From February 1-7, the Russian media ecosystem was largely preoccupied with the novel coronavirus; however, there was also a clear push to fuel conspiracy theories related to the Iowa caucus and, to a more limited degree, the ongoing war in Syria. On Twitter, state-funded media accounts, through original tweets and retweets, suggested various “dirty tricks” perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee, “corporate” media, and other Democratic candidates against Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) in Iowa. Russian state-funded news sites and broadcasts repeated these themes, with RT in particular, highlighting a number of far-flung domestic conspiracies to cast doubt on the integrity of the election. Finally, a small but influential subset of Twitter accounts suggested that the White Helmets — a longstanding foe of the Kremlin — were preparing for a “false flag” chemical attack in Syria, representing the latest in a years-long smear campaign against the volunteer group.
Russia state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags – February 1-7:
As was the case last week, the top hashtag, by volume, used by Russia-linked accounts was #coronavirus. Despite the large number of tweets on the virus, none of the top 10 tweets, either by likes or retweets, were on this subject. (Almost half of these top tweets were about viral animal videos.)
The Iowa caucus attracted a small amount of attention from monitored accounts, both prior to the event and after the emergence of problems with the reporting app and subsequent results delay. Prior to the caucus, the accounts focused on the narrative that the Democratic establishment is against Sanders:
Between February 4 and February 7, reflecting post-caucus messaging, only 115 out of almost 6,000 tweets collected on the Hamilton dashboard as of noon Friday from monitored accounts mentioned Iowa. All these mentions came from Russian state-backed media. These tweets generally played up the confusion and criticism surrounding the results delay, questioned the integrity of the results, or pushed the narrative that the chaos was part of an effort to steal the victory from Sanders. The account “Going Underground on RT” (@underground_rt) was particularly prominent in volume the day after the caucus, February 4; although, engagement metrics for its tweets were not particularly high:
In addition, all the most popular tweets about Iowa retweeted in this time period by at least one monitored account pushed a narrative that the Democratic National Committee and/or the Democratic establishment more broadly seeks to undermine Sanders via nefarious means. Monitored accounts “Redacted Tonight” (@redactedtonight) and “Watching the Hawks” (@watchinghawks) are the primary accounts engaging directly with this material. Examples of these retweets include:
Finally, monitored accounts last week also attacked a familiar bête noire: the White Helmets. Between February 3 and February 7, 20 tweets mentioned the White Helmets, all of them suggesting that the group was planning a “false flag” chemical attack in Idlib, Syria. This follows a pattern of attacks going back at least three years.
Russian government-funded websites:
On Russian government-funded websites, the Iowa caucus debacle was also a prominent theme, with both RT and Sputnik highlighting voices questioning the integrity of the results and emphasizing connections between the Shadow, Inc. app that malfunctioned and 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, Vice President Joe Biden, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg’s early “declaration of victory” has been mentioned in relation to these connections. Some articles also played up the all-too-familiar “Russophobia” trope. Examples include:
“Iowa disaster redux: DNC demands recanvass as more sordid details emerge about Shadow app’s backers,” RT, February 6, 2020.
“Increasingly glaring irregularities in the Iowa caucus have forced DNC chair Tom Perez to call for a recanvass, as new revelations about those who funded the fiasco suggest a campaign to steal not just the election, but the party. Just when it looked like the Iowa caucus nightmare was over, with 97 percent of precincts reporting and so many “inconsistencies” glossed over to reach that point that the most corrupt banana republic would raise an eyebrow, Perez has called for a do-over.”
“‘You only have one job, Iowa’: Delay with US Democratic Party’s first caucuses results sparks anger and jokes online,” RT, February 4, 2020.
“The long-anticipated US Democratic Party’s Iowa caucuses has turned into a confusing cliffhanger with officials deciding to delay reporting the results, spurring speculation and mockery online . . . Former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, declared himself the winner before the official results were relayed.”
“Only one who can claim ‘very big victory’ in Iowa’s chaotic caucuses is ‘Trump’, US President tweets,” RT, February 4, 2020.
“US President Donald Trump savaged the Democratic Party on Twitter after their much-awaited Iowa caucuses unexpectedly stalled due to “inconsistencies” in vote-counting.”
A pair of op-eds provide particularly detailed information on conspiracy theories about links between the Democratic establishment, Buttigieg, and the Shadow app, despite clearly identifying them as conspiracy theories within the text:
“Not a great look: Failed Iowa caucus app is deeply linked to self-declared winner Buttigieg… and Hillary Clinton,” by Danielle Ryan, RT, February 4, 2020.
“An app supposedly meant to ensure quick reporting of the Iowa caucus results was developed by a firm deeply tied to the Democratic establishment and went kaputt at the crucial moment. What are the chances? It may sound like a conspiracy theory, but Americans can be excused for their distrust of the system after what happened in 2016 – and the facts that have been dug up on the group behind the failed Iowa app won’t do much to quell their suspicions.”
“Iowa caucus disaster: ‘Technical glitch’ spawns conspiracy theories & Democrats have only themselves to blame,” by Robert Bridge, RT, February 4, 2020.
“For the first time in US political history, no clear winner was announced in the critical Iowa caucus amid a storm of chaos. How can the Democrats hope to lead the nation if they can’t be trusted to conduct a simple poll? . . . No wonder that the state of Iowa’s ‘election malfunction’ has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories – no word on Russian meddling as of yet, but stay tuned! – that the Democrats had deliberately flushed the [CNN/Des Moines Register poll] results down the memory hole because they showed Bernie Sanders, or even Tulsi Gabbard, far ahead of the pack.”
RT also published on reported harassment of Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) supporters in Iowa, emphasizing “antipathy toward Gabbard from the Democratic establishment” and reported remarks accusing Gabbard supporters of supporting Russia:
“‘Why are you voting for Putin?’ Tulsi Gabbard supporters harassed at Iowa caucuses,” RT, February 4, 2020.
“A Tulsi Gabbard supporter was physically attacked with a Sharpie marker and called a Russian terrorist after voicing support for the candidate at an Iowa caucus, one of several reports of Gabbard supporters being “abused” . . . The antipathy toward Gabbard from the Democratic establishment has been palpable . . . Meanwhile, snide comments on social media have never really stopped ever since Gabbard torpedoed California Senator Kamala Harris’ chances at the nomination by exposing her abysmal record on live TV at the first primary debate.”
This noting of anti-Gabbard and anti-Russia sentiments plays into Russian state media’s frequent reports of what it characterizes as unwarranted and hysterical Russophobia in the West, as well as related claims that Russia will be blamed for anything controversial in U.S. politics. Post-Iowa coverage provided examples of both narratives:
“MSNBC panelist freaks out after Sanders surrogate calls Bloomberg an ‘oligarch,’ because it’s a ‘Russian’ term,” RT, February 5, 2020.
“An outraged MSNBC panelist accused a surrogate for Bernie Sanders of “name-calling” after she dared to label billionaire and fellow presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg an “oligarch” for his ability to buy political influence . . . [national co-chair for the Sanders campaign Nina] Turner’s comments did not go down well with fellow guest and editor at the Root Jason Johnson, who accused her of “name-calling” and argued that Bloomberg couldn’t possibly be an oligarch because the term is often associated with Russia.”
“Russians did it! Democratic congresswoman finally says what Russiagaters have all been thinking about Iowa caucus fail,” RT, February 5, 2020.
“A Texas congresswoman has suggested that Russians were responsible for the problems with the Democratic Party’s Iowa caucus app and suggested the party call in the FBI to investigate. How did this take so long? Rep. Sheila Jackson (D) called on Iowa Democrats to bring the FBI in to investigate Russian involvement in the malfunctioning of the vote-reporting app that threw the first vote of the 2020 election season into disarray. She made the comment during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on FBI oversight on Wednesday, but shrewd observers of Democratic behavior had predicted it almost immediately after the extent of the botched caucus vote count came to light.”
Sputnik News also put out several articles on the caucus, emphasizing ties between the faulty app and Clinton campaign staffers, the Buttigieg campaign, and/or the Biden campaign as signs that something unfair occurred. Notably, the emphasis on the Biden campaign’s ties to app creator Shadow would seem to contradict earlier suggestions that the app developer rigged the vote in Buttigieg’s favor due to his campaign’s status as a client of Shadow — a contradiction that is not discussed. The outlet also emphasized early results declared by individual campaigns and the “Trump victory”:
“Hillary Clinton Campaign Veterans Created Faulty App at Centre of Iowa’s Democratic Caucus Meltdown,” Sputnik News, February 5, 2020.
