Trump Campaign Top Contextual Advertiser on Chinese, Russian Propaganda

Summary

The presidential campaign of Donald Trump was the top advertiser on Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda outlets on YouTube in a test of over 2,500 videos. The Trump campaign appeared on Russian propaganda outlets at 1.5 times the rate of the second most prolific advertiser, and was the number two advertiser on CCP outlets. For each dollar the Trump campaign spent on the propaganda outlets, YouTube sent $0.55 to the respective authoritarians.

Overview

Our experiment loaded a sample of the most watched videos from each of the most watched YouTube channels belonging to the Russian government and the Chinese government. We recorded both video ads, which appear before a video loads, and overlay ads, which appear as a banner on the bottom of a video as it plays. The experiment analyzed 38 channels and 2,636 videos, 1,124 of which belonged to the Kremlin and 1,512 of which belonged to the CCP. Ads were served on 533 Kremlin videos and 543 CCP videos.

The experiment was conducted using an IP address from Kansas City, MO. Kremlin content was collected from 19:56 UTC-4 to 23:46 on August 4, 2020 and from 15:34 to 17:14 on August 9. CCP content was collected from 07:11 UTC-4 to 10:03 on August 5, 2020 and from 10:18 to 12:42 on August 9. Cookies and browser sessions were reset before loading each channel. A large share of advertising spending goes towards users with extensive cookies ata. This experiment therefore reflects only ads placed based on the content of the video, or contextual advertising.

The Trump campaign accounted for 5.6% of all ads served, more than any other advertiser. The Trump campaign was the lead advertiser on Russian channels, accounting for 7.3% of ads and the #2 advertiser on CCP channels, accounting for 4.7% of ads.

Analysis

YouTube’s offering, especially in news and politics, has long been entangled with authoritarian propaganda. RT, a Russian state broadcaster whose chief editor views her role as “waging an information war” against the West, has been the platform’s top news network for at least a decade. Following the 2017 report from the US Intelligence Community on the role of RT in election interference, YouTube doubled down on its relationship with the Kremlin, contracting most Russian-language sales to IMHO, a publishing house owned by state-run Gazprom-Media and Putin’s personal banker, Dmitry Lebedev, both under U.S. sanctions. In response to revelations that YouTube’s partnership with the Kremlin was likely worth over $100 million, YouTube stated it “welcomes governments in its revenue-sharing program.” According to our research, as of August 2020, Kremlin-owned channels on YouTube have amassed 59.5 billion views, 2.5 times as many as the top ‘YouTuber’, Felix Kjellberg.

YouTube is banned in China, but the CCP has devoted significant resources to bolstering its digital presence. Almost a non-entity a few years ago, CCP channels have accumulated 3.7 billion views, far more than legacy media outlets like the New York Times (1.1 billion) or the Wall Street Journal (937 million).

Despite numerous scandals involving YouTube funneling advertisers’ money to bad actors, the Trump campaign seems to have taken no precautions to prevent donors’ money from lining the pockets of the Kremlin and the CCP. Given YouTube’s reputation, this should have been a prerequisite to any large campaign. We additionally discovered a Biden campaign ad on a CCP but none on Russian propaganda outlets. Instead, the Trump campaign, long criticized for its close ties to the Kremlin, and seeking to position itself as staunchly opposed to the CCP, has become among the top American funders on YouTube of both. Money meant to portray Trump as standing up against America’s adversaries instead showed him paying them to spread their propaganda.

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