The coronavirus, while still the most prominent topic in the Russian media ecosystem last week, continued to decline in prominence for the third week in a row. At the same time, World War II Victory Day messaging predictably reached its zenith on the day itself (May 9). Like in previous years, it largely emphasized the Soviet Union’s role in the war, general celebratory themes, and cooperation with Allied countries. However, accusations that the United States was rewriting history by downplaying the Soviet contribution trended—a familiar theme emanating from the highest levels of the Russian government. Finally, a small amount of coverage addressed the week’s developments regarding former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn, playing up claims that cast doubt on the significance (or even existence) of Russian interference in 2016. This narrative resembles previous Russian state-sponsored media coverage of U.S. investigations into Russia’s operation against the 2016 election.
This week saw a particularly strong push to undermine the reliability and credibility of U.S. authorities. Many of the most engaged-with tweets painted the United States’ response to coronavirus in hyperbolic terms and blasted the country’s alleged hypocrisy and scapegoating of China. By contrast, Chinese efforts against the virus were portrayed in the usual upbeat and vaguely heroic tone. This messaging dynamic was particularly pronounced after American intelligence agencies announced that Chinese cyber attackers were trying to steal coronavirus research. Beijing portrayed the announcement as yet another dastardly plot by a former superpower gone rogue.
Russian state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — May 9-15:
Between May 9 and May 15, the Hamilton dashboard collected about 15,000 tweets from Russian state-funded media and government Twitter accounts (figures as of 1pm May 15). Only three of the week’s top ten hashtags referenced the pandemic, and the total number of tweets mentioning “virus,” “covid,” and/or “outbreak” was only a little over 2,600—a decline of about 20 percent from the previous week.
By comparison, messaging related to World War II accounted for four of the top ten hashtags (plus much of the output using #OTD), and close to 2,250 total tweets mentioned “WWII,” “victory,” its Russian equivalent “победа/победы,” or some combination thereof. As usual, government and diplomatic accounts led the charge, but media accounts also participated in this messaging to a greater extent than in previous weeks. While much of this output featured positive messaging championing the Soviet Union’s contribution to the war effort and its friendships with Allied countries, some corresponding negative messaging also emerged. In particular, Russian media and government officials took a more aggressive stance in accusing former Allies, especially the United States, of “rewriting history” in order to diminish the Soviet Union’s role in the war. Examples of this type of content included:
Like the previous week, the only account to use #TruthAboutWII was the Russian embassy in the United States. This hashtag has seen much greater use in previous World War II messaging from the Russian government. Examples from the Russian embassy in the United States included:
Finally, while accounting for fewer than 30 tweets, output on Twitter related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn featured a pronounced pro-Flynn stance, and a small subset of these tweets referenced the “Obamagate” conspiracy theory. Sputnik sent out more than half of these tweets:
Russian government-funded websites:
Articles from Russian government-funded news websites collected on the dashboard last week that mentioned “virus” in the first 200 words accounted for about 40 percent of total output. As in previous weeks, the coverage featured a substantial amount of basic news updates and criticism of Western government responses.
Between 30 and 40 articles featured World War II-related content marking the 75th anniversary of Victory Day. Much of this content featured historical retrospectives on the end of the war and celebrations in Moscow. However, several stories and opinion pieces focused on the aforementioned claims that the West has written the Soviet Union out of the World War II experience. The vehemence of Russia’s criticism on this topic reflects the cultural significance of the “Great Patriotic War,” which had an indisputably catastrophic cost for the Soviet Union, but which has also been a key component of Russia’s efforts to use historical revisionism as a geopolitical weapon:
“27 million reasons why we must remember Victory Day & stand up to attempts at rewriting history,” Op-ed, RT, May 9, 2020.
“The Soviet death toll in the Second World War is mind-boggling, yet, shamefully, the enormous sacrifices made by the people of the USSR 75 years ago are being airbrushed out of history by many with a current geopolitical agenda . . . The truth is that in recent years the Soviet contribution to the defeat of Hitler has been downplayed in the West or, even worse, ignored altogether.”
“United States officially REWROTE history this V-day when it IGNORED Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazism,” Op-ed, RT, May 10, 2020.
“The US is undertaking a major revision of World War II history, deliberately minimizing the contribution of the Soviet Union to the victory over Nazism, while painting countries that fought alongside Germany as Russian victims. This is no oversight or simple historical illiteracy. It is part and parcel of a mobilization that is taking place in the United States today for a new, and more serious, confrontation with Russia.”
