For the tenth consecutive week, the coronavirus was by far the top story in the Russian media ecosystem. As usual, much of this coverage focused on basic news updates related to the pandemic. Amid this coverage, messaging about Russia’s medical aid to Italy constituted a notable theme, suggesting that Russia may be seeking to use coronavirus-related humanitarian assistance to improve its geopolitical reputation. Coverage of the U.S. presidential race was negligible, with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bail request receiving about the same amount of attention.
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — March 21-27:
The coronavirus remained the dominant topic for Russian state-funded media and government accounts on Twitter last week. Of the approximately 13,000 tweets collected between March 21-27, almost 4,500 mentioned “virus,” and slightly more than 3,000 mentioned “covid.” In addition, seven of the top ten hashtags were related to the pandemic (as were almost all of the tweets using #Italy, including the top six).
The top overall tweet by retweets described Italian gratitude to Russia for medical aid symbolically replacing the EU:
Other top overall tweets about the pandemic featured additional coverage of Russia’s aid and Cuba’s assistance to Italy, amid basic global updates, including updates on the severity of the situation in Italy:
#Italy was the tenth-most used hashtag last week, and more than 600 tweets mentioned the country. Top tweets mentioning Italy, with or without the hashtag, featured a mixture of dire news updates and coverage of Russia’s assistance, suggesting some effort to use the aid as a PR opportunity. Examples included:
The Russian embassy in Italy (@RusEmbItaly) also tweeted about Russia’s assistance, though it did not receive significant engagement. The hashtag #dallaRussiaConAmore, Italian for “from Russia with love,” was tied for the most-used hashtag from that account. This phrase, in various languages, also appeared in a small amount of messaging from other accounts:
Coverage of the U.S. presidential race was almost nonexistent, with fewer than 10 tweets with very limited engagement mentioning former Vice President Joe Biden or Senator Bernie Sanders. These tweets were primarily critical of Biden:
Russian government-funded websites:
Out of the approximately 1,200 articles collected between March 21-27, about 850 mentioned “virus” in the first 200 words, meaning about three-quarters of the week’s output dealt with the pandemic in some way. By far the top overall story as measured by Facebook engagement covered the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy; it was shared more than 23,000 times. Also among the top ten articles by Facebook shares were four on Russia’s medical assistance to Italy, plus one on the decline of the West. One of the top stories on Italy also contrasted Russia’s assistance to Italy with the EU’s response:
“Italy coronavirus death toll hits 4,825 as 793 die in ONE DAY in biggest daily increase,” RT, March 21, 2020.
“The death toll from the Covid-19 illness in Italy has nearly reached 5,000, as health authorities reported on Saturday that another 793 people have fallen victim to the coronavirus.”
“Russia is set to send teams of doctors, protective gear and medical equipment to Italy to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. It follows an appeal by Italian PM Giuseppe Conte during a phone call with Vladimir Putin.”
“Thirteenth Aircraft Heads From Russia to Italy to Help Fight Coronavirus Outbreak,” Sputnik News, March 23, 2020.
“Earlier in the day, a number of planes have departed from Russia to Italy to assist in the fight against COVID-19 after Italy held its first consultations on using the Russia-provided equipment for the fight against the virus.”
“Putin assures Conte of Russia’s readiness to help Italy battle coronavirus,” TASS, March 21, 2020.
“In a phone call with the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Moscow’s readiness to provide any assistance needed to stem the coronavirus outbreak and informed him that Moscow plans to send medical teams and equipment along with means of protection from coronavirus to Italy, the Kremlin said on Saturday.”
“The EU’s initial response to the massive outbreak of coronavirus in Italy was largely “inadequate,” and a lack of European solidarity opened the doors for Russia and China, former Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told RT . . . The EU clearly underestimated the virus, blaming the outbreak in Italy on its national healthcare system flaws, according to the two-time foreign minister and OSCE representative. As a result, Brussels, which preaches pan-European solidarity, failed to act when this solidarity was needed in the face of a crisis that eventually affected the entire bloc.”
“Decadent like the late Roman Empire, the West is committing suicide through its irrational response to Covid-19,” Op-ed, RT, March 25, 2020.
“Many think Covid-19 is some kind of alien invasion that spells the end of the world. But the real threat to us is a much deadlier virus: a hatred of all the values that have underpinned our civilisation for centuries . . . A large number of Westerners are happy to accept the suicidal shutting down of their economies to try to halt a virus that predominantly causes old and sick people to die just a few weeks or months before they would have anyway . . . The widespread opinion that everything, including economies, must be sacrificed to beat coronavirus is a revival of medieval witch hunts; the sacrifice seems more important than finding an effective method to deal with the problem.”
