On Aug. 6, 2016, RT — the U.S. arm of Russia Today — published a video on YouTube featuring the fugitive founder of the transparency site WikiLeaks making what seemed an outlandish claim about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Under the title “Clinton and ISIS Funded by the Same Money,” Julian Assange held documents purporting to show that clandestine financial support had flowed to the Middle Eastern terror group from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both also big donors to the Clinton Foundation, the global charity she had helped run with her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
The Assange video, one of two that RT posted that day on Google, Inc.’s YouTube subsidiary, had been viewed 1.2 million times as of Wednesday.
That number may still grow. Even amid all the furor about Russia’s exploitation of U.S. social media, the video was still available for viewing on YouTube Wednesday as Democratic senators pressed a top official from Google at a hearing to explain why RT maintains a big YouTube presence nine months after U.S. intelligence agencies labeled it a key player in Moscow's election-year cyberattacks on the United States.
Google allowed RT to post a series of hyperbolic and misleading videos about Clinton during the heat of last year’s presidential race, apparently on the basis of the First Amendment -- despite the existence of a law barring foreign entities from trying to influence U.S. elections.
"YouTube has become RT's go-to platform," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday. He said RT America has posted 1,100 videos to the site.
At separate hearings, that panel and its House counterpart heard public testimony from the three goliaths of social media – Google, Facebook, Inc. and Twitter, Inc. – about how Russia used their platforms last year to post content aimed at inflaming Americans’ differences and undermining Clinton.
“I must say, I don't think you get it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, told lawyers for the Silicon Valley firms. “What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we're talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare. What we're talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.”
RT America boasts on its web site that it has rung up 5 billion views on YouTube, more than any other entity.
Google cites free speech in explaining why RT is allowed to operate more than two dozen YouTube channels, many in foreign languages. The company also maintains that RT has yet to violate any of its policies prohibiting such content as hate speech, bullying, deceptive practices or language inciting violence.
Last week, Twitter barred RT and Sputnik from buying ads on its platform, citing last January’s intelligence report.
Feinstein asked Google Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker why the company didn’t remove RT’s “preferred status,” which put it in a group of popular channels marketed to advertisers, after the intelligence agencies issued their declassified report; it noted that RT’s “consistently negative” coverage of Clinton “focused on her leaked emails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health and ties to Islamic extremism.”
Google pulled RT’s premium status in early October, but said that was done only because RT viewership had declined.
“We think that the key to this area is transparency,” Walker testified. “Americans should have access to information from a wide variety of perspectives, but they should know what they’re getting. And so we already, on Google, provide information about the government-funded nature of RT. We’re looking at ways to expand that to YouTube and potentially other platforms.” He noted that RT also broadcasts over cable and satellite television stations and advertises in newspapers, magazines and airports.
At a separate hearing on Tuesday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, another Google attorney, Richard Salgado, acknowledged that RT earns money from advertising placed on its videos. He said he would advise the panel of the amount at a later date.
Several of RT’s YouTube posts last year took hyperbolic or unfounded shots at Clinton, the then-frontrunner in the presidential race.
Besides the one tying Clinton to ISIS, there was another posted the same day headlined: “Julian Assange Special: Do WikiLeaks have the E-mail That’ll Put Clinton in Prison?”
RT’s most widely watched election-related YouTube post, titled “Trump Will Not Be Permitted to Win,” played off Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the election would be rigged and drew 22 million views, according to the report by four U.S. intelligence agencies.
In his opening statement, Walker told the senators: “We are dealing with difficult questions that balance free expression issues, unprecedented access to information and the need to provide high quality content to our users. There are no easy answers here, but we are deeply committed to getting this right.”
A Google spokeswoman Wednesday declined to comment on the issue of whether RT breached a federal law barring foreign influence on federal elections.
Anna Belkina, RT's head of communications, said in an emailed statement that "Google itself said that RT didn't breach any YouTube rules or misuse the platform. All of our reporting was factual."
She said McClatchy's story suggests "that critical reporting on public figures is apparently forbidden in the free, American media."
The Justice Department recently advised RT’s parent, the firm originally known as Russia Today, and another Russian news agency, Sputnik, to register as foreign agents under a law covering foreign-backed entities that seek to influence U.S. policy. State-run media organizations have in the past been exempt from the law’s requirements.
Mike Carpenter, a former top Pentagon official who specialized in Russia matters, told McClatchy that RT and Sputnik favor YouTube because it can reach large and prime audiences. "YouTube is the medium of choice for that segment of the population which is looking for alternative points of view."
Ironically, Russia learned the value of YouTube for pushing content in part through bitter experience.
"The Russians discovered this to their own chagrin in 2011-12 when You Tube became the repository of videos showing people ballot stuffing in the Russian parliamentary elections,” Carpenter said; the videos were recorded by concerned citizens using their cell phones.
RT also figures in a Justice Department special counsel’s investigation into Kremlin meddling in the 2016 election because of a lavish anniversary gala it hosted in Moscow in late 2015 attended by retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who later served briefly as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn appeared in a photo seated near Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Flynn, who resigned in February amid controversy over his contacts prior to Trump’s inauguration with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, later reported that RT paid him at least $45,000 to speak at the event.
Google, which says it has assigned thousands of people to prevent exploitation of its platforms, has avoided the most intense controversies surrounding Russia’s social media barrage. The company says it found that Kremlin operatives that bought thousands of ads on Facebook and made thousands of tweets spent only $4,700 on search engine and display ads on its platforms, though it is still investigating.
Many of the Facebook ads were released Wednesday in conjunction with the hearings.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent