For the seventh consecutive week, coronavirus predominated the Russian media ecosystem. By far the majority of the coverage has consisted of basic news updates on travel restrictions and the virus’s spread. This week Russian media paid greater attention to Turkey, reflecting developments in the war in Syria, as well as Turkey’s decision to open its borders for migrants traveling to the EU. Across platforms, messaging about the situation on the Greece-Turkey border emphasized both local tensions between migrants and Greek officials and broader geopolitical tensions. Finally, while the overall amount of content on the United States’ Super Tuesday voting was relatively small, the general narrative bent highlighted criticisms of Vice President Joe Biden, portraying bias in his favor from the Democratic establishment and “corporate” media as part of an effort to prevent the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT).
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — February 29-March 6:
The top overall hashtag for the approximately 9,400 tweets collected from Russian state-funded media and government Twitter accounts this week is again #coronavirus, with #COVID19 also prominent for the first time. The most retweeted tweet about the virus contains commentary from a Russian virologist that appears aimed at calming panic:
Other top tweets on this topic feature stories of selflessness in China and a nurse dancing in a quarantined Iranian hospital. RT’s Spanish-language account also posted a tweet apparently aimed at combating misinformation:
Developments in Syria and the related impact of Turkey’s decision to allow migrants to enter Europe were another prominent topic this week, as evidenced by #Turkey and #Syria appearing among the top ten hashtags. “Migrants” and “refugees” also feature among the top ten key phrases:
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Key Phrases — February 29-March 6:
Top tweets from earlier in the week using #Turkey criticize the country’s actions in Syria. A later tweet noting the ceasefire agreement Russia and Turkey reached to halt fighting in Idlib also received relatively high engagement. Some top tweets also repeat Greece’s accusation that Turkey is using the refugees as “pawns”:
Russia propaganda has used previous waves of displacement from the Middle East as part of an effort to create chaos in European politics and undercut its refugee policies, for instance by attempting to enflame European fears of Islamization. In this vein, top tweets mentioning “migrants” and “refugees” emphasize reports of violent responses by Greek border officials and tensions with local Greeks, likely seeking to amplify divisive reactions:
Coverage of Super Tuesday voting in the U.S. primaries was not among the most prominent topics for the week by volume, with 90 direct references to Super Tuesday for the week (compared to, for instance, more than 500 about the coronavirus). However, #SuperTuesday was among the top ten hashtags used on March 4 (the day after voting), with 35 uses on that day. The tweet with the most retweets and likes on the subject, posted prior to voting, includes a video compilation of Vice President Joe Biden’s verbal stumbles posted by the RT-affiliated viral news channel “In the Now”:
Besides basic news updates, top tweets regarding the Democratic primary generally mock or emphasize controversies about Democratic candidates including Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), or praise Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) while criticizing the media and/or the Democratic establishment and highlighting his campaign’s continued optimism. The first tweet below about Warren includes a GIF of a Native American man crying, referencing the controversy surrounding her earlier claims of Native American ancestry, while RT show “Going Underground on RT”‘s tweet about “modern-day class warfare” characterizes Biden as the candidate of the wealthy and Sanders as the candidate of average people. Some tweets also relay the idea that the Democratic National Committee is helping Biden specifically:
Russian government-funded websites:
Top 10 Key Phrases — February 29-March 6:
The coronavirus continues to be a predominant topic for Russian state-funded news websites (approximately 350 of the about 1,500 total articles collected during this period mention “coronavirus” in the first 200 words). The vast majority of these articles are basic news updates. However, the top article by Facebook engagement, with nearly 5,000 shares, restates the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami’s claim that the virus might be a U.S. bioweapon. The article waits until the fourth paragraph to note that this idea is among “conspiracy theories [that] have been circulating for a while” and that there is “no official proof.” TASS also ran a story on the IRGC commander’s claim without identifying it as a conspiracy theory:
“The US сould be the prime culprit behind Covid-2019 outbreak that hit China and then Iran, head of its elite Revolutionary Guards claimed, threatening that the virus will eventually be turned against those who unleashed it. “It is possible that this virus is a product of a biological attack by America which initially spread to China and then to Iran and the rest of the world,” Hossein Salami said on Thursday. He vowed that Iran would “fight” the virus and cautioned that the illness “will return” to the United States, if Washington was indeed responsible for the outbreak. Though such conspiracy theories have been circulating for a while, there’s still no official proof it could be true.”
“Iranian revolutionary guard chief claims coronavirus may be a US biological weapon,” TASS, March 5, 2020.
“Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Hossein Salami stated on Thursday that the novel coronavirus might be a biological weapon elaborated by the US against China and Iran.”
These articles follow others on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that misinformation circulating about the virus in Russia is of foreign origin and steps Russia has taken to combat virus-related misinformation:
“Putin: Foreign misinformation BOTS spreading fears about coronavirus on Russian social media,” by Jonny Tickle, RT, March 4, 2020.
“False stories about the extent of coronavirus in Russia are being spread from abroad as part of a disinformation campaign. That’s according to Vladimir Putin who says his intelligence services have proof . . . The majority of fake reports about Coronavirus mainly come from foreign sources, Putin warned on Wednesday at a government meeting.”
“Russian watchdog to restrict access to websites spreading coronavirus misinformation,” TASS, March 4, 2020.
“Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor will restrict access to online resources spreading coronavirus misinformation, the watchdog said in a statement.”
“Russian authority demands restricted access to websites posting fake coronavirus news,” TASS, March 4, 2020.
“The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office has found on the Internet unreliable information about the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country, its Spokesman Andrey Ivanov told journalists on Wednesday . . . On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting with cabinet members that bogus stories about the scope of the coronavirus spread in the country were mostly coming from overseas though nothing extraordinary was actually happening. According to Putin, “these bogus stories are clearly aimed at sowing panic,” and authorities need to provide reliable information to the country’s people in order to thwart such attempts.”
“Bogus stories start coming from overseas when Russia faces emergencies — Kremlin,” TASS, March 5, 2020.
“Bogus stories start coming from overseas every time Russia faces an emergency situation, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, commenting on fake news about the novel coronavirus.”
In examples additional themes related to COVID-19, RT also ran an op-ed criticizing Western media coverage of China’s coronavirus response, while Sputnik News detailed claims that the United States’ strategic competition with China “feeds into racism” related to the outbreak:
“Western media excoriates China over coronavirus response, even as infected numbers drop & hospitals close,” opinion, RT, March 4, 2020.
“China can do no right in its response to the coronavirus, according to western media. Even as the epidemic appears to be subsiding, Beijing is being slammed for being simultaneously too authoritarian and too weak.”
“Pentagon’s ‘Great Power Competition’ With China ‘Feeds into Racism’ as Coronavirus Spreads,” opinion, Sputnik News, March 3, 2020.
“As the COVID-19 death toll in the US increases, so is racism against China and people of Chinese descent in the US, Mike Wong, the vice president of the San Francisco chapter of Veterans for Peace, told Radio Sputnik’s Loud & Clear on Monday.”
Articles related to the situation on the Greece-Turkey border have emphasized Europe’s efforts to turn migrants away, reports of the use of force against migrants, and accusation that Turkey is using the refugees as a geopolitical tool:
“French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says “the EU will not yield to… blackmail” by Turkey after Ankara’s recent decision to lift its controls for migrants entering the EU, reneging on a 2016 agreement with the bloc . . . Ankara rejected Le Drian’s accusations, with Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin saying the country has “never seen refugees as a means of political blackmail.””
“Greek coastguard ATTACKS migrant dinghy and shoot into water amid border mayhem (VIDEO),” RT, March 2, 2020.
“Disturbing video has emerged of Greek coastguards beating a dinghy full of migrants and opening fire into the water off the coast of Bodrum after Turkey warned it would stop preventing migrants from crossing the Greek border. In the footage, which was distributed by Turkish authorities, one of the guards can be seen pushing the migrant dinghy away with what looks like a metal rod.”
“Austrian Chancellor Kurz blasts Turkey for migration ‘attack’ against EU,” RT, March 3, 2020.
“Europe has been put to the test after Turkey provided free passage for waves of migrants heading westward, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said, describing Ankara’s move as an “attack on the EU.””
“Spectre of 2015 Migrant Crisis? Syrian Refugees ‘Weaponised’ to Incite EU Border Tensions — Prof,” opinion, Sputnik News, March 4, 2020.
“Tensions escalating on the Turkish-Greek border could have been orchestrated by Turkey to impose pressure on the EU and the UN to resolve the Idlib stalemate, suggests Canadian academic and migration expert Anna Triandafyllidou.”
“Migrants Using Turkish Military’s Gas Grenades Against Greek Border Guards — Athens,” Sputnik News, March 4, 2020.