“Online Rage as White House Dubs US, Britain ‘Victors Over Nazis’ Without Mentioning USSR,” Sputnik News, May 9, 2020.
“The US has once again been caught attempting to credit itself with defeating the Wehrmacht in the finale of World War Two, with netizens en masse rushing to accuse Washington of distorting historical facts . . . Internet users instantly started posting documentary pictures of Soviet soldiers raising the USSR’s victory banner atop the Reichstag in May of 1945, thereby proving how far the White House post is from the historical reality.”
“Russia should not be silent to belittling of USSR’s role in WWII – ambassador,” TASS, May 9, 2020.
“The misinformation campaign unleashed in a number of countries in order to belittle the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazism is unacceptable, and the Russian side should not be silent in response, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov told reporters on Saturday.”
“#CoEWeRemember: Governor of Russia’s Leningrad Region Calls to Preserve Memory of WWII Victors,” Sputnik News, May 9, 2020.
“The initiative is calling on people to share their take on the 75th anniversary of the victory in the fight against the Nazi regime and to remember its crimes. The #CoEWeRemember acts to counter attempts to rewrite the history of World War II and the destruction of national memorials commemorating the victory.”
“Social media feeds are filled with historic shots marking Victory Day, but Facebook seems to have taken issue with one that symbolizes the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, and it keeps deleting a recently-colorized version of it.”
Fewer than 20 articles and opinion pieces discussed the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to drop charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the list of officials involved in his “unmasking,” and other related developments. The general thrust of the coverage emphasized two main ideas: that recent events reinforce the idea that the Russia investigation was a hoax (“Russiagate”) and that Flynn’s prosecution went nefariously to the highest levels of the Obama administration as part of a larger partisan plot to undermine President Donald Trump. Notable examples are included below. Note that the first article is the one linked in RT’s tweet asking whether this event was the start of “Obamagate”:
“A newly published list of US officials who were interested in National Security Agency (NSA) records on Trump adviser Michael Flynn includes President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, as well as Vice President Joe Biden.”
“Sweet revenge? Now that Michael Flynn is free, Trump may be tempted to punish the Russiagate conspirators,” Op-ed, RT, May 8, 2020.
“As the Justice Department drops charges against the former White House adviser, many are hoping the final chapter on Russiagate has been closed. But as an investigation against Trump’s rivals proceeds, the saga is just beginning. May 7 may go down in the American history books as the day when Donald Trump began to turn the tide against his Democrat opponents and their relentless efforts to have him removed from office.”
“‘The Biggest Political Crime’: Does Obamagate Mean Treason, Sedition or Both?” Opinion, Sputnik News, May 13, 2020.
“On Sunday, President Donald Trump lashed out at his predecessor Barack Obama on Twitter accusing him of ‘the biggest political crime in American history’ and calling it ‘Obamagate.’ Wall Street analyst Charles Ortel has explained what the president may have meant and why former Obama officials should prepare themselves for a political storm . . . By accusing Obama of ‘the biggest crime’ President Trump may have alluded to either treason or sedition or both, described in 18 US Code Chapter 115 . . .”
“‘Obamagate’: Trump Calls Out ‘Biggest Political Crime’ in US History Over Michael Flynn Case,” Sputnik News, May 11, 2020.
“Michael Flynn is one of the few Trump associates who have been convicted as part of the Mueller investigation into an alleged conspiracy between the US president and Russia. That probe, which dominated the headlines for more than two years, failed to establish a link between Trump and Moscow. Donald Trump has accused the Obama administration of having committed “the biggest political crime in American history” by prosecuting Michael Flynn.”
Russian state-owned media:
About three-quarters of the videos collected from Russian state-owned media on YouTube last week covered some facet of the coronavirus pandemic, as lockdowns began to be lifted in various locations.
In World War II output, RT America contributed content, while RT UK did not. The two RT America videos showed the two sides of Russia’s Victory Day messaging: lashing out at other countries for not sufficiently appreciating the Soviet role and highlighting celebrations:
“Russia’s role in WWII downplayed by White House — angry response,” RT America, May 11, 2020.
“The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in World War II. So why is the US attempting to minimize Russia’s role in defeating the Axis Powers?”
“Russia celebrates Victory Day with massive air show,” RT America, May 12, 2020.
