The coronavirus remained an important topic in the Russian media ecosystem last week, though its margin of prominence again declined as compared to the previous week. Most pandemic content relayed basic news updates; although, critical responses to U.S. government officials’ claims that the virus originated in a laboratory in China received a fair amount of attention. Russian government and diplomatic accounts on Twitter, along with a much smaller amount of content on websites and YouTube, continued a strong messaging push marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day, which is known as Victory Day and celebrated on May 9 in Russia. Common themes in this campaign emphasized the importance of the Soviet role in World War II, as well as cooperation and friendship with Allied countries.
As in previous weeks, coronavirus continued to dominate messaging from China’s state media and diplomatic outlets. State media highlighted news that two American mercenaries—part of a small force that planned to capture Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and extradite him to the United States—had been captured in Venezuela. Additionally, state media attacked the U.S. government’s positions on the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to cast doubt on the virus’s origins in China and demonstrating China’s support for multilateral efforts to combat its spread. Other messaging attempted to signal to foreign businesses and decisionmakers another step on the China’s return to normalcy following the coronavirus pandemic, while highlighting the negative effects the virus is having inside the United States.
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — May 2-8:
The Hamilton dashboard collected about 15,000 tweets from Russian state-funded media and government Twitter accounts between May 2 and May 8 (figures as of 2pm on May 8). Like the previous week, less than half of the top ten hashtags related to the pandemic; although, total uses of pandemic-related hashtags outnumbered those of non-pandemic hashtags. In total, a little over 3,300 tweets mentioned “virus,” “covid,” and/or “outbreak,” accounting for about 22 percent of posts and marking a second consecutive week of more than ten percent declines in coronavirus output on Twitter, as compared to the previous week. The absence of explicitly virus-related content in the top overall tweets further reflected this decline. Top tweets about the pandemic primarily consisted of basic news updates, as well as posts about cute or interesting animals, such as:
The other notable trend last week was the continued messaging push related to Victory Day, which is celebrated in Russia on May 9 to mark the end of World War II in Europe. Expanding on efforts from the previous week, three of the top ten hashtags, #Victory75, #Победа75, and #FacesOfVictory, directly related to the end of World War II. Tracked accounts also used #OTD (an acronym for “on this date”) mainly, though not exclusively, to mark the anniversary dates of significant military developments in the European theater in 1945. Once again, these posts came primarily from government and diplomatic accounts. Main themes emphasized the Soviet role in the war and cooperation (and continued affinity) with Allied countries. While previous messaging efforts related to the war have often accused other countries of “rewriting” history, this type of criticism was muted last week, and the only use of the #TruthAboutWWII hashtag associated with these claims came from the Russian embassy in the United States. Nevertheless, the United States and Central and Eastern European governments released a statement this week criticizing the rosy depiction of the Soviets as liberators and accusing Russia of attempting to falsify history, illustrating the salience of this topic as a geopolitical issue. Examples of Russia’s Victory Day messaging from last week included:
Russian government-funded websites:
A little over 600 of the about 1,338 articles from Russian government-funded news websites collected on the dashboard last week mentioned “virus” in the first 200 words. As usual, this output mainly featured basic news updates. By a substantial margin, the top article by Facebook shares covered a development in research on the coronavirus. Articles of interest among the top overall articles by Facebook shares addressed several pandemic-related topics, including criticism of the UK’s coronavirus response and doubts about U.S. officials’ claims that the virus originated in a laboratory in China. An op-ed denouncing social media platform bans on conspiracy theorist David Icke was also noteworthy:
“Professor Neil Ferguson is set to go down in history as the man who made all the wrong calls in the fight against the coronavirus. It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at his sanctimonious pretence.”
“NHS England’s flagship Nightingale hospital in London – which opened to much fanfare a month ago – is to close its doors and be placed on ‘standby’ after treating just 51 Covid-19 patients, despite having room for 4,000 . . . Critics of the UK government’s strategy say they have placed too much emphasis on resourcing hospitals and not enough on care homes – which provide vital shelter and support for the elderly, a vulnerable group particularly affected by the pandemic.”
“The West’s wish to pin the blame on China (and probably the bill too) for the Covid-19 pandemic has been reportedly incarnated in a 15-page dossier compiled by intelligence agencies, which has now leaked, according to reports . . . The authors of the research found some pretty strange ways to paint China’s response to the outbreak in a negative and even sinister way.”
“In his rush to accuse Beijing of unleashing the scourge of Covid-19 on an unsuspecting world, the US Secretary of State said the coronavirus was man-made, before making a U-turn without even blinking.”
“The banning of the former TV presenter from Facebook and YouTube is an assault on free speech and free expression which needs to be forcefully resisted, whatever your views are on Icke’s theories on world governance.”