“Migrants who are trying to cross into Greece from Turkey are attacking Greek border guards with the type of tear gas grenades that are used by the Turkish military, Greek government Spokesman Stelios Petsas said Wednesday . . . According to Petsas, Turkey illegally helps migrants get to the border with Greece in an organised and coordinated operation by the Turkish authorities.”
There is also an op-ed praising Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for being “the only EU leader prepared to call out President Erdogan over weaponizing refugees”:
“Standing up to Turkey: Austria’s chancellor is the only EU leader prepared to call out President Erdogan over weaponizing refugees,” op-ed by Damian Wilson, RT, March 3, 2020.
“A poorly-considered fix to prevent Syrian refugees flooding Europe has come undone for the EU as Erdogan opens Turkey’s border to the west, with only Austrian Chancellor Kurz exposing Brussels’ migration policy failure. If the EU had not been so distracted with the whole prolonged Brexit fiasco or its inability to staff up its Commission with acceptable new faces, then it might have noticed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had weaponised thousands of Syrian refugees. While Brussels has taken its eye off the ball, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was paying attention and rightly accused Erdogan’s opening of Turkey’s border with western Europe as ‘an attack on the EU.’”
Finally, fewer than 70 collected articles mention “Super Tuesday” in the first 200 words (out of about 1,500 total articles), overlapping with fewer than 80 that mention Biden. General themes include emphasis on Biden’s support from the Democratic establishment and mainstream media, with parallel emphasis on corresponding opposition to Sanders, including coverage of claims that behind-the-scenes nefarious machinations by the Democratic National Committee are responsible for Biden’s rise:
“Obama’s ‘hidden hand’ in Biden’s surge tells us all we need to know about what kind of president he’ll be,” opinion, RT, March 4, 2020.
“After a rough run and even some mainstream media criticism in therapeutic doses, Joe Biden won big on Super Tuesday. His former boss Barack Obama is rumored to be behind it – which speaks volumes about the nature of the race . . . It wasn’t too long ago that most of us were looking at Biden thinking “not even the corporate media can save this man’s political career” . . . Obama’s support for Biden, whether hidden from sight or not, should tell us everything we need to know about Biden and everything we wished we could learn about Bernie Sanders. While the media appears to paint the fear of a Bernie Sanders campaign with a tarnish that suggests Sanders could never defeat Trump, the real issue is more that Sanders might actually defeat Trump, claim the presidency and enact some of the policies that might seriously gut the US billion-dollar war machine.”
“Fake JoeMentum: US media & Democrats are forcing a new pro-Biden narrative. Will it hold until November?” opinion, RT, March 4, 2020.
“Rumors of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, if one believes the narrative that has sprouted around the once-fading candidate. But how much of ‘JoeMentum’ is a desperate con? Biden has transformed in the past two weeks from roadkill to frontrunner in the eyes of the media, buoyed by a landslide (if expected) victory in South Carolina and bolstered by a sweep of the southern states on Super Tuesday. But this “JoeMentum,” as his supporters insist on calling it, is less an organic outgrowth of real political excitement than the product of careful stage-managing.”
“Establishment Joe-mentum: Biden racks up Super Tuesday wins as party lines up behind him,” RT, March 4, 2020.
“Former vice president Joe Biden has carried the south in the Super Tuesday primaries for the Democrat presidential nomination, riding the wave of endorsements and support from the party establishment . . . Though Biden struggled in the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, his decisive victory in South Carolina and the apparent rise of Sanders triggered the Democrats into falling in line behind the establishment candidate.”
“Joe Biden is pretty much Rocky Balboa delivering a blow after blow to Ivan Drago — at least in the eyes of his devoted fans. Just ask Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Moscow back when Biden was the VP . . . Biden, of course, is far from being an underdog in what has now turned into a de facto two-person primary. He has the entire might of the Democratic establishment behind his back, with other moderate candidates timely dropping out to endorse him and a friendly mainstream media keeping mum about his moments of weakness, dubious policy record, or remarkably fickle recollections about his own past.”
“‘Old Commie, Dementia Patient Walk Into Convention’: Twitterians Furious With Super Tuesday Results,” by Tim Korso, Sputnik News, March 4, 2020.
“ . . . The initial results of Super Tuesday’s Democratic primaries have not been received well by supporters of Bernie Sanders, who were quick to cry “foul” as former Vice President Joe Biden revealed a surprising growth in support after showing poor results over the preceding two months. Recalling the WikiLeaks revelations, as well as various conspiracy theories from back in 2016, Bernie Sanders’ supporters rushed to Twitter to complain that the Democratic Party establishment had allegedly once again gone to great lengths to prevent the progressive Vermont senator from winning the nomination, accompanying their publications with the #RiggedPrimary hashtag.”
