Last week, for the ninth week in a row, the coronavirus was predominant in the Russian media ecosystem. The majority of this coverage featured basic news updates, but some articles pushed back on claims that Russia is spreading virus-related disinformation in Europe. Meanwhile, the Russian government celebrated the sixth anniversary of the 2014 Crimean referendum on Twitter and continued its messaging around the U.S. presidential primary, in which it alleged media bias and other improprieties.
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — March 14-20:
Roughly half of monitored accounts’ Twitter output last week was related to the coronavirus. Of about 11,000 collected tweets, almost 4,200 contained “virus,” and almost 2,100 contained “covid”; some contained both. Six of last week’s top ten hashtags referenced the virus, including all of the top five. The top overall tweets based on engagement metrics were related to the pandemic and mainly consisted of the type of news content that is designed to go viral. These top tweets came almost entirely from two accounts that typically receive a large amount of engagement, largely for these type of posts: RT’s Spanish-language account (@actualidadrt) and Sputnik’s Turkish-language account (@sputnik_tr). Examples include:
Some tweets referenced the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a U.S. bioweapon. Sputnik covered Iranian claims to this effect, while RT debunked the idea:
Last week also saw messaging on the sixth anniversary of the 2014 Crimean status referendum, primarily from government accounts, as shown in #Crimea’s presence in the week’s top ten hashtags. These tweets emphasized the idea that the vote was fair and that Russia’s annexation of Crimea warrants celebration. Also included are some selective (and controversial) historical claims:
Finally, a limited amount of messaging addressed the U.S. presidential race. None of the fewer than 100 tweets that mentioned either of the two Democratic candidates received significant engagement, and many of them consisted of basic news updates about the Biden-Sanders debate or primary voting results.
However, the tweets mentioning former Vice President Joe Biden that received the most engagement were generally critical in tone. Several of the top tweets that mentioned Senator Bernie Sanders involved suggestions of unfairness, including allegations of voting irregularities and claims that the Democratic National Committee is trying to “force” Biden onto the ticket, counter to what voters want:
One tweet links the suggestion of rigging with an RT story about Louisiana’s postponement of primary voting due to the coronavirus:
Russian government-funded websites:
Top 10 Key Phrases — March 14-20:
Almost 900 of the about 1,400 stories collected last week mentioned “coronavirus” in the first 200 words. As shown above, nearly all of the top key phrases were also related to the pandemic. The majority of these articles contained basic news updates, but a handful pushed back on reports about a European External Action Service document that reportedly claims Russia is spreading coronavirus disinformation in Europe:
“EU spin in the time of coronavirus,” Op-ed by RT Deputy Editor-in-Chief Anna Belkina, RT, March 19, 2020.
“While the world is combatting COVID-19, a real pandemic, it seems the European Union is worried about a fake virus – the omnipotent, omnipresent, all-encompassing “Russian disinformation.” News of a brand-new EU report, still-secret yet seamlessly leaked to the likes of Reuters and the Daily Mail, made over a hundred headlines throughout Europe in the last few days. The report is said to be produced by the European External Action Service, and although the EEAS – probably abiding by social distancing guidelines – didn’t feel like sharing the paper with RT, anecdotal evidence suggests that our channel is an essential part of it. At the very least, no major news media coverage of the report has resisted the urge to write about RT.”
“Russiagate all over again: Secret EU report blames Russia for coronavirus ‘confusion, panic and fear’,” Op-ed, RT, March 17, 2020.
“When all else fails, blame Russia. That seems to be the EU approach to deflecting blame from its response to the coronavirus pandemic, no doubt because it has worked so well for Democrats in the US or London in the Skripal affair.”
“An EU report which accuses Russia of waging a disinformation campaign around Covid-19 isn’t backed by a single fact and has nothing to do with common sense. That’s according to Vladimir Putin’s spokesman.”
“Failing to Curb Coronavirus? Ask EU How to Spin a Good Novichok-Style ‘Russia Threat’ Yarn,” Opinion, Sputnik News, March 18, 2020.
