From February 8-14, the Russian media ecosystem continued to prominently feature updates on the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, particularly on Twitter. Limited coverage of the U.S. presidential race on Twitter straightforwardly covered the results of the New Hampshire primaries, suggesting that primaries without problems like those in Iowa provide a smaller opportunity to cast doubt on election integrity. However, Russian state-funded news sites did continue to highlight existing divisions among Democrats and play up ideas that the Democratic National Committee and/or establishment Democrats are trying to unfairly impact the outcome of the primaries. More prominent narratives included reporting on increased fighting in northern Syria, which contained criticism of Turkey and positive characterizations of the actions of Russian forces, and some social criticism of the Oscars.
Russia state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags – February 8-14:
This week, the top hashtag by volume is again #coronavirus for Russia-linked accounts. However, none of the top 10 tweets by likes or retweets are on the outbreak. Instead, the majority of these top tweets are about viral content, again including animal videos.
There are 13 tweets that mention New Hampshire this week (of tweets collected on Hamilton by noon on February 14), consisting primarily of breaking news with no notable spin. The top tweet on this subject covers Senator Bernie Sanders’ (D-VT) statements following his victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary:
Escalations in fighting in Syria this week also drew attention from Russia-linked accounts, with Syria the third most mentioned country (after Russia and the United States) and #Syria the sixth most used hashtag. Both government and diplomatic accounts, as well as media accounts addressed this topic. These tweets feature a mixture of updates on the hostilities, including one tweet on “everything you always wanted to know” about the White Helmets, criticism of the increased Turkish deployments in Idlib, characterization of Russian forces as peacekeepers in an incident between a U.S. convoy and Syrian regime-backed forces:
Other prominent tweet topics this week included Russian Diplomats Day, which was on February 10, and the Oscars. Diplomats Day was marked using #DiplomatsDay and its Russian-language counterpart, #ДеньДипломата, primarily honoring Russian and Soviet diplomats who served prior to 1950. However, the top tweet using either hashtag cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on combating “attempts to rewrite history,” a common refrain of the Russian government:
Most of the top tweets covering the Oscars focused on neutral reporting of the winners. However, lower engagement tweets engaged with some social criticism, with the English-language RT Twitter account in particular criticizing what it characterizes as politicization of the event and “woke moments”:
In addition, early in the week, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs retweeted Lijian Zhao, the deputy director general of the information department in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about Russian support for China’s efforts to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak:
Russian government-funded websites:
Top 10 Countries Mentioned – February 8-14:
This week, the top three countries mentioned in the first 200 words of articles on Russian government-funded news websites are the United States, Russia, and China. Articles about China are almost exclusively about Covid-19. Syria is also prominent this week, with stories reflecting Twitter messaging. No single topic seems to dominate coverage dealing with the United States (or Russia), although there are a number of articles that cover the U.S. presidential race, continuing to emphasize divides on the Democratic side and the idea that the Democratic National Committee and/or Democratic establishment are attempting to unfairly influence the outcome of the Democratic primaries, often covering these issues through the lens of social media reactions:
“Former ‘Sex and the City’ actress Cynthia Nixon campaigned for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, but found herself the target of Twitter mockery for fighting off Hillary Clinton boos and complaining about living on “crumbs.””
“‘All Nuts’: Twitter Aboil as ‘Corrupt’ Nevada Dems Hire Ex-Buttigieg Organiser in Run-up to Caucus,” by Lilia Dergacheva, Sputnik News, February 10, 2020.
“Last week, Pete Buttigieg’s former campaign staffer Emily Goldman took to Twitter to welcome volunteers willing to assist in preparing for the upcoming Nevada caucus, while announcing her new role in the Democratic Party. A wave of Twitter users have found fault with the Democratic Party hiring a top presidential candidate’s staff member, Emily Goldman, for a position in Nevada, which is bracing for a caucus vote on 22 February . . . a great many [Twitter users] openly stated the hiring is “nuts” questing[sic] why the Democrats feel okay about it . . .”
A few RT op-eds go farther, with one alleging anti-Sanders bias in the U.S. mainstream media and another suggesting “DNC insiders” may be attempting “to steal another primary”:
“US media tries another ‘Bernie blackout’ after New Hampshire win, but their game is not working,” by Danielle Ryan, RT, February 12, 2020.
“Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, but it appears this is such a hard pill for US media to swallow, that they’ve simply decided to ignore it — or at least frame it in a way that somehow makes winning sound bad. Perusing mainstream coverage of the night, the casual observer of American politics could be forgiven for thinking a nice smiling lady called Amy Klobuchar was the star of the show. In fact, the avidly centrist Minnesota Senator came in third place — yet she gobbled up a disproportionate chunk of news coverage.”
“Are DNC insiders weaponizing ‘election security’ to seize control of 2020 primaries behind the smokescreen of Russiagate paranoia?” by Helen Buyniski, RT, February 12, 2020.
“Google and a dodgy “election security” nonprofit are reaching out to Democratic campaigns with free security tools, even offering to activate them. After the Iowa debacle, campaigns should be wary of DNC insiders bearing gifts . . . Some naive individuals might question whether party insiders would really try to steal another primary after the catastrophe of 2016 handed Trump his victory. But those responsible for that trainwreck were never punished, defending themselves in court with the rationale that party bylaws allowed them to pick candidates in smoke-filled rooms should they so desire. Moreover, nothing has come of the revelation former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign paid $40,000 to Shadow before the company’s app nearly handed him victory in Iowa, or that parent company Acronym’s CEO is happily married to a Buttigieg staffer.”