In total, 138 articles mentioned Italy in the first 200 words. These articles emphasized themes similar to those of the top articles, primarily covering the severity of the outbreak in Italy and Russia’s aid to that country. One further notable example:
“Watch: Italians Praise Russia, Deride EU After Vladimir Putin Sends in Coronavirus Aid,” Sputnik News, March 24, 2020.
“While the European Union has failed to provide coordinated assistance to Italy in time to prevent the virus, Russia has filled in and dispatched military health workers, virologists and equipment to help the country handle the pandemic. A video went viral of an Italian man replacing a European Union flag with a Russian one, in a gesture of gratitude to Moscow for helping combat the coronavirus crisis.”
A small number of articles highlighted Russian diplomats’ pushback on the idea that Russia’s assistance to Italy is not purely humanitarian:
“Russia’s Aid to Italy Neither Bargain Nor ‘Payment’ for Lifting Sanctions – Ambassador,” Sputnik News, March 25, 2020.
“Russian Ambassador to Italy Sergei Razov categorically refuted reports that Russia would allegedly require Italy to ‘pay the bill’ by asking Rome to lobby for the lifting of EU sanctions for the assistance in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. The Russian military arrived in Italy to help fight COVID-19 following talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte . . . Razov stressed that Russia’s selfless assistance to Italy was not a subject of bargaining or ‘paying bills.’”
“Russian Embassy in UK Slams Biased Reports on Moscow Aid to Italy in Fighting COVID-19,” Sputnik News, March 24, 2020.
“The Russian embassy in London expressed regret on Tuesday over biased and inaccurate reporting by the UK-based Financial Times on Moscow’s efforts to assist Italy in the fight against COVID-19. Earlier in the day, the news outlet published an article claiming that Russia’s aid to Italy was a political ploy. The Russian embassy in London pointed out that Moscow is helping Rome following a request from the latter, and in accordance with existing agreements.”
A few articles also covered Russia’s declarations that it is prepared to offer coronavirus-related aid to other countries, including the United States:
“Russia Ready to Help US to Fight Coronavirus If Necessary – Ambassador Antonov,” Sputnik News, March 25, 2020.
“Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said that if necessary, Moscow would be ready to help Washington in the fight against the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-2019).”
“Russia May Supply to Latin America, Africa Mobile Hospitals to Combat COVID-19 – Developer,” Sputnik News, March 25, 2020.
“A number of Latin American and North African countries have sent Russia requests for mobile hospitals to combat the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the Proekt-Technika Corporation developing the systems said.”
Several opinion pieces picked up the theme of a declining West, both related to the pandemic and not:
“Covid-19 dismantles the hollow commandments of European liberalism,” Op-ed, RT, March 20, 2020.
“Liberalism is based on a series of commandments. Repeated by politicians and parroted by the press, phrases like “diversity is our strength” become mantras long after they stop making sense. But Covid-19 is changing all of that.”
“Covid-19 has taken away bread and circuses, laying bare the true American empire,” Op-ed, RT, March 21, 2020.
“Regular Americans can no longer numb themselves with sports and gluttony, freeing them to clearly see the malignantly craven ruling class that exploits and despises them. If only they would open their eyes to reality. Anyone who has eyes to see can clearly make out that America is an addled empire in steep decline that is firmly entrenched in its bread-and-circuses stage. This has been brought into clear focus due to Covid-19.”
“More than half the world is autocratic now, claims an alarming new report about the state of liberal democracy, touting a ‘state of the art’ methodology. A closer look suggests it’s pushing a political narrative instead. Announced Friday afternoon, and nearly lost in the deluge of news about the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the report by the V-Dem institute claims that 92 countries – accounting for 54 percent of the world’s population – now qualify as ‘autocracies.’”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Vice President Biden received the same, very small amount of coverage last week, with seven articles mentioning each of them in the first 200 words. (Senator Sanders was mentioned in an additional three articles, all related to the coronavirus stimulus bill.) Stories about Assange continued to emphasize the idea that he is being mistreated, while many of the articles on Biden criticized him. Examples of each include:
“Judge’s ‘Hostile’ Reaction to COVID-19 Discharge Request Shows She ‘Profoundly Hates’ Assange,” Opinion, Sputnik News, March 26, 2020.
“While several organizations worldwide are calling for the release of nonviolent prisoners as the COVID-19 virus spreads, Julian Assange’s legal team’s request to have the ailing WikiLeaks co-founder released has been denied by a London court, further emphasizing the lack of concern for him, despite his belonging to a high-risk group.”