“The Russians are up to it again. While nation-states on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are making every effort to contain the coronavirus spread, the EU authorities eventually found the culprit behind the panic engulfing Europe. European observers have fact-checked the claim. As the number of Covid-19 cases keeps mounting in Europe, the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS) has raised the alarm over “a significant disinformation campaign” allegedly kicked off by Russian state media and “pro-Kremlin” sources to sow panic among Europeans . . . The “Russia did it” narrative has become routinely used by Western politicians and media pundits.”
“Reports on ‘Kremlin COVID-19 Disinformation Campaign’ Based on Doc Unauthorized to Be Published – EU,” Sputnik News, March 18, 2020.
“Earlier, the Financial Times reported on an internal European Union report allegedly accusing Russian media of mounting a “significant disinformation campaign” about the coronavirus pandemic. Reporting about an alleged Russian media “disinformation campaign” aimed at sowing panic and confusion about COVID-19 is based on an internal document that was not authorized to be published, EU External Affairs spokesman Peter Stano has said.”
“Kremlin slams allegations of Russian coronavirus disinformation as Russophobic obsession,” TASS, March 18, 2020.
“The European Union’s allegations about Russia’s coronavirus disinformation are indicative of its Russophobic obsession, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, commenting on the European External Action Service’s report, which claims that Russian media outlets had launched a large-scale disinformation campaign to exacerbate the coronavirus crisis in Western countries.”
Other coronavirus-related articles of interest included a few on President Trump’s response to Chinese officials’ claims that the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan, as well as articles on the cancelation of NATO exercises, Facebook’s malfunctioning spam filter, Russian government statements about coronavirus misinformation in Russia, and an op-ed criticizing Western leaders’ response to the outbreak:
“US President Donald Trump is refusing to stop using the name ‘Chinese virus’, despite or perhaps in spite of protests from Beijing and some US media outlets claiming that doing so is inappropriate or even racist. Asked about his use of the term during a White House press conference on Tuesday, the US president said he will continue calling Covid-19 a “Chinese virus” because it came from China, and he did not appreciate attempts by Beijing to argue otherwise . . . There have also been wild conspiracy theories, such as that the Chinese government created the virus in one of its Wuhan bioresearch laboratories, or that it was a genetically tailored US bioweapon unleashed on China that went out of control.”
“Trump Rebukes Claim US Military Could Have Brought COVID-19 to Wuhan: ‘It Came From China’,” Sputnik News, March 17, 2020.
“Last week, following revelations by the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that there have been cases of COVID-19 deaths in the US mistakenly identified as influenza-related fatalities, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested that the US military may have brought the new strain of coronavirus to Wuhan. President Donald Trump has flat-out rejected any suggestion that the US military was in any way involved in the spread of the new coronavirus.”
“Coronavirus cancels major military drills, gives Europe reprieve from NATO warmongering,” RT, March 17, 2020.
“NATO’s massive military exercise ‘Defender Europe 2020’ has been effectively canceled over the covid-19 pandemic. Instead of hype about Russia, perhaps the alliance should address the actual danger to Europe, analysts tell RT.”
“Pentagon Cancels Deployment of 20,000 Troops to Poland for Anti-Russia War Games,” Sputnik News, March 19, 2020.
“With much of its top brass in self-quarantine and the US State Department recommending against travel, US Army Europe has canceled the deployment of thousands of US troops to Poland for massive war games aimed at Russia.”
“Netizens Slam Facebook After Algorithm Removes Valid Posts Amid Coronavirus Disinformation Crackdown,” Sputnik News, March 18, 2020.
“The announcement was made after numerous users complained that their posts were removed with notices stating that their content had violated “community standards on spam”, it was revealed . . . Facebook Vice President of Integrity, Guy Rosen, tweeted on Wednesday that the bug in the social media platform’s anti-spam system was to blame, later adding that all incorrectly removed content had been restored . . . But some complained that their content had not been restored despite the assurances.”