“On Monday, a coding issue with the mobile app that the Iowa Democratic Party planned to use to report the results of their state caucus caused a massive delay in declaring the winner. People who worked on Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign were behind the app that caused chaos in the Iowa caucus on Monday night.”
“Biden’s Campaign Was Client of Company Behind Iowa Caucus’ Voting App – Reports,” Sputnik News, February 6, 2020.
“Former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was also once a client of the tech firm that developed the glitchy app that led to multiple mistakes in the tabulation of the results. Shadow Inc. is led by Gerard Niemira, who developed technology for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential bid. However, the company was revealed by the New York Times to be working for the campaigns of Biden and Pete Buttigieg, as well as the Nevada and Wisconsin state Democratic parties at some time in the past.”
“Democratic Party, Still Controlled by the Clinton Family, Hates Sanders – Former Diplomat,” Sputnik News, February 5, 2020.
“Michael Springmann, attorney, author and former diplomat from Washington DC, believes that the app mishap could have been a set-up to get rid of Bernie Sanders.”
“‘More Dirty Tricks’ Await Outsider Democrats After Iowa Caucus Fiasco,” Sputnik News, February 7, 2020.
“Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear was joined on Thursday by Dan Kovalik, a human rights and labor lawyer who is the author of the book “No More War: How the West Violates International Law by Using ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention to Advance Economic and Strategic Interests,” who offered his thoughts on the DNC’s decision to recanvass in Iowa and argued why Senator Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) momentum has been lessened as a result.”
Russian state-owned media:
Top categories – February 1 – February 7:
RT America’s YouTube channel also focused heavily on the Iowa caucus, playing up conspiratorial ideas about the Democratic National Committee and general allegations about unfairness like those promoted on other platforms. Even prior to the caucus, RT posted a video putting forward claims that the DNC is trying to stop Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination:
“DNC insults Bernie Sanders campaign!” RT America, February 3, 2020.
“Democratic strategist Ameshia Cross discusses changing Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules and the obstacle they pose to the presidential ambitions of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be allowed to participate in debates despite his dearth of donors.”
RT America posted at least seven videos commenting on the problems in Iowa this week, all of them pushing narratives alleging malfeasance in tabulating the results. In a striking example, RT Host Rick Sanchez asks viewers, “How is it possible that Pete Buttigieg, who was supposed to finish in fourth place according to all the polls, even the night before the election, ends up in first place? And of course, that is occurring while we are learning that he himself . . . Pete Buttigieg himself . . . has very direct links to the app, the faulty app that was used that ended up making him the winner.” This video in fact lays out all of the greatest hits of Russian information manipulation, including criticism of the mainstream media, casting doubt on explanations offered by officials, and using half-truths or whole fabrications (RT reporter Michele Greenstein claimed that Pete Buttigieg “worked at numerous DC-based think tanks” — a claim with little to no factual evidence) to smear an opponent. Of course, the underlying claim itself is severely flawed, given that the app was not used after issues were noted, thus undermining the theory that the final results were the byproduct of a rigged voting system.
“More questions surround Buttigieg mystery win in Iowa,” RT America, February 5, 2020.
“Voters are still reeling from the disastrous 2020 Iowa Caucus, which has been blamed on a malfunctioning vote-counting app.”
Other videos also highlight the app’s connections to the Democratic establishment and criticize mainstream media coverage of the caucus:
“Has Iowa caucus missed chance to be relevant?” RT America, February 4, 2020.
In this video, the commentators repeatedly note that former Clinton and Obama campaign staffers are involved with the companies (Shadow, Inc. and its parent Acronym) behind the malfunctioning app, that the Buttigieg campaign recently hired Shadow, and that the DNC and Shadow refused to let DHS inspect the app.
“Media muddle: Iowa Caucus hangover,” RT America, February 6, 2020.
“Nationally syndicated journalist and podcaster Ruben Navarrette joins Rick Sanchez to weigh in on the 2020 Iowa Caucus and the establishment media’s skewed coverage thereof.”