While not substantial in terms of total output, close to 20 articles covered the ongoing controversy surrounding the sexual assault allegation against former Vice President Joe Biden. The overarching themes in this output questioned Biden’s fitness for office and accused Democrats of hypocrisy in their response to the claim. Notable examples included:
“The Democratic White House hopeful – plus his party and its media supporters – dismisses the allegations against him as utterly unfounded, in a nauseating display of hypocrisy. But the scandal – and his age – disqualifies him.”
“‘It Has Not Been Safe’: Tara Reade Calls on Biden to End 2020 Bid, Addresses ‘Russian Agent’ Claim,” Sputnik News, May 7, 2020.
“Tara Reade is calling for presumptive Democratic nominee and former US Vice President Joe Biden to drop out of the 2020 presidential race and says that her speaking out about the alleged 1993 sexual assault has resulted in attacks from Biden surrogates and even a death threat.”
Finally, World War II-related content on websites did not reach the high proportion found on Twitter, totaling around 20 articles. A few pieces on the topic pushed themes accusing the West of forgetting the Soviet role in the war:
“Russian Federation Council Slams Pentagon’s WWII Project as ‘Unworthy Falsification,’” Sputnik News, May 7, 2020.
“The US Department of Defence’s new project commemorating the events of World War II, which has no mention of the Soviet Union’s crucial role in it, is just another example of “unworthy falsification” of history, Oleg Morozov, a member of the Russian upper house’s foreign affairs committee, said on Thursday.”
“Foreign intel chief slams efforts to belittle Russia’s, China’s role in WWII as criminal,” TASS, May 7, 2020.
“The Soviet Union and China paid the highest price for ultimate victory in World War II and any attempts at belittling their contribution to this triumph would be false and criminal as well, Chairman of the Russian Historical Society, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, said in a Russian-Chinese television linkup devoted to the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War.”
Russian state-owned media:
About two-thirds of the videos collected from Russian state-owned media on YouTube last week covered some facet of the pandemic. Notable among the coronavirus videos were a couple of videos on anti-lockdown protests, continuing criticism of the U.K. government’s coronavirus response, and efforts to prevent Chinese investors from buying global businesses during the global economic downturn:
“Anti-lockdown protester ARRESTED in London,” RT UK, May 2, 2020.
“‘Hug someone, save lives!’ Defying social distancing measures, anti-lockdown protesters staged a demonstration outside the London Metropolitan Police HQ where they carried out group hugs.”
“Sudden acts of defiance in Michigan & New York,” RT America, May 1, 2020.
“Armed protesters stormed the Michigan state capitol on Thursday as officials debated an extension of the state’s COVID-19 lockdown, as similar protests erupt across the country. Meanwhile, the NYPD broke up a Hasidic Jewish funeral for a well-known rabbi in Brooklyn, where hundreds of mourners had gathered in defiance of social distancing orders.”
“Why the government’s track and trace app won’t work,” RT UK, May 5, 2020.
“‘We’ve chosen to take an approach that is at odds with the rest of the world.’ Technology expert Bill Mew explains why the government’s centralised app is not up for the job it’s made for.”
“Cutting Out Chinese Investors,” RT America, May 6, 2020.
“Global businesses are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak, leading to a flood of failing firms. In the wake of the pandemic, several governments are seeking to halt Chinese investors from scooping up struggling entities.”
RT UK also covered the human-interest story of Russian WWII veteran Zinaida Korneva’s charity efforts, which were inspired by British WWII veteran Captain Tom Moore’s coronavirus relief fundraising. While a genuine feel-good story, this event aligns with Russia’s Victory Day external messaging more broadly, as it stresses the Soviet role in the war and portrays the USSR (and Russia) as old friends of Allied countries. Meanwhile, RT America put out a more direct video accusing the United States of de-emphasizing the Russian role in the war. Interestingly, neither video mentions the Soviet Union, eliding the distinction between Russia and the USSR:
“From Russia with love, Captain Tom Moore!” RT UK, May 6, 2020.
“From Russia with love, Captain Tom Moore! A Russian WWII veteran was so impressed by Capt Tom Moore’s charity feat that she’s decided to knit the 100-year-old a pair of socks!”
“WWII could not have been won without Russia – Larry King,” RT America, May 7, 2020.
“The Second World War came to an end in Europe 75 years ago, with Germany’s surrender. This also marked the moment that the US became a global super power for its role in winning the war. But how much of our acceptance of America’s importance in the victory is based in fact?”
Chinese state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — May 2-8:
As in previous weeks, almost all top hashtags were linked with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Hamilton dashboard collected about 13,000 tweets from Chinese state-funded media and government Twitter accounts between May 2 and May 8 (figures as of 4pm on May 8). This continues a downward trend in overall Chinese activity on Twitter since mid-April. However, overall activity—both in number of tweets and number of accounts active—remains much higher than the beginning of the year, prior to the global spread of coronavirus (see chart below).