“Putin Calls on People Not to Trust Fake News About Coronavirus, Says Gov’t Provides Objective Info,” Sputnik News, March 18, 2020.
“Russia’s coronavirus response has included a series of fiscal measures to minimize the virus’s impact on the economy, quarantine for infected persons and preparations in the medical sector, along with travel restrictions. However, unlike some of its European neighbours, the country has yet to resort to a total lockdown. The Ministry of Health is in control of the situation surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, and Russians should not trust fake news sources when it comes to information about the virus, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said . . . According to the president, authorities have provided factual, objective information to the public regarding the virus, and will continue to do so moving forward.”
“Moscow authorities dismiss as fake reports saying city will go into coronavirus lockdown,” TASS, March 19, 2020.
“The Moscow Mayor’s Office is not planning to enforce coronavirus quarantine in the city or restrict people to their homes in the city, mayor’s spokeswoman Gulnara Penkova told TASS on Thursday. Earlier, Telegram channels reported that a session considering a possible lockdown and restrictions on movement in the city if the number of coronavirus cases exceeds 800 was allegedly held in Moscow on Thursday.”
“Asleep at the wheel: Why didn’t Western politicians act quicker on Covid-19 spread?” Op-ed, RT, March 19, 2020.
“Western countries are in lockdown due to Covid-19, but if leaders, their advisers, and the political class in general had paid attention to what was going on in China at the turn of the year, the crisis might have been averted . . . The sad truth – for Western citizens, the passengers of the ship – is that those whose job it was to watch out for gathering storms have let us down very badly.”
With respect to U.S. presidential primary coverage, fewer than 40 articles mentioned either of the leading Democratic presidential candidates in the first 200 words, most of which reported straightforwardly on Democratic primary results. However, a few articles and opinion pieces continued claims of media bias and the idea that Democratic primary is not being conducted fairly. A couple of pieces also criticized Representative Gabbard’s decision to drop out of the race and back Biden:
“Joe Biden raised a few eyebrows after he compared the coronavirus outbreak in the US with “being attacked from abroad,” prompting many to wonder if he will be held to the same standards by the media as Donald Trump is.”
“Democratic primary voters are calling out perceived rigging, from a TV station appearing to call the vote a day early to Ohio’s decision to cancel it entirely. Others think forcing citizens to vote mid-epidemic is itself rigging. The Democratic National Committee’s decision to go ahead with state primaries despite the raging coronavirus epidemic – directly contravening advice from the Centers for Disease Control to avoid gatherings of 50 or more people – had progressive voters, suspecting efforts to rig the contest in favor of establishment favorite Joe Biden, up in arms on Tuesday.”
“‘Deck is Stacked’: CNN Favorite Biden Dodges Accountability for ‘Blatant Lies’ in Network’s Debate,” Opinion, Sputnik News, March 17, 2020.
“Former US Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was on the defensive Sunday night during his first head-to-head debate with fellow candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). However, despite what the long-awaited face-off revealed about them, it appears the voters have already chosen their nominee.”
“Lacking post-DemExit strategy, progressives could snatch defeat from jaws of victory,” Op-ed, RT, March 16, 2020.
“With the lack of a viable third party in the US and no strategy for how to build one, progressive calls to leave the Democrats may amount to little more than blowing off steam. On last week’s Super Tuesday 2.0, the #DemExit hashtag, urging a mass exodus from the Democratic Party, shot to the fourth most-trending topic on Twitter with more than 40,000 tweets. Yet, even as progressive voters grow frustrated with Joe Biden’s surging campaign and what many suspect is a rigged primary process, there appears to be little agreement on how to move forward . . . With accusations flying that this discontent is the work of a Kremlin-directed conspiracy, it is clear that some Democratic Party loyalists find it inconceivable that the progressive wing could be so genuinely disillusioned with their party and its presumptive nominee that they would be compelled to go their separate ways.”
“Rigged US primaries aren’t the problem – the rigged election system is,” Op-ed, RT, March 15, 2020.