“Russia solemnly observed the 75th anniversary of its victory over the Third Reich on Sunday with a massive military flyover above Red Square. Much of the usual celebration of Victory Day was absent due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ground parade was replaced by a parade of military planes.”
RT America covered conspiracy-type allegations related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn and senior Obama administration officials, but the channel has not yet specifically used the term “Obamagate.” The first video below suggests that the ultimate question is, “Did Biden abuse his powers to go after a political opponent?” The channel also returned to the familiar tactic of claiming mainstream media bias related to this issue. For example:
“Breaking: Who was looking at NSA’s Flynn records?” RT America, May 13, 2020.
“A newly published list of US officials who were interested in National Security Agency (NSA) records on former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn includes President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, as well as Vice President Joe Biden.”
“Michael Flynn supporters still not satisfied,” RT America, May 12, 2020.
“New information about the case against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has enormous implications for the discredited Mueller investigation and the potential threat Flynn posed to US foreign policy and intelligence establishment.”
“NBC apologizes for not playing Barr’s full quote,” RT America, May 11, 2020.
“Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press” on NBC, is under fire for deceptively editing a clip of US Attorney General William Barr and deliberately misrepresenting Barr’s comments about the exoneration of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.”
“NBC doubles down on AG Barr fake news after fake apology for Chuck Todd’s editing snafu,” RT America, May 13, 2020.
“Classic case of sorry, not sorry.”
Chinese state-funded media and government and diplomatic corps accounts:
Top 10 Hashtags — May 9-15:
The Hamilton dashboard collected about 14,000 tweets from Chinese state-funded media and government Twitter accounts between May 9 and May 15 (figures as of 4pm on May 8), a noticeable increase over the previous week and a break in the downward trend in overall Chinese activity on Twitter since mid-April. As in previous weeks, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was the subject of almost all the top hashtags. China’s diplomats continued to portray the U.S. response to the pandemic as feckless and hypocritical, while simultaneously highlighting China’s humanitarian aid and supposed dependability as a global partner.
China’s ambassador to Venezuela, Li Baorong, illustrated this juxtaposition in a pair of tweets, one of which slammed Vice President Mike Pence for transporting empty boxes of medical supplies to a hospital “for the cameras,” while the other announced the arrival of Chinese medical supplies in Venezuela.
Highlighting China’s humanitarian aid to virus-stricken parts of the world was a prominent theme with diplomats, as evidenced further by Deputy Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who emphasized Chinese aid to Africa.
Contrasting the supposed failings of the United States with the effectiveness of China implicitly suggests that Beijing is now the world’s most trustworthy superpower.
Reinforcing this message is the idea that the U.S. government is lying to the world. Hua Chunying, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, illustrated this message in a trio of tweets, one of which stated, “China won’t be Iraq”—presumably a reference to the United States’ use of faulty weapons of mass destruction intelligence.
Finally, Chinese state-run media last week picked up and disseminated a CNN interview with former U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus, who compared anti-China rhetoric from U.S. officials with McCarthyism.
By the end of the week, Ambassador Baucus was lauded as a lone American hero “in dark times.”
Although a constant over the past several weeks, efforts to cast U.S. officials as untrustworthy were perhaps more pronounced in light of last week’s announcement that Chinese cyber attackers were attempting to steal coronavirus vaccine research. Interestingly, while U.S. intelligence agencies only announced the hack on Wednesday, Chinese authorities and state media were already refuting accusations on Monday (based on a single New York Times article).
On the day of the announcement of the cyberattacks, Zhao Lijian also promoted China’s commitment to research and to the spirit of international cooperation. His specific mention of China’s cooperation with Canada, a close American ally, was quite possibly an additional dig at the United States.
Chinese government-funded websites:
The top story published on Facebook by China’s state media concerned Xi Jinping and his mother (who remains alive at the age of 93), reflecting state media’s continuing effort to cast the country’s paramount leader as a man of the people and a family man.
Other top stories saw China’s state media boosting official Russian narratives. These included an accusation by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the United States refused to adopt an international protocol banning the use of biological weapons (echoing ongoing efforts by Chinese state media to sow suspicion that a U.S. biological weapons research lab was the true source of the coronavirus pandemic), and repeating Russian state media’s allegation that the United States downplays Russia’s role in World War II (a standard trope of Russian propaganda).
Other top stories boosted U.S. domestic criticism of President Donald Trump, elevated China’s efforts to help other countries combat the coronavirus pandemic, and cited international praise of China’s own domestic measures.
