removed all RT content, as well as content from the Russian news agency Sputnik, from its service Wednesday.
- The network has also seen a massive staff exodus, with a number of journalists quitting the network in protest.
- Among the defections: Berlin-based video agency Maffick Media and financial journalist and bitcoin enthusiast Max Keiser.
This has led to a predictable backlash in Russia, where the regime has started to take retaliatory steps against Meta and Twitter. There’s also a possibility that the bans could backfire against tech companies in the future, with repressive regimes forcing them to remove apps and accounts from media companies they don’t agree with.
But how did RT get so popular in the West in the first place? There are some obvious political answers, which include a broad popularity of conspiratorial content since the rise of Donald Trump. But there’s another explanation that has a lot more to do with the economics of online media.
- U.S. news media companies have long struggled with their online video strategy, frequently striking potentially lucrative deals with tech companies, only to see those partnerships evaporate soon after. (Remember Go90? Or Quibi? Or the industry’s infamous pivot to video, for that matter?)
- Public and state-sponsored international broadcasters like Al Jazeera, TRT and RT, however, have had less pressure to chase ad dollars, allowing them to build massive audiences on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere just by iterating on what works for them — whether that’s a bigger focus on international conflicts and social movements or pro-Russian propaganda.
- RT, for instance, claims to have surpassed 10 billion views across its YouTube channels.
The flip side, of course, is that although these broadcasters may not be financially dependent on ad dollars, they still need Big Tech’s platforms to reach an audience. And if they’re being deplatformed, that audience can disappear overnight.
Update: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. PT Wednesday to include information about Spotify.