“Activists are calling for international observers for US primaries, claiming they’re rigged. The thing is, observers aren’t mandated to watch internal party processes – but the real problem lies in multi-party competition, anyway.”
“Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has suspended her presidential campaign and endorsed Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, citing the establishment favorite’s primary victories and the coronavirus as her reasons . . . The endorsement of Biden came as a particular surprise, given Gabbard’s opposition to “regime change wars,” a central plank of her platform. As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was deeply involved in expanding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan.”
“Tulsi Gabbard lost her political future & moral high ground with Biden-2020 endorsement,” Op-ed, RT, March 19, 2020.
“Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has dropped out of the 2020 presidential race to endorse her ideological opposite, establishment darling Joe Biden. It’s political suicide – for her, and for the idea of a progressive Democrat . . . Shut out of the primary debates by a Democratic Party establishment afraid she might do to the frontrunner what she had done to California Senator Kamala Harris, whose juggernaut campaign began taking on water after Gabbard exposed her heinous record live on stage, Gabbard had little hope of an eleventh-hour electoral rally. But while swearing fealty to the presumed nominee may have scored her some points among her establishment critics, most had a clear ulterior motive, using her exit as further leverage to pressure Sanders to drop out.”
Russian state-owned media:
About three-quarters of last week’s videos collected from Russian state-owned media YouTube channels dealt with the coronavirus. Many of these videos featured straightforward reporting on various impacts the pandemic is having around the world. A few videos of note on this topic included:
“US media muddled by virus coverage, attacks China, Russia,” RT America, March 13, 2020.
“Does the over-reliance of mainstream news networks on political talking heads lead them to miss the big stories until they smack them right in the face? Syndicated columnist and podcaster Ruben Navarrette joins Rick Sanchez to discuss. He argues that those in the media are too focused on their own lives.”
“Football field sized burial trenches in Iran a lie?” RT America, March 13, 2020.
“Prof. Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran weighs in on reports of how Iran is handling its coronavirus outbreak, which he argues are misleading and typical of the “anti-Iranian propaganda” and the “underlying racism” that pervades western media. He also weighs in on US airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.”
“Serbia tells EU ‘enough!’ — turns to China,” RT America, March 17, 2020.
“Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić called European solidarity a “fairytale” on Sunday after the EU banned the export of medical supplies to non-EU states, including Serbia. He called on China to send doctors, supplies and equipment to help Serbia fight the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Can Trump postpone coming election?” RT America, March 17, 2020.
“Voters are avoiding presidential primary elections for fear of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. How will the Democratic Party adapt itself to these trying circumstances? Former Georgia state Rep. LaDawn Jones joins Rick Sanchez to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the 2020 presidential election. She points out that it will “force us to rethink what’s really important” in how we choose our leaders.”
Finally, three of the videos not related to the coronavirus were about the scandal involving former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. This was the highest number of videos on a single topic not tied to the pandemic:
“Dem rising star apologizes for meth-fueled orgy,” RT America, March 16, 2020.
“Former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was found in a Miami hotel room on Thursday with two others and suspected crystal methamphetamine. Gillum was “unable to communicate with officers due to his inebriated state.” Police say the situation is “not being investigated as a criminal matter.” He has since announced that he is entering rehab for admitted alcohol abuse and putting his political career on pause.”
“Rising Dem star Andrew Gillum busted with meth and male escort,” RT America, March 17, 2020.
“My, how the sanctimonious fall.”
“Gillum sex scandal: Police wore body cams,” RT America, March 17, 2020.
“Former Florida gubernatorial candidate and CNN contributor Andrew Gillum has withdrawn from politics following his being discovered in a Miami hotel room with bags of suspected crystal methamphetamine and a gay escort. The latter has been hospitalized and is in stable condition following his drug overdose. He claims to be friends with Gillum. Nine police officers were present at the incident, and the police report mentions body-worn camera footage. RT America’s John Huddy updates us on the scandal embroiling the former rising star of the Democratic Party.”
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