From February 22-28, the coronavirus remained a prominent topic for the Russian media ecosystem, with a particularly dominating presence on Twitter. This period also saw an uptick in coverage about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who faced the first phase of his extradition hearing in London during the covered week, with messaging focusing heavily on claims that he has been mistreated during his confinement and is being persecuted by the United States. Russian state-funded media also reacted to news that broke late the previous week on new reports of Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. election. While the amount of coverage on this topic was fairly limited in volume, messaging dismissed such claims as part of what Russian state-funded media characterize as the “Russiagate” hoax and further evidence of anti-Sanders bias in the Democratic establishment and mainstream media.
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — February 22-28:
By far the top hashtag by volume this week was #coronavirus. The most retweeted tweet this week was about the virus, highlighting the Iranian deputy minister of health’s appearance at a press conference while visibly ill and the subsequent announcement that he had contracted the virus:
However, only one other tweet about the outbreak made the list of top tweets by likes or retweets.
Among top tweets using #coronavirus, several tweets from RT’s Spanish-language account — all of which are about one story that juxtaposes the current outbreak with plagues that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth century — occupy the top positions by both likes and retweets:
Other top tweets on the subject provide updates on the virus’ spread, economic impacts, and fearful and/or panicked responses, reflecting a generally pessimistic turn in messaging about the outbreak.
Another prominent topic for Russia-linked Twitter accounts this week was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his extradition hearing in London, as reflected in #Assange being the fourth most-used hashtag. Throughout the week, RT and its affiliates’ coverage of this topic pushed claims that Assange has suffered mistreatment, that neither his extradition hearing nor any potential trial he faces in the United States are or will be fair, that the United States has committed wrongdoings related to his case, and that he has not committed a crime. Examples include:
Sputnik, meanwhile, repeatedly tagged @wikileaks and @DefendAssange, which identifies itself as the “account run by the legal campaign to free Julian Assange,” and focused on his supporters and protests against his extradition. For example:
There was a small amount of coverage on the U.S. presidential race and reports of Russian interference that emerged at the end of the previous week. For example, fewer than 40 tweets mention Nevada, which held its caucus last weekend, or South Carolina, the next primary site (at the time of writing), and none of these received a notably large amount of engagement.
A couple of tweets posted before Nevada results were known criticize the process there, and the general theme that the Democratic establishment and/or the mainstream media oppose Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) continues. Tweets mentioning other Democratic candidates criticized them. The account for the RT show “Redacted Tonight,” for example, characterized reports of Russian support for Sanders’ campaign as bogus attempts to smear him, and other accounts also sought to play up doubt about the reports’ credibility:
A few accounts also weighed in on the Twitter controversy over the fact that Jane Sanders (Senator Sanders’ wife) did an interview on RT America a few years ago, making light of the “Russian TV” characterization of the outlet:
Russian government-funded websites:
Top 10 Key Phrases — February 22-28:
The top key phrases in articles collected from monitored Russian government-funded news websites show that the coronavirus continues to be among the most prominent topics, with about 250 of the approximately 1,300 collected articles using “coronavirus” in the first 200 words. The top article on this topic based on Facebook engagement covers Iran’s deputy health minister’s diagnosis, and other articles generally provide updates about the virus’ spread and global economic and travel impacts.
“New Delhi” takes the top position due to an array of coverage on developments in India, including outbreaks of violence touched off by the country’s new citizenship law and President Trump’s state visit. Late-week stories about the violence focused on India’s accusations of bias in Western media coverage and official statements, while earlier stories about Trump’s visit featured commentary on the pomp and circumstance, as well as typical cultural differences, associated with such high-level diplomatic visits:
“The Indian government has slammed a US state-run religious freedom watchdog for making an “irresponsible” statement about violence which erupted in Delhi amid protests over the citizenship law. The comments made by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) about the recent Delhi clashes were “factually inaccurate and misleading, and appear to be aimed at politicizing the issue,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated on Thursday.”
“India Hits Back at US Institutions, Politicians, Media over ‘Misleading’ Comments on Delhi Violence,” Sputnik News, February 27, 2020.
“The northeast district of the Indian national capital witnessed widespread violence following clashes between two communities over a citizenship law on Monday and Tuesday, while US President Donald Trump was on an official visit to the country. India has hit back at the US media, political leaders, and official bodies like the House Foreign Affairs Committee and United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for comments on recent violence in Delhi.”
“Forget substance, Trump gets the optics he craved in India,” op-ed by Ashish Shukla, RT, February 25, 2020.
“US President Donald Trump had plenty of reasons to feel smug after the first day of his two-day visit to India. Despite some simmering disputes between Washington and New Delhi, day one was a triumph of optics.”
“Watch US President Trump, First Lady Melania Arrive at India’s Monument to Love — the Taj Mahal,” Sputnik News, February 24, 2020.
“POTUS and FLOTUS were greeted by a crowd of over 100,000 in India’s Gujarat state during a mega event ‘Namaste Trump’ during the first leg of their state visit to India.”
