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Did Russia make Brexit promoter Nigel Farage a ‘YouTube star’?

Or was the BBC involved as well?

- March 26, 2019

As Brexit’s uncertainty continues, former U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader and Brexit backer Nigel Farage is being criticized for putting “the future of ordinary citizens at risk.” In a tweet, Dutch European Parliament member Esther de Lange shared a video of Farage leaving the European Union’s legislature during a debate about Britain’s future relationship with the E.U. According to de Lange, Farage only attended the debate to make his speech — which he recorded for YouTube — and then left.

De Lange’s tweet has reignited claims made by a Guardian journalist that “these YouTube set-piece speeches … are Farage’s power base now.” According to Carole Cadwalladr, the Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) lies “at the centre” of how these videos, and Farage’s message, circulate online. In her words, “RT made Farage a YouTube star.”

But how true is this? Cadwalladr’s fellow Guardian journalist Owen Jones argued that painting Russia as “the puppet-master behind all undesirable political phenomena” suggests a “conspiracy.” Jones argued that Russian activities hadn’t made Farage popular or pushed people to vote for Brexit.

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As we explain below, our research suggests that Jones is closer to the truth than Cadwalladr. Although RT does amplify Farage’s message, so do other channels, including the BBC. And UKIP’s YouTube accounts, along with those of UKIP followers, appear more effective than RT at promoting Farage.

How we did our research

Our research project “Reframing Russia for the global mediasphere” analyzes RT’s broadcast and social media output. For this article, we used a private — i.e., incognito — Web browser to analyze the top YouTube results when searching for videos about the E.U. and Farage. In doing so, we asked: How important is RT in amplifying Farage’s Euroskeptic messaging?

YouTube search results are shaped by an algorithm that accounts for factors such as a user’s past viewing history. To avoid this and other kinds of personalization bias, we had two researchers in two different British locations sign out of YouTube, use a private or incognito browser and conduct the relevant searches. We then compared the results.

We undertook this analysis after YouTube’s recent algorithmic changes, which it said were to prevent its algorithms from recommending conspiracy videos. Although we cannot know exactly which top results will appear when people use their own personalized browsers to search for the “European Union” or “Nigel Farage” on YouTube, we believe our approach suggests which videos are likely to be recommended.

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Is Farage really a YouTube star?

Two of RT’s videos of Farage’s E.U. speeches appear in the top 15 YouTube video results for “European Union.” Ranked ninth is RT’s “’Who the Hell You Think You Are?’ Nigel Farage throws egg in Eurocrat faces.” Ranked 14th is “‘You are not laughing now, are you?’ Nigel Farage at European Parliament (FULL SPEECH).” These videos have been viewed 2.8 million and 2.1 million times respectively; the first video has probably been viewed so much more because it has been available for eight years. Both show Farage in a positive light and promote his anti-elite, Euroskeptic rhetoric. Together, they have been “upvoted” 60,000 times.

But the rest of the most-viewed videos come from a variety of sources. The most viewed is the satirical “Brexit: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” This video humorously critiques Farage, pointing out that he has supported openly racist UKIP members. With 16 million views and 167,000 upvotes, this video is more popular than the two RT videos combined.

RT does seem to have an interest in producing Euroskeptic content that promotes Farage; its pieces are viewed millions of times. But YouTube videos critical of Farage show up more prominently in searches for the European Union. Of those, the most prominent has been viewed more than seven times as often, with five times the upvotes, as RT’s most popular video of Farage.

But who is promoting Farage on YouTube?

To find out who is promoting YouTube videos of Farage and to understand who might be making him a “YouTube star,” we searched YouTube for “Nigel Farage” and again arranged the results in order of most views.

The top 10 most-viewed videos of Farage from all YouTube accounts have a combined viewership of 21 million views. Of these, in addition to the two RT videos, three come from UKIP related accounts, with 3.8 million views; two from Euractiv, a European media platform that covers the activities of European policymakers, with 3.5 million views; one from the ITV program “Good Morning Britain,” with 2.2 million; one from a seemingly random Polish account that may or may not be related to UKIP, with 2.8 million; and one from a right-wing educational channel, with 2.8 million.

Most of those videos are under four years old, suggesting that their view counts are increasing more quickly than RT’s. So while RT does help promote Farage on YouTube, so do a variety of sources.

The top 10 RT videos of Farage have garnered 6.3 million views. The top 10 BBC videos of Farage have gained 4.7 million views. RT does appear to promote Farage’s YouTube messages more than the BBC does, even though the BBC gives both Farage and UKIP a significant amount of airtime.

Our analysis found that eight out of the top 10 RT videos of Farage appeared to take a positive attitude toward his Euroskeptic message, although only two of the top 10 BBC videos did. This suggests that RT is more sympathetic to Farage’s views, and is not constrained by the BBC’s institutional values of impartiality and balance.

The problem with Brexit is that there’s no obvious next step.

In Britain, pro-Brexit messages have been spread not just by RT and nefarious Russian actors, but by the traditional British press.

Rhys Crilley is a research associate in global media and communication at the Open University.

Precious Chatterje-Doody is a research associate in Russian and East European studies at the University of Manchester.