“Former U.S. President Barack Obama in a recent private conversation blasted the response to the coronavirus pandemic by the current administration of President Donald Trump as ‘absolute chaotic disaster,’ vowing to tirelessly help unseat the incumbent president in the upcoming general election.”
“Russia accuses U.S. of downplaying Soviet Union’s role in World War II,” Xinhua, May 11, 2020.
“Russia has accused the United States of distorting the history of the World War II and downplaying the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany. We are extremely indignant at the attempt to distort the results of the defeat of Nazism and the decisive contribution of our country,” Russian Foreign Ministry said Sunday in a statement.”
“U.S. opposes verification of biological weapon production: Russian FM,” Xinhua, May 13, 2020.
“The United States categorically opposes the adoption of a protocol to the convention of banning biological and toxin weapons, which would establish a mechanism to verify compliance by member countries with their obligation not to produce such weapons, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.
“‘The United States’ reluctance to ensure transparency of its military-biological activities in different regions of the world, of course, raises questions about what is really happening and what goals are being pursued,’ Lavrov said during a news conference following an online meeting of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).”
“China’s coronavirus vaccine facility ready to make millions of doses,” CGTN, May 13, 2020.
“When the world scientists are racing against time to develop vaccines, a Chinese firm announced they have built the world’s largest vaccine plant with the annual capacity reaching 100 million doses.”
“Top academic journals refute coronavirus conspiracies about China,” CGTN, May 10, 2020.
“While some Western politicians are busy blaming China for their own failures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic with fabricated information, the world’s top academic journals, including Nature, Science and The Lancet, have been crediting China for its contributions to the fight against the coronavirus with solid scientific researches and numbers.”
Chinese state-owned media:
Coronavirus coverage continued to dominate state media broadcasts. 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 struggling to cope. Several stories also highlighted ongoing racial injustice in the United States, while others reported on Julian Assange’s time spent in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and growing mistrust between the United States and Mexico. As referenced in the Twitter section, CGTN covered Max Baucus’ critical views of the Trump administration’s approach to China.
“Stay-at-home orders puts real estate in uncharted territory,” CGTN America, May 13, 2020.
“Spring is usually the hottest buying and selling time when it comes to real estate in the United States. However, the coronavirus has put the industry in an awkward position with agents showing homes remotely.”
“Coronavirus crisis shines new light on U.S. food processing plants,” CGTN America, May 12, 2020.
“The coronavirus crisis in the United States is shining a new light on the safety of U.S. food processing plant employees. More than 10,000 coronavirus infections are now tied directly to meat processing plants.”
“Ecuador reflects on Julian Assange,” CGTN America, May 10, 2020.
“Julian Assange spent seven years at the Embassy of Ecuador in London until his asylum was revoked in 2019. Now, he faces extradition to the U.S. for conspiracy. ”
“A long business relationship reshaped by politics,” CCTV Video News Agency, May 9, 2020.
“Having the world’s largest economy as your next-door neighbor can be a challenge. Mexico has managed to have a good partnership with the United States. But in recent years the rules for trade have changed. ”
“American protestors march in Ahmaud Arbery’s final footsteps,” CGTN America, May 13, 2020.
American protestors are marching in Ahmaud Arbery’s final footsteps, demanding justice for this 25-year-old black man shot dead by two white men while he was jogging in Georgia in February.
“Deportation Fears: Mexican Immigrant Fights to Stay in U.S.,” CGTN, May 9, 2020.
“In his first three years in office, U.S. President Barack Obama deported 1.18 million immigrants, compared with the 800,000 deportees under President Donald Trump’s first three years. Trump has, however, pushed for stronger enforcement of illegal immigration, including targeting an Obama-era rule that gives temporary legal status to immigrants who came to the country as children.”
“Full Frame: Race and Immigration in the U.S. with Wajahat Ali,” CGTN, May 9, 2020.
“Many Muslims say they’ve been targeted by U.S. immigration policies and societal discrimination, most notably after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 “Whoever looks Muslim-y is a threat,” said journalist, writer and playwright Wajahat Ali. “The globalization of this narrative is literally the propaganda and recruitment of ISIS,” he said. “The West is at war with Islam. And extremists here say Islam is at war with the West. It’s a brand–new ballgame.””
“Listen to the former U.S. ambassador to China on how the relationship got so bad,” CGTN America, May 13, 2020.
“The trade war and coronavirus are partially responsible, but the story is much bigger than that.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.