Over the past few years, Russian-funded propagandists have tried a number of ways to reach American audiences without revealing their links to the Kremlin, from claiming to be “grassroots” start-ups to cycling their funding through cut-outs that obscure their Russian origins.
Now, Russian propagandists have a new trick: Pushing a “news” app that poses as a “free streaming service,” but which is linked directly to the Russian propaganda outlet RT. Of course, the app doesn’t bother to disclose this.
Dubbed “Portable.TV,” the new app went live a few months ago, according to its Apple Store history. Billing itself as a “one-of-a-kind free streaming service & TV library of news programs, talk shows, business updates, professional sports highlights and comedy,” the app claims to allow users to “stay informed & up to date” via Portable.TV’s “uniquely global perspective [that] foregrounds marginalized or dissident viewpoints to give you a clearer picture of the world.” As the app says, “Truth shouldn’t have limits: You can take Portable.TV wherever you go.”
One problem, though: The only shows available on Portable.TV are produced by RT America, including shows like Redacted Tonight with self-proclaimed comedian Lee Camp and The World According to Jesse with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. That is, despite claiming to be “killer television” that is the “home of thousands of shows,” the only shows actually available on the app are those found on a Russian propaganda channel. There isn’t a single show on Portable.TV that didn’t originate on RT.
The app fits a recent trend of Russian-backed propaganda outlets targeting American audiences while simultaneously masking their links back to Moscow. For instance, a supposedly “grassroots” outlet called Redfish, as The Daily Beast previously reported, shares considerable overlap with RT. CNN also revealed last year that another social media “news” outlet, In The Now, tracks directly back to Moscow.
“RT has gotten dinged for not attributing its affiliated or subsidiary content in the past,” Renee DiResta, the Research Manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said. “In The Now, Waste-ed, and a few other entities were briefly kicked off of Facebook in 2019 for not disclosing their parent relationship. Now their pages have a statement making that relationship clear, although it isn’t always noted when you view the content itself—it’s really hard to tell who’s behind In The Now videos that are shared on Twitter, for example.”
While Portable.TV doesn’t disclose any overt ties to RT, the links between the two are easy to discern. All of the social media links on Portable.TV’s site—to its Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts—redirect to RT America’s social media accounts. And one of the videos on Portable.TV’s actual Facebook page has a number of RT hosts plugging the app—with one weirdly claiming that “Stars will talk to you!”
What’s more, the copyright listed for the Portable.TV app is listed as T&R Productions, LLC, which Portable.TV also lists on its site as its parent company. T&R Productions, LLC happens to be the same corporation that registered in 2017 as an agent working on behalf of ANO TV-Novosti, the Russian governmental entity that oversees worldwide broadcasts of RT. Per Reuters, T&R Productions, LLC is based out of Washington, and works as the English-language producer for RT.
The most recent FARA filing for T&R Productions, LLC in December, makes clear the company’s connection with RT. As the filing reads, “[T]he purpose of T&R Productions LLC is to produce news, talk show [sic], sports programs, and entertainment programs that are balanced journalistic endeavors designed merely to inform viewers, not to influence U.S. Government officials or the U.S. public about changing U.S. policies.” The filing further lists T&R’s website as the YouTube channel for RT America.
Portable.TV told The Daily Beast that it is “owned and operated by T&R Productions, LLC, and that “T&R Productions is fully FARA compliant.” However, there is no information in the company’s Justice Department registration regarding the Portable.TV app. RT did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions about the app, nor about why Portable.TV doesn’t disclose any relationship with RT.
“Sounds like they’re upset about the increased transparency that users now have around who produces their content, or upset about the fact that social platforms are rethinking the weightings that kept their algorithms serving up state propaganda,” DiResta told The Daily Beast. “The Apple Store does not do anything to indicate the provenance of this app… While several social platforms have made FARA disclosures far clearer so that their users are better informed about what they are engaging with—Facebook and YouTube both indicate that RT is an agent of the Russian government—the App Store doesn’t appear to.”
It’s unclear why those behind Portable.TV felt the need to create the app. A handful of RT-related apps already exist, including RT News and RT Radio. RT also launched, just last month, a new app called “Free Assange,” a gaming app that allows users to “use [their] genius” to help jailed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange “get out.” (If you beat the game, your prize is watching a RT documentary on Assange, who himself once had a show on the propaganda outlet.)
The app also comes a few years after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report highlighting RT’s central role in propagating Russian interference efforts during the 2016 elections, especially as it pertained to amplifying Russian hackers’ theft of internal Democratic documents. “The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks,” the assessment read, adding that “RT routinely gives Assange sympathetic coverage and provides him a platform to denounce the United States.”