Since 2019, the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF has operated the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, an online tool to track messaging originating from Chinese, Iranian, and Russian state media and government officials. In its time, the dashboard collected several million data points, mostly but not exclusively from Twitter (now X). However, in July 2023, X removed access to its API for the Alliance for Securing Democracy as part of its policy change to end free API access for academics and other researchers. This decision, coupled with an increasingly fragmented social media landscape, forced a rethink and a redesign of the dashboard.
Today, we are releasing the latest iteration of Hamilton 2.0, with data from more than 1,300 accounts, channels, and pages that we can directly attribute to the Russian, Chinese, or Iranian governments or their various news and information channels on Telegram, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and state-backed media and government websites. As with previous versions of Hamilton 2.0, the dashboard collects data on accounts that primarily target foreign audiences, namely embassies, consulates, foreign ministries, ambassadors, key government figures, and international media outlets, as well as their affiliated channels, programs, and key personnel.
Despite the changes to the dashboard, the mission of the project remains the same: to increase our understanding of the focus and spread of authoritarian nation-state messaging across various information mediums. Sadly, with wars raging in the Middle East and Ukraine, that mission remains as relevant as ever.
Russia, China, and Iran have established a presence on some, but not all, platforms
The three countries monitored by the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard have prioritized engagement on different platforms, based on an analysis of the number of accounts they have created and engagements they have received. This is driven, in part, by platform restrictions and bans. Russian and Iranian state media are currently banned on YouTube, meaning that their footprint there is inherently limited. (Prior to YouTube’s ban, Russian state media had a huge audience on the video-sharing site). But on platforms without blanket bans (Facebook and other platforms restrict or geo-block some Russian state media content), there are clear differences in the approaches of the three monitored countries. Telegram is clearly Russia’s favored domain. The five most viewed channels between September 25–October 24 were all associated with Russian state media, and China’s most viewed channel and Iran’s fourth most viewed Telegram channel were affiliated with their respective Russian-language outlets. Iran, meanwhile, has more diplomatic and state media accounts on Instagram than on Facebook and Telegram combined. Iran also enjoys considerable engagement on Instagram: From September 25–October 24, the ten most liked and commented posts among all monitored accounts were from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. On Facebook, China reigns supreme. During the same 31–day period, all ten of the most viewed posts and nine of the ten most followed Pages on Facebook were associated with Chinese state media outlets.
Chinese state media generates a massive following and less controversy on Facebook
The ten most followed Chinese state media pages on Facebook have, combined, more than a half billion followers. To put that in perspective, all Russian state media pages on Facebook had less than 100 million followers combined, even before Russia’s full-scale invasion triggered restrictions from Facebook and degraded Russian state media’s audiences. China’s massive audience predictably results in sizeable engagement numbers. Between September 25–October 24, the 20 posts that received the most reactions among all monitored pages came from Chinese state media pages. However, in a departure from China’s often confrontational, wolf-warrior messaging approach on X, the top posts all featured elements of China’s soft power—from food tourism to cultural festivals. Whether due to a conscious strategy, the absence of its most controversial figures, or different audience expectations, China presents a decidedly softer, more diplomatic image on Facebook than it does on X.
Russian propaganda currently reaches a far larger audience on Telegram than on Western platforms
Telegram’s restrictions on Russian state media have been inconsistent, allowing some overt propaganda channels to amass billions of views. While channels for RT, Sputnik, and a handful of other state media outlets are banned in the United States and Europe, others like RIA Novosti, Tass, and Zvezda are reaching large audiences on Telegram. RIA Novosti alone gained over a billion views in the past month. Affiliates of RT and Sputnik have also slipped through Telegram’s content moderation cracks and acquired sizeable followings. Sputnik Iran and RT Arabic Online, for example, each have more than a million views in the last month—though some of that success is likely driven by interest in the Israel-Hamas war.
Russian government and diplomatic accounts are also active and influential on Telegram. In the past 31 days, the roughly 200 government-affiliated accounts monitored on the dashboard posted more than 13,000 times and gained more than 78 million views and two million reactions. Russia’s Ministry of Defense has the most prominent Telegram channel among monitored government channels, leading the group in posts, subscribers, views, forwards, and reactions. That channel posts updates on the war, conspiracy theories, and attacks on the West.
Conversely, restrictions imposed by US-based platforms have noticeably reduced the influence of Russian pages, channels, and accounts. The one exception is Russia’s Spanish-language outlets, which have continued to thrive. (Russian state media is not blocked in any Latin American country.) Over the past month, RT en Espanol and its affiliated programs were responsible for eight of the ten most reacted-to Facebook posts by Kremlin-affiliated outlets. And on Instagram, RT en Espanol posted six of the ten most-liked images, and its roughly one million followers make it the most popular account on the platform.
Check out Hamilton 2.0!