“Activist and Bernie Sanders supporter Shaun King has sparred with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, after claiming she reported that the DNC is angling to prevent the socialist senator from winning the Democratic nomination . . . King tweeted out to his more than 1 million followers that Maddow had disclosed that “senior officials” within the Democratic Party were pressuring billionaire-turned-presidential-candidate Michael Bloomberg to drop out so that “Biden would have an easier time against Bernie” . . . The theory that the Democratic establishment is betting big on Biden is hardly a conspiracy, however . . . Whether the strategy qualifies as a plot against Sanders is debatable, but the socialist senator and his supporters certainly have good reason to be weary of the Democratic establishment — as well as the corporate media.”
Russian state-owned media:
The coronavirus continued to receive the most coverage of a single topic on monitored Russian state-owned media YouTube channels. Notable videos about the virus include discussion of the politicization of the virus in the United States and stigmatization of Chinese-Americans:
“Dems want to turn outbreak into ‘Katrina-virus’ — Steve Gruber,” RT America, February 28, 2020.
“Vice President Mike Pence has been tapped to lead the Trump Administration’s response to fighting coronavirus in the US. Conservative commentator Steve Gruber joins Scottie Nell Hughes to weigh in. Alluding to Hurricane Katrina, he argues that Democratic politicians are “desperate” to turn the coronavirus outbreak into “a narrative that Donald Trump is incompetent and cannot rally the government and is not prepared to show real leadership in the face of crisis.””
“Media watch: Who’s really politicizing coronavirus?” RT America, March 3, 2020.
“’Eat the Press’ host Steve Malzberg joins Scottie Nell Hughes to weigh in on President Trump’s feud with Democrats over who is really “politicizing” the coronavirus outbreak.”
“Coronavirus stigma & Chinese Americans,” RT America, March 6, 2020.
“Misconceptions about COVID-19, the coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China and now present in more than 35 countries, are making a significant dent in Chinatown commerce. In LA, San Francisco, New York City and elsewhere, Chinese-owned restaurants and businesses are complaining about the reduced foot traffic from tourists.”
Ahead of Super Tuesday voting, a few videos criticized U.S. mainstream media coverage of the U.S. presidential race:
“Dems & Media standing together on Super Tuesday,” RT America, March 3, 2020.
“Rick talks to Georgetown University media studies professor Chris Chambers about the “neutrality” of mainstream news outlets on Super Tuesday, and why it sometimes looks more like a PR campaign for some candidates.”
“Why Is MSNBC So Eager To Compare Voters To Nazis?” RT America, March 2, 2020.
“It seems like Bernie Sanders is running away with the DNC primary and the corporate media are freaking out. It’s really funny to behold and Lee is here to make fun of it with you. Both Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd have made Nazi allusions about the so-called “Bernie Bros” in the last few weeks and that didn’t stop the momentum of Bernie’s anti-establishment campaign. Now the media have started to make the narrative that the Russians are supporting both Sanders and Trump. We’ll see how it ends at the Democratic National Convention where the DNC no doubt have more tricks up their sleeves.”
One post-Super Tuesday video highlighted allegations of machinations by the Democratic establishment and mainstream media, but the rest seemed to be largely basic news with relatively balanced analysis:
“Big night for Biden: Earned or gifted? (Debate),” RT America, March 4, 2020.
“GOP strategist Melik Abdul and host of “Redacted Tonight,” comedian Lee Camp join Rick Sanchez to discuss the results of “Super Tuesday” and what they mean for the future of the Democratic Party.”
Other videos of note include criticism of the United States’ new measures against Chinese state-owned media and dramatic criticism of Turkey’s decision to allow migrants to attempt to reach the EU:
“US trying to ‘starve’ out Chinese media — professor,” RT America, March 3, 2020.
“The State Department has framed a new restriction on Chinese nationals working for state-backed media within the US as a “personnel cap.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls it “reciprocity.” This comes on the heels of China expelling three Wall Street Journal journalists. Titus Nichols, media strategist and University of Georgia professor, shares his perspective.”
“Erdogan ‘weaponizing desperate people’ to spark WWIII — Galloway,” RT America, March 3, 2020.
“Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is urging the European Union to do more to help his country with a wave of mostly Syrian migrants. This comes as Greece spars with Turkey over its breach of a 2016 agreement to secure Turkey’s borders to prevent the flow of migrants.”
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