How Russia Today Skirts High-Tech Blockade to Reach U.S. Readers

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On any given day over the past two years, visitors to the home page of RealClearPolitics were likely to see its famous average of political polls, a roundup of news and center-right commentary—and, near the bottom, a link or two to stories from RT.com.

The provenance of the RT headlines was obscured. Readers didn’t immediately know they were clicking on headlines from a Russian state-backed publication that American intelligence officials considered the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet.” The news organization, once known as Russia Today, was a central player in Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian efforts created a backlash against social-media companies, which were accused of providing platforms for a misinformation campaign aimed at influencing voters.

Facebook Inc.,

Twitter Inc.

and others have since implemented changes to limit the reach of state-run media.

Yet RT continues to draw a large American audience, helped unwittingly by some of America’s most prominent conservative websites. The reason: Those news outlets agreed to join a distribution network that allows other members’ content to be displayed on their home pages.

The company responsible for RT’s presence on RealClearPolitics is Mixi.Media. Since its launch in 2018, Mixi has assembled a network of right-leaning publishers, including National Review, The Daily Caller and Newsmax, as well as mainstream sites like RealClearPolitics. Also in Mixi’s fold are RT and another Russian state-backed outlet, Sputnik.

The inclusion of state-run media has allowed Russia’s propaganda machine to spread its message across the online news landscape in the U.S. while escaping the attention that came to Facebook and Twitter. While the links that Mixi places on its partners’ websites often appear under headings such as “From Our Partners,” the source isn’t always clear until after the headline has been clicked.