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Rumble still airs Russia's state-controlled news channel. Its US headquarters could soon be in Sarasota

Screenshot of RT screen
The video platform Rumble, whose creators call “free and open internet,” is hosting content from a prominent Russian state-backed news network that has a history of spreading disinformation.

Rumble is a Canadian owned video platform especially popular among political conservatives and used by such public figures as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.

RT, originally standing for “Russia Today,” has been pulled from broadcast airwaves across Europe as well as on YouTube and Direct TV in America as a response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Roku, a company that sells hardware which allows users to stream content through the internet, also said it had banished RT from its platform.

Social media giants Twitter, TikTok and Facebook parent company Meta have all blocked RT on their platforms in Europe, but the network still maintains a presence on Facebook and Twitter in America. But those pages are now labeled as "Russia state-controlled media."

One place RT is operating without any restrictions or labels is on the Canadian video platform Rumble, which intends to establish its U.S headquarters in Sarasota County.

WUSF's Cathy Carter spoke with Russian media researcher Vasily Gatov, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication, about the history of RT and its content.

Mr. Gatov, RT actually started out as an advertising vehicle for the Russian government to promote tourism and business travel. But you say its focus shifted with the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

The war in Georgia changed everything because Russia had been pictured in international media as aggressor. They initiated a rebranding and kind of reshaping of the organization, recreating it as propaganda vehicle. They started aggressively promoting Russian foreign policy and criticizing Western foreign policy.

And as part of their rebranding, they adopted the motto ‘Question More.’

This ‘Question More’ policy was about making everything America or European Union or Britain does in the world seem awful and ugly, portraying it as violation of all the principles of humanity, and making scoops out of every even small problem that exists in the western world in order to seed confusion and anger to the audience. They also expanded to other countries using this news brand.

And even as RT's reach expanded, you say their journalism independence — as limited as it was — became even more diminished in 2014.

When Russia the first time invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, several of RT’s key presenters resigned because they said that they cannot tell lies. Since then, a lot of people left with much less drama, and I think the people who currently work at RT are either kind of ideological maniacs who somehow made themselves believe in the lies, or people who are so cynical that for kind of an average amount of money that RT pays, as we say in Russia, they are the slaves of mortgage.

And then fast forward to January of 2022, when the buildup of the invasion of Ukraine was happening, I understand the Russian government banned the word war?

As aggression against Ukraine was developing, Parliament adopted a law to call what was happening in Ukraine a ‘special military operation,' and excluding any information that is not approved by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The plug on RT has pretty much been pulled in Europe, but they still have some access to an American audience. Of particular interest to folks in Florida, there is a Canadian company, a social media video platform called Rumble, which still airs RT. This company is looking to establish their US headquarters in Sarasota County. How are they accessing the RT feed?

I really don't know what signal and from where, but probably, it's a satellite feed. Again, assuming that RT lost a lot of creative power, they’re likely to be extremely low quality and much more propaganda oriented than they were before. I think now, all the English language content available on RT is coming from Moscow, where they have about one-third of the staff and are living in the Orwellian Moscow information bubble.

Even so, this company Rumble says they are a neutral video platform and will continue broadcasting RT content. They say they should be able to do so without censorship or restrictions.

The interesting thing is, if you stand with the rights of the First Amendment, well, you should not censor anything. I mean, except calls for war and violence. I don't think that RT calls for war and violence, but the content in part is malignant, because it contains the wartime propaganda that Russian government inserts everywhere, which in any case, is toxic.

* * *

Rumble made the announcement of its plans for Sarasota County in November 2021 stating it would open offices on Longboat Key, after the Sarasota County Commission elected to award Rumble a $825,000 incentive grant of taxpayer money following a pitch by The Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County.

Since then, the invasion of Ukraine and RT's coverage of the war has drawn new attention to Rumble's plans. As of March 28, more than 1,400 people have signed a petition asking Sarasota County to rescind Rumble's grant.

WUSF reached out to all five members of the Sarasota County Commission for comment. Just District 2 Commissioner Christian Ziegler responded, pointing out that RT content is "available on both Facebook 7M followers and Twitter 3M followers."

Lisa Krouse, the CEO of the Sarasota County EDC, provided a statement.

"It is not our practice to comment on the business decisions of local companies. However, we can state that our team at the EDC stands in solidarity and in full support of the Ukrainian people.

When a company seeks the EDC’s help, they have the option, by Florida statute, of remaining confidential. Rumble opted to operate under this confidentiality statute during its relocation evaluation. It also asked for the EDC’s assistance in applying to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) for an economic development grant. The Economic Development Incentive Fund is overseen by the county and used to provide grants for job creation and capital investment in Sarasota County. 

In October 2021, before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the application came before the BOCC. Thus far, there is no agreement in place between the BOCC and Rumble, and no date has been set for further discussion or a vote."

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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