Further, several titles of Sputnik radio show articles play up divides among Democrats, including “Democratic Elites Go Into Full Panic Mode as Sanders Surges” and “Dem Infighting Continues With Trump and GOP Sittin’ Pretty” (both from February 11).
Russian-funded websites’ coverage of the Oscars mainly just gave rundowns of the category winners, but a few highlighted connections between the Democratic establishment and award winners:
“What Do Ex-Obama Staffers Have to Do With Brad Pitt Going Political at Oscars?” by Lilia Dergacheva, Sputnik News, February 10, 2020.
“Since more and more Hollywood A-listers have been heard to drop political or socially-laden comments at award ceremonies, including from the Dolby Theatre stage on 10 February, questions arise as to whether their speeches are really off the cuff or thought over by PR pros . . . Fenway [Strategies, a speechwriting and communications firm] appears to have been founded by former Obama Administration officials. Whether it is that very communications agency that helped Brad Pitt go political on the 92nd Academy Awards stage, remains unclear (yet probable), since neither the firm, nor Pitt’s representatives have commented on the issue.”
“’American Factory,’ the first film backed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s new production company, took home the Best Documentary Award on Sunday night and Trump haters were quick to rub their triumph in the US president’s face . . . The filmmakers of ‘American Factory’ encouraged workers around the world to “unite” in their acceptance speech. But they also gave a shout out to their less acclaimed competitors, including the filmmakers who documented “hospitals in Syria being bombed” and tried to push Al-Qaeda’s narrative in Aleppo, but for some reason did not get the trophy this year, unlike the notorious White Helmets back in 2016.”
Finally, a couple of Sputnik News articles this week harshly criticized organizations that work on or publish about disinformation. Specific targets were the Stanford Internet Observatory, which was characterized as a participant in a broader “information war,” and the New York Times:
“The Washington Mandarins and Veteran Disinformation Spooks Behind Stanford’s Internet Observatory,” by Morgan Artyukhina, Sputnik News, February 13, 2020.
“Stanford University’s Internet Observatory (SIO) is the latest in a growing network of cybersecurity groups policing the activities of social media users, pushing a pro-State Department line about Washington’s adversaries, and spreading the fear of disinformation that’s driving popular support for renewed conflict with Russia and other nations. This article will pull back the veil on one of the fastest-growing institutions in the US Security State’s information war. Some of the observatory’s central figures include Facebook’s security chief during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, leading academic champions of Western triumphalism and US policy advisers, and even a lead researcher from a cybersecurity group previously exposed as being itself a disinformation outfit.”
“‘Who is the Real Propaganda?’ NY Times ‘Selectively Edits’ to Push ‘Agitprop’ Narrative on Sputnik,” by an anonymous author, Sputnik News, February 13, 2020.
“Following hubbub about Radio Sputnik broadcasting on a Kansas City, Missouri, station, the New York Times wrote its own hit piece, making unsupported claims that Sputnik is “agitation propaganda.” But with each new smear attempt, more Americans clamor for Radio Sputnik – and the critical analysis it carries – on their airwaves.”
Russian state-owned media:
Russian state-owned media broadcasts did not display a singular narrative push this week, instead taking on an array of common topics, such as criticizing mainstream media outlets and highlighting existing divisions over Brexit and LGBTQ issues:
“CNN left out of White House lunch with press, no one noticed,” RT America, February 10, 2020.
“Even if CNN snapped out of their idiocy now, it might be too late.”
“Council to continue flying the EU flag despite Brexit,” RT UK, February 11, 2020.
““Waving a flag that isn’t to do with any particular nationality is rather divisive,” says Cllr Joanna Biddolph, as Hounslow Council continues to fly the EU flag despite Brexit.”
“Pupil launches legal battle against council’s transgender guidance,” RT UK, February 10, 2020.
““We have to understand that puberty is a time of great anxiety for lots of children.” Peter Tatchell and Caroline Farrow discuss as pupil launches legal battle against council’s transgender guidance.”
In contrast to reports that Russian state media focused on domestic audiences is circulating an array of conspiracy theories related to the novel coronavirus, outbreak-related content on RT America and RT UK’s YouTube channels appears to be simply publishing straightforward news updates on the virus’ spread. For example:
“China adds 15k coronavirus cases as officials axed,” RT America, February 13, 2020.
“Chinese officials have revealed that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, formerly known as novel coronavirus, is significantly higher than previously reported. RT America’s Rachel Blevins has the details.”
“China gets props for Coronavirus infections down,” RT America, February 12, 2020.
“More than 42 thousand cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed in 28 countries. RT America’s Michele Greenstein reports on the mounting global response to the international outbreak, including the search for a vaccine.”
There are also a couple of videos covering suspicions that Anne Sacoolas, the American accused of hitting and killing a U.K. resident with a car, was a CIA officer (reported elsewhere), including this example that connects this idea to the extradition of Julian Assange:
“Imagine if Russian diplomat’s wife killed Harry Dunn – Galloway,” RT America, February 10, 2020.
“A key detail may be shielding Anne Sacoolas, a US diplomat’s wife accused of hitting a UK resident with a car she drove and fleeing the scene. Former UK MP George Galloway weighs in.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.