“If Britain allows a frail Julian Assange to die in Covid-19-infested jail, the blood will be on London’s hands,” Op-ed, RT, March 24, 2020.
“At a time when even the likes of Iran are letting thousands of non-violent offenders out of jail, the UK’s refusal to budge on one journalist is indefensible and surrenders the moral high ground it never had to begin with. Julian Assange has been at the heart of, or connected to, almost every major political event of the past decade. And unwittingly, he’s now set to take centre-stage in the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic crisis.”
“After saying President Donald Trump needs to better listen to his medical advisors, Joe Biden proceeded to cough into his hand, prompting CNN host Jake Tapper to give him a lesson about germs. Another day, another gaffe for presidential hopeful Biden, who has been doing his best to stay in the spotlight amid the coronavirus spread through television interviews where he’s criticized the Trump administration and its response to the outbreak.”
“Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden has promised to address the nation about the coronavirus epidemic “soon” as critics wonder where he’s been for the last week – and whether he’s even alive.”
Russian state-owned media:
More than three-quarters of the about 106 videos collected from Russian state-owned media YouTube channels last week addressed some facet of the coronavirus pandemic. While much of this content addressed basic news reports, such as the pandemic’s economic impact, a few videos of note emphasized Russian medical aid to countries in Europe, anti-Asian racism in the United States, and criticism of Western media coverage of different countries’ coronavirus responses:
“Vital Russian medical aid arrives in Italy,” RT America, March 25, 2020.
“Italy is in desperate need of help to fight the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Assistance has come in the form of more than ten Russian military transport planes filled with people and medical supplies. Italy has 63,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.” (*Note that chyrons include the phrase “From Russia with Love.”)
“Russia & China come to Serbia’s rescue,” RT America, March 20, 2020.
“Serbia, where there are over 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 coronavirus infection, has declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. Serbia is closing its borders to almost everyone except cargo trucks and aid deliveries. China has sent medical supplies, including 1,000 testing kits, and more supplies and Chinese doctors are expected within the week.”
“Asian-Americans fear sharp rise in xenophobia,” RT America, March 25, 2020.
“President Trump’s deliberate choice to refer to the COVID-19 coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” may be to blame for an increase in discrimination and even violence against Asian Americans.”
“‘You’re wrong!’: Don’t rename virus to play politics,” RT America, March 20, 2020.
“Nationally syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette joins Rick Sanchez to weigh in on the mean-spirited tone of the US coverage of China’s COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak compared to its compassionate coverage of Italy’s outbreak.”
RT’s U.K. channel put out several videos about whether possible emergency powers for the U.K. government would be an invasion of privacy, freedom, etc. Examples included:
“Emergency COVID-19 Bill: what new powers will it give the government?” RT UK, March 20, 2020.
“Are we entering a Police state? Or are these all ‘necessary measures’? We look at the government’s new coronavirus bill which gives powers to ARREST, DETAIN, AND SCREEN for coronavirus, and then IMPOSE self-isolation and FINE those not in compliance.”
“Are emergency COVID-19 measures ripe for abuse?” RT UK, March 20, 2020.
““The problem with these emergency measures, once police officers are given these powers, then they can be extended to other parts of life.” This barrister says yes emergency police powers are needed, but there is a fine line that we need to tread.”
In the intersection of coronavirus coverage and other topics historically of interest to the Russian media ecosystem, RT’s U.K. channel continued its sympathetic treatment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who remains detained in London after his request for bail due to coronavirus risk was denied. Collected videos highlight claims that Assange has been unfairly detained and mistreated:
“Former UN expert on Assange’s detention,” RT UK, March 25, 2020.
“Former UN expert on arbitrary Prof Mads Andenas outlines the ‘legal’ basis of Julian Assange’s detention.”
“Assange calls for release, says he is at high risk of coronavirus,” RT UK, March 25, 2020.
“‘Why on earth is this man – who hasn’t been convicted – held in a maximum security facility?’ Craig Murray, as Assange calls for release due to coronavirus.”
“The argument for Assange’s bail,” RT UK, March 26, 2020.
“It’s as if the evidence didn’t even matter? Legal counsel for Julian Assange explains what they told the court in the now failed attempt for the Wikileaks publisher’s bail.”
Finally, RT’s U.K. channel also continued to cover free speech issues:
“Deplatforming the deplatformers,” RT UK, March 23, 2020.
“Good news for free speech activists! The group that deplatformed former foreign secretary Amber Rudd were themselves deplatformed. Sweet karma? Legal editor of Spiked Online thinks two wrongs don’t make a right.”
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