“Ivanka and Melania Trump Dress to Impress Indians With a Whiff of Indian Culture,” Sputnik News, February 25, 2020.
“Melania Trump and her stepdaughter Ivanka are on a whirlwind of a tour to India from 24-25 February along with the US President. The two ladies representing the first family of the US chose their wardrobe diligently, giving it a classic yet chic look while tastefully embracing Indian culture with a dash of desi vibes.”
“On a (Medium) Rare India Trip, Will Beef-Loving Trump be Forced to Go Vegetarian?” by Egor Efimchik, Sputnik News, February 24, 2020.
“Narendra Modi, Donald Trump’s hospitable host, has tried hard to accommodate his guest on his maiden visit to India – a tour of the Taj Mahal, a rally at the world’s largest cricket arena, and a lavish banquet in New Delhi. But the latter may well prove a problem. While Donald Trump is making his 36-hour trip to India, there is one detail that is causing his aides headaches: the menu.”
Russian government-funded media websites also weighed in on the 2020 U.S. presidential race, with approximately 50 stories mentioning Nevada and/or South Carolina in the first 200 words. Some of these stories touch on reports of Russian interference that emerged the previous week, all dismissing the claims as the return of “Russiagate.” One RT op-ed that was shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook asserts that accusations of “Russian meddling” are “bogus” and are being used to cover up “wrongdoing” by the Democrats:
“Democrats resurrect ‘Russiagate’ to go after both Trump and Bernie Sanders, hide their own election trickery,” op-ed by Nebojsa Malic, RT, February 22, 2020.
“Establishment Democrats have now used the claims of ‘Russian meddling’ to go after their own progressive wing as well as President Donald Trump. The bogus accusation seems to be nothing more than cover for their own wrongdoing. Moscow is now supposedly helping Bernie Sanders in the 2020 US presidential election – that is, if you believe the anonymously sourced Washington Post “bombshell.” This follows a New York Times claim on Thursday that the Kremlin is “again” betting on Trump, written by known partisan hacks and likewise based on anonymous sources.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is mentioned in the first 200 words of collected articles more than twice as many times as any other major Democratic candidate (about 65 compared to about 30 for the next most-mentioned candidate, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg). These articles include further dismissals of Russian interference, as well as criticism of attempts to attack Sanders for Jane Sanders’ past appearance on RT America. They characterize these developments as part of an alleged broader pattern of anti-Sanders bias and Democrats’ supposed use of the appearance of Russian connections as a political weapon:
“Mainstream outlets are so determined to derail Bernie Sanders’ campaign, they’ve dug up a 2016 interview of his wife with RT’s late host Ed Schultz – shot before the “collusion” was a thing – to smear both as Russian stooges . . . But the clip dates from the 2016 primaries, before the Russiagate hoax made speaking to Russian media the 2020 equivalent of “palling around with terrorists.””
“How Dare You! Bernie Chastised by Twitter Users Over His Wife’s Interview With ‘Russian TV,’” Sputnik News, February 26, 2020.
“Democratic presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders has found himself between a rock and a hard place being lambasted by Twitter users on Wednesday over his wife’s interview with RT America. However, the angry netizens seemingly failed to notice that the dialogue took place in 2016, the same year when Bernie appeared on RT America himself.”
Other articles and opinion pieces emphasize similar perspectives:
“As Bernie Sanders surges to the front of the pack for the Democratic nomination, the Washington Post has dropped an anonymous “bombshell” claiming that Moscow seeks to help him as well as its “puppet,” US President Donald Trump. On the word of “people familiar with the matter,” the Post said in a report on Friday that US officials had informed Sanders of a Russian effort to assist his campaign, noting that President Trump and US lawmakers had also been warned of the supposed plot.”
“Former presidential candidate Eric Swalwell performed mental gymnastics on CNN to defend Bernie Sanders over alleged help from Russia, claiming Moscow does it in order to help its ‘agent’ Donald Trump. The Democrats’ overuse of Russian collusion conspiracy theories appears to be collapsing in on itself.”
“Hillary Clinton has seized upon the latest claim that Russia is ‘interfering’ in the 2020 election to renew her assault on US President Donald Trump, while a lack of evidence casts even the vague report into doubt. Clinton crowed an ‘I told you so’ in response to an NBC reporter’s tweet suggesting Trump had desperately wanted to keep the latest installment in the never-ending ‘Russian meddling’ soap opera under wraps. Accusing the president of “taking Russian help for himself,” she exhorted her followers to keep “Putin’s Puppet” from securing a second term.
“Sanders Possible Election Win ‘Would Be Tainted’ by “Russian Interference” Allegations, Analyst Says,” op-ed by Oleg Burunov, Sputnik News, February 22, 2020.
“Russia has repeatedly denied any claims of interference in the 2016 US elections, while US President Donald Trump rejected the allegations as a political witch hunt. Political analyst George Szamuely, author of “Bombs for Peace: NATO’s Humanitarian War on Yugoslavia”, has suggested that any possible electoral breakthroughs by US Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders may be tarnished by the “Russian interference” allegations . . . “There is no such issue of course. The United States is not involved in any conflict with Russia. The Russia issue is in reality an amalgam of toxic smears to be directed at political candidates out of favour with the political or military-security establishment. The issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon. It’s proven to be too useful”, [Szamuely] argued.”
