In a year featuring a presidential impeachment, Brexit, mass protests in Hong Kong, and widespread geopolitical turmoil, few topics dominated the Russian government-funded media landscape quite like the arrest and subsequent suicide of billionaire financier and serial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In its year-end review, RT named the Epstein saga “2019’s major scandal,” and RT UK media personality George Galloway listed it as his number one “truth bomb” of the year (ahead of all the aforementioned events). Given the lack of any notable connection between Epstein and Russian interests, the focus on Epstein highlights the Kremlin’s clear prioritization of content meant to paint a negative image of the West rather than a positive image of Russia.
Between Epstein’s arrest on July 6, 2019 and January 3, 2020, Twitter accounts connected to Russian state-funded media mentioned Epstein in 1,014 tweets (note: the search for “Epstein” possibly returned some false positives, but a manual review did not find any mentions unrelated to Jeffrey Epstein). Epstein was mentioned in more tweets during that period than German Chancellor Angela Merkel (919 tweets), UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (683 tweets), former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (554 tweets), and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (236 tweets). On Twitter, there was also a clear effort to highlight Epstein’s political connections. The most frequent mentions in tweets related to Epstein (other than RT hosts and correspondents, who are often tagged in their own reporting) were @BillClinton (30 tags), @TheDukeofYork (25 tags), @RoyalFamily (23 tags), @HillaryClinton (19 tags), and @realDonaldTrump (19 tags).
On Kremlin-funded, English-language websites, a search of articles during the specified time range revealed a similar focus on the Epstein scandal. Sputnik, Tass, and RT produced 230 articles focusing on Epstein, far more than other topics seemingly more connected to Russian interests. For example, there were just 26 articles mentioning Burisma, 102 referencing “Russiagate,” and 114 mentioning special counsel Robert Mueller.
But the Russian media fixation on Epstein was most noticeable on RT America and RT UK’s YouTube channels. Between Epstein’s arrest in July 2019 and early January 2020, Hamilton 2.0 captured 63 segments on Epstein, more than the coverage dedicated to geopolitical hotpots Turkey (51 segments) and Ukraine (25 segments). Shockingly, Epstein was also the subject of nearly twice the number of segments as Russian President Vladimir Putin (33 segments).
Unsurprisingly, overall mentions of Epstein spiked in the days after his arrest in July and suicide in August; however, there has been a steady output of Epstein-related content over the past six months, suggesting an effort to keep the controversy churning in the information bloodstream.
RT and Sputnik’s reporting of Epstein took different forms over the past six months, with new revelations and developments providing fodder for additional coverage. But aside from “breaking news” events widely covered by other outlets, the meta-narratives embedded in their reporting were largely consistent and fit into three broad categories: criticism of the “mainstream” media’s coverage (i.e. the media is protecting Epstein and/or his accomplices); casting doubt on official explanations (i.e. the government is protecting Epstein and/or his accomplices); and using Epstein as a metaphor for the West (i.e. Epstein is a byproduct of a “predatory system”).
I. Criticizing the “mainstream” media
Criticism of the so-called “mainstream” or “corporate” media is a consistent refrain in RT’s reporting. In the case of Epstein, RT suggested that the media aided and abetted the cover-up of Epstein’s crimes and protected his alleged accomplices. In particular, RT promoted itself as a bulwark against the mainstream media’s silence, implicitly and explicitly advancing the narrative that RT was providing coverage that audiences could not find on outlets that were beholden to corporate interests.
Yet this narrative ignores the fact that the Epstein case was reopened based on the reporting of Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown and was covered extensively by the allegedly complicit corporate media. Indeed, RT’s own coverage relied almost exclusively on facts first reported by other outlets. The only “exclusive” produced by RT was a segment entitled “Exclusive — RT America Visits ‘Pedophile Island,’” which featured RT correspondent John Huddy renting a boat and swimming to Epstein’s island in the Caribbean. The report did not uncover any new details or information.
II. Casting doubt on the official story
After Epstein’s death, when questions swirled around whether or not Epstein committed suicide — as the medical examiner determined — or was killed to protect his powerful accomplices, RT ramped up its coverage of possible conspiracy theories. A number of RT videos and Sputnik articles posed open-ended questions to their viewers/readers; e.g., “Prosecutors Rushing to Close Epstein Case, but Why?” and “Whatever Happened to Suicide Watch — Suspicion Reigns as Epstein’s Secrets Die with Him.” Again, this is a common rhetorical approach employed by Russian government-funded outlets.
To be fair, RT was hardly the only network posing questions about Epstein’s death. Given the timing and circumstances surrounding Epstein’s suicide, both mainstream and fringe outlets — as well as some politicians — cast doubt on the medical examiner’s ruling. This general mistrust provided a perfect opening for RT to double-down on its coverage, in keeping with their “question more” motto.
III. Using Epstein as a metaphor for Western depravity
A segment in December from RT correspondent Sean Stone — son of Oliver — sums up this narrative approach best, as Stone suggested that Harvey Weinstein and Epstein were products of a “predatory system.” This construct often appears in the Russian government-funded media’s reporting on Western scandals. In the world-view advanced by RT, everything from sexual deviance to political corruption is a byproduct of Western values.
As a network that ostensibly exists to provide the “Russian view on global news,” RT, on the surface, is an odd outlet to devote substantial resources to covering a criminal case that does not directly intersect with Russian interests. Certainly, Epstein would seem to be a less worthy topic than Russia’s own president or the conflict in Ukraine.
Hamilton data collected over the past six months, however, reveals that the focus on Epstein is less of an aberration than part of a consistent pattern. In 2,366 segments captured by the dashboard since ASD launched Hamilton 2.0, just over seven percent have been associated with Russia, and less than one percent have focused on Russian politics. By comparison, 47 percent have been associated with the United States, with crime and political scandals being the fourth and fifth most common topics discussed in those videos (behind geopolitics, U.S. politics, and military/war). The Epstein saga is therefore indicative of a clear strategy focused on repulsing audiences from the West rather than attracting them to Russia.