At its peak in early April, Chinese accounts tracked on Hamilton were tweeting nearly three times as much on a weekly basis as in late January. Even now, the overall number of weekly tweets remains at more than twice its earlier level (though, again, it is important to note that this is due in part to an increase in the total number of accounts monitored on the dashboard).
Last week, one of the most engaged-with tweets from tracked accounts was a retweet by the Chinese ambassador to Venezuela of a story from Iranian state-backed Spanish-language outlet HispanTV saying that China would not accept any U.S. invasion of Venezuela.
The story itself was a reference to news that two American mercenaries had been captured in Venezuela. The article linked-to by Ambassador Li Baorong repeated uncritically the Venezuelan assertion that the U.S. government was behind the group of captured mercenaries that were part of a coup attempt against the Maduro regime.
Other top tweets attacked the U.S. government’s position on the coronavirus pandemic, while also seeking to demonstrate China’s support for multilateral efforts to combat the virus’ spread.
The aggressive tweet from China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying marked a return to form after a brief absence from Hamilton’s top tweets section.
Also absent from top tweets were statements addressing a major speech on May 4th by U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger on the 101st anniversary of historically important anti-imperialist protests in Beijing. Pottinger’s speech was delivered entirely in Mandarin and generated considerable attention in non-Chinese state-backed sources focused on China. Chinese official sources appeared to downplay the speech; it was only mentioned in four tweets across the accounts tracked on Hamilton.
Instead, top tweets from party state sources focused attention on a very different American entity. Tweets with the hashtag #Shanghai focused on the re-opening of Shanghai Disneyland in an attempt to signal to foreign businesses and decisionmakers another step on China’s return to normalcy following the coronavirus pandemic.
One other top tweet worth noting was from the China’s ambassador to the Maldives and highlighted medical aid sent there from China.
The Maldives are a strategically located island nation off the southwest coast of India, sitting astride important trans-Indian Ocean shipping lanes. Recent political upheaval saw an authoritarian-inclined, China-friendly ruler step down in favor of a more India-friendly politician. The island remains a focus for China-India competition in India’s near abroad, even as India struggles with rising coronavirus case numbers within its own borders.
Chinese government-funded websites:
The most-shared story of the week focused on China’s race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, presenting news that a vaccine had been successfully tested on animals. Many of the other top stories shared on Facebook leaned hard into theories that the coronavirus pandemic did not originate inside of China. Three of the top ten most-shared stories on Facebook either cast doubt on the notion the virus originated inside of China or that it had come from a lab in Wuhan. Other stories leaned hard into traditional themes of China’s negative messaging, analyzing “attacks” on China from the Trump administration and presenting “experts” warning the United States against a more aggressive stance towards China. Another article decried U.S. interference in Hong Kong through the National Democratic Institute, while yet another highlighted racism towards the Chinese diaspora in Australia. Interestingly, a widely shared story that featured the Chinese ambassador to the United States casting doubt on the virus’s origins inside China no longer appears to be available on CGTN’s website (see screenshot below).
“COVID-19 spread started as early as October 6, 2019: Study,” CGTN, May 6, 2020.
“It’s getting harder to find the true origin of the novel coronavirus that has plagued the world killing hundreds of thousands as genetic analysis indicates that the beginning of the pandemic dates back to early October 2019, over a month earlier than what was previously thought.”
“Roundup: Fauci dismisses theory coronavirus originated in Chinese lab,” Xinhua, May 6, 2020.
“Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), made the comments Monday in an interview with National Geographic.”
“Public anger, growing distrust: What’s behind Trump’s China attack?” CGTN, May 4, 2020.
The growing public distrust in U.S. President Donald Trump’s ability to lead the country in its fight against COVID-19 is why he’s attacking China, according to Telegram.hr, the largest digital-only publisher with the most users in Croatia.
“Experts caution against Washington being “more aggressive” on China,” CGTN, May 3, 2020.
A more aggressive stand adopted by some top U.S. administration officials against China on economic, diplomatic and scientific issues at the heart of the relationship between the world’s first and second largest economies may backfire, reported The New York Times on Saturday.
“Chinese Australians recognized for cleaning up racist graffiti,” CGTN, May 2, 2020.
Two Chinese living in Perth have been recognized by the Western Australia Police Force for their efforts in cleaning up racist graffitis in their community … They informed their local council and got to cleaning up several sites. Despite not expecting any form of reward for what they have done, the Western Australia Police Force issued two certificates to recognize their contribution to the community.”
“Xi Jinping extends greetings to young Chinese ahead of Youth Day,” CGTN, May 4, 2020.
“Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday extended greetings to young Chinese people of all ethnic groups, calling on the whole society to care for and support the youth. President Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, made the remarks ahead of China’s Youth Day on May 4.”
Chinese state-owned media:
Coronavirus remains far and away the top subject covered by China’s state-media broadcasters. Many of the pieces broadcast between May 2 and May 8 focused on China’s economic recovery from coronavirus. A large number of segments also examined how the pandemic is playing out in South and Central America, including several pieces on rising case numbers in Brazil and one segment examining how individuals deported from the United States to Guatemala may be fueling new cases there. As in previous weeks, a number of segments highlighted the negative effects the virus is having inside the United States and how communities in the United States are coping. Additional content reflected themes seen in other state media sources, such as pieces questioning the virus’ origins in China, and a segment on the U.S. mercenaries captured in Venezuela. One interesting piece was a CCTV interview with China’s Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, who said that the U.S.-China relationship needed new and more diverse forms of “ballast” outside of bilateral economic ties. He pointed to pandemic cooperation as one possible form.
“China-US Trade, Economic Relations Should Not Be Only Ballast Stone: Chinese Ambassador,” CCTV Video News Agency, May 6, 2020.
“China-U.S. relations are of huge interest to the whole world while the economic relationship between the two shouldn’t be taken as the only ballast stone in bilateral ties during these crucial times in the fight against COVID-19, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai said on Tuesday.”
“Coronavirus’ origin should be concluded by scientists, not politicians: FM spokeswoman,” CCTV Video News Agency, May 6, 2020.
“The origin of the novel coronavirus is a complex scientific problem, which should be explored by scientists and experts through rigorous and detailed scientific research, rather than judged by politicians, said Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.”
“As unemployment rises, debt level for millennials spirals,” CGTN America, May 6, 2020.
“As millions of Americans file for unemployment benefits, one group is being especially hit hard. Experts say millennials are one group that is increasingly vulnerable, with debt levels constantly rising.”
“Class of 2020 graduates amid uncertain times,” CGTN America, May 6, 2020.
“The Class of 2020 started the year looking forward to graduating into one of the hottest job markets in a long time. But now, many have seen their job offers and internships disappear.”
“U.S. COVID-19 cases are higher than confirmed: Stanford professor,” CGTN America, May 5, 2020.
“A recent study by a Stanford University professor found that COVID-19 cases in Santa Clara County, California are actually higher than the confirmed count officials give.”
“Explained: What’s going on with U.S. meat?” CGTN America, May 5, 2020.
“U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order this week that he said would keep meat processing plants open.”
“Substantial Evidence Shows COVID-19 to Be of Natural Origin: WHO,” CCTV Video News Agency, May 5, 2020.
“WHO officials rejected claims by the U.S. government regarding the origins of the novel coronavirus, saying there is substantial evidence to show that the virus originated from nature, speaking at a pressing briefing on Monday.”
“Wuhan in Central China Regains Vitality as COVID-19 Wanes,” CCTV Video News Agency, May 4, 2020.
“People in Wuhan, the central Chinese city once hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, are gradually returning to their jobs, dining out and walking around outside to appreciate the spring scenery as the epidemic has largely waned across China.”
“China builds world’s highest 5G tower on Mount Qomolangma,” CGTN America, May 3, 2020.
“On April 29, China opened the world’s highest 5G tower on Mount Qomolangma. This cellular tower is located at the mountain’s advance base camp with an elevation of 6,500 meters. Its construction was a joint effort between China Mobile and Huawei. The tower will cover the north side of Mount Qomolangma, including its peak. Its operation not only suggests China’s fast advances in 5G technology, but will also provide support for activities like scientific research and environment monitoring.”
“China’s Highest Standard Container Berth Put into Operation at Ningbo-Zhoushan Port,” CCTV Video News Agency, May 3, 2020.
“China’s highest standard container berth was put into use at the Beishan Port area of Ningbo-Zhoushan Port in east China’s Zhejiang Province on Friday, as it received the largest container vessel on earth.”
“Brazil COVID-19: Public health system nearly collapsed in Amazonas,” CGTN America, May 2, 2020.
“COVID-19 has caused the public health system in the state of Amazonas in Brazil nearly collapsed. Take a look at what the residents, doctors and local officials are saying about this crisis.”
“Guatemala: U.S. migrants deportation adds risk of spreading virus,” CGTN America, May 2, 2020.
“Guatemalan officials face more pressures of handling COVID-19 infected deportees from the U.S. Violence against migrant deportees is on the rise. Here is the full story.”
“U.S. millennials feel financial squeeze over college debt in COVID-19,” CGTN America, May 4, 2020.
“Coronavirus restrictions are hitting the U.S. economy hard. For millennials burdened with college debt, it’s a scary time.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.