“Sanders Suckered on Russia,” column by Finian Cunningham, Sputnik News, February 24, 2020.
“It’s bad enough that US intel and the Democrat establishment are playing the hoax “Russia meddling” card. But then Bernie Sanders reinforced the canard by uncritically accepting it as fact instead of dismissing it for the nonsense it is. Sanders would do well to emulate Donald Trump and his contempt for this crazy charade. A charade that demeans the voters’ intellect as well as endangering US-Russia relations.”
Additional articles on the 2020 U.S. presidential race further the narrative that the Democratic establishment is attempting to stop Sanders from securing the party’s nomination. For example:
“Democratic Megadonor Urges Party Leaders to Back Candidate to Block Sanders’ Nomination — Report,” Sputnik News, February 27, 2020.
“The move comes as the Vermont Senator is preparing for a critical primary in South Carolina on Saturday before next week’s Super Tuesday to fight for the Democratic Party nomination in the 2020 presidential election in the US. Democratic megadonor Bernard Schwartz has urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to back a candidate, so voters will follow their choice, in an attempt to block Senator Bernie Sanders from winning the party’s nomination to run against US President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.”
“Democratic Party Struggling to Rein in Sanders’ Surge Ahead of South Carolina, Super Tuesday Vote,” by Lilia Dergacheva, Sputnik News, February 25, 2020.
“The Vermont Senator has a decisive lead over the Democratic pack after his Nevada triumph as votes across 15 more states loom ahead. After Bernie Sanders’ win in Nevada and on the threshold of the South Carolina primary, the Democratic establishment has doubled down on its efforts to deal with the Vermont Senator’s growing likelihood of grabbing the party’s nomination for the November presidential vote.”
“MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough has added his voice to the network’s recent anti-Bernie Sanders chorus, arguing that Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar should drop out of the race in order to “consolidate efforts” against the frontrunner.”
Russian state-owned media:
Russian state-owned media broadcasts did not display a singular narrative push from February 22-28, but several videos address prominent topics and themes found on other platforms, including claims that reports of Russian interference in the 2020 election are at best overstated and defenses of RT from what are described as “vain attempts to smear RT and RT America online”:
“DNC distract with new Russian meddling claims — Iversen,” RT America, February 26, 2020.
“With President Trump dismissing intelligence reports of Russian interference in the 2020 election as “exaggerated” we then learned from National security adviser Robert O’Brien that Russia is trying to help Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic candidate. Political commentator and podcaster Kim Iversen joins In Question to discuss this evolving story with RT’s Manila Chan.”
“Russiagate 2.0,” RT America, February 21, 2020.
“Accusations of Russian meddling ahead of the 2020 presidential election are in the air as US media’s deafening “Russiagate” coverage returns with a vengeance.”
“NYT accuses Russia of ‘meddling’ to reelect Trump,” RT America, February 21, 2020.
“As the 2020 presidential election intensifies, the New York Times is attempting to bring “Russiagate” back into the spotlight by reporting that intelligence officials are already warning US lawmakers about purported Russian influence on President Trump’s reelection campaign.”
“Russia-baiting in 2020 election amounts to ‘slurs’ — Ben Swann,” RT America, February 24, 2020.
“Investigative journalist Ben Swann joins Scottie Nell Hughes to weigh in on revelations that the leaks about alleged Russian meddling in the 2020 presidential election on behalf of President Trump and Sen. Sanders (I-Vermont) were overstated and politically “spun” by their source.”
“Russia-baiting backfires — 30,000 push back,” RT America, February 26, 2020.
“Rick Sanchez responds to vain attempts to smear RT and RT America online and lists a few of the many people who’ve appeared thereon to speak their minds.”
“Smearing RT is ‘true desperation’ — Scottie Nell Hughes,” RT America, February 26, 2020.
“Time and time again, accusations of “Russian interference” in US elections shown to be false. But politicians, corporate media and others continue to smear RT and RT America. With “#RussiaTV” trending on Twitter, Scottie Nell Hughes takes the “angry, jealous trolls” to task and explains why those with the courage to appear on our newscasts deserve praise and not slander.”
A smaller number of videos about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing emphasize allegations that he faces threats to his life if extradited to the United States:
“Assange scolds court, demands due process,” RT America, February 26, 2020.
“The extradition hearing of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange is on its third day. He argued fervently that he is being denied due process. His defense maintains that if he is extradited to the US, he faces the prospect of assassination.”
“US plotted to murder Julian Assange — Galloway,” RT America, February 26, 2020.
“Shocking allegations are surfacing on the third day of Julian Assange’s extradition hearing. Lawyers of the WikiLeaks founder are now suggesting that Washington may have contemplated kidnapping or poisoning him. Former UK MP and friend of Julian Assange George Galloway joins In Question to discuss.”
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