Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts State-Sponsored News Outlets Use American Themes to Denigrate the U.S. Amid COVID-19
State-Sponsored News Outlets Use American Themes to Denigrate the U.S. Amid COVID-19

State-Sponsored News Outlets Use American Themes to Denigrate the U.S. Amid COVID-19

May 8, 2020

Post by Rossella Cerulli

As countries around the world struggle to respond to COVID-19, state-run media outlets from Russia, Iran and China are using the pandemic as an opportunity to amplify tried and true narratives to denigrate the U.S. FPRI previously wrote about the danger of disinformation related to the virus given its ability to threaten public safety, stress financial markets and advance racism. But what about news stories that aren’t completely false? It’s important to also focus on news that takes aim at the U.S.’s national myths and exploits their flaws, using coronavirus as merely a bullhorn from which to spout common attacks. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak,  all of the state-sponsored news outlets under examination in the FIE 2020 Project have increasingly produced negative coverage about President Trump. Stories argue that his reelection prospects are slim due to poor response to the virus, emphasize economic issues and the president’s personal culpability, and amplify internal divisions within the U.S. by covering anti-lockdown protests. Yet perhaps the more pervasive and damaging recent trend in state media’s coverage of the U.S. response COVID-19 is narratives that target not only President Trump, but American society and the U.S. government more generally. Stories from all three countries aim to use the virus to expose cracks in American cultural “myths,” and in doing so, present their own countries as not only superior in their response to the pandemic, but also superior politically, societally and culturally.

Myth 1: Individualism

Several stories from Russian state media highlighted that the U.S.’s struggle to respond to the virus is in large part due to entrenched cultural problems that are framed as uniquely American. One article describes how many Americans ignored social distancing suggestions, valuing “their own liberty over other people’s safety.” Another suggests that American “myths of rugged individualism” are no longer tenable, as made evident by the deprivation and chaos wrought by COVID-19. Iran’s PressTV also strikes this chord: One PressTV story condemned the U.S.’s “focus on individual autonomy versus social responsibility.” These stories and others like them rest on the same subtextual message: American culture is perhaps antithetical to the demands placed on society in the wake of the coronavirus, and embedded societal attitudes make the U.S. response to the crisis more difficult than other countries around the world. 

Myth 2: Strength of Domestic Governance and Private Sector

In coverage from Iran’s PressTV, the U.S. government as a whole is routinely depicted as woefully ineffective and inefficient. One article highlights how the lack of national leadership is forcing state and local governments to take action, leading to confusing and often contradictory messages. Another expressed skepticism that the slow-moving House and Senate could pass the much-needed relief bill with requisite speed. RT described the same struggle to pass the relief bill, but noted how partisan in-fighting plagued the process. The Global Times took a different angle to depict alleged American inferiority, describing U.S. private companies as failing to meet the increased demand for medical products. This narrative serves to expose weaknesses in the U.S. private sector, while the comparison to China’s superior response also feeds into rising pro-China nationalist sentiment.

Myth 3: Global Leadership

Aside from characterizing domestic U.S. weakness, state-sponsored media outlets are also using COVID-19 to attack America’s traditional global role. The overall narrative questions U.S. dominance on the global stage in every sector: the economy, political institutions and military alliances. Chinese media is using the virus to drive home its insistence that U.S. “financial hegemony” is harmful to the rest of the world, pushing the need to move away from a dangerous “dollar-centric system.” On the political side, PressTV characterizes a recent G7 meeting as “ending in disarray” due to U.S. intransigence. Just like China’s description of U.S. malign influence on financial markets, Iran’s picture of the U.S. as a chaotic spoiler in a multilateral political institution it previously led contributes to an overall skepticism about the United States’s long-held grip on global power. Using a military angle, an RT story covered the announcement that a planned large-scale NATO joint exercise, “Defender Europe 2020,” had been stalled due to the virus, using this development as an opportunity to accentuate “fraying” relations among alliance members, as well as pushing the traditional Russian talking point that NATO is overly-militarized and aggressive. The headline notes that “NATO warmongering” has been put on hold due to the virus, but the take-away message is an attack on the organization’s very existence and utility. These examples illustrate how all three countries are using COVID-19 to argue that the U.S.’s role in the world should be curtailed.

Myth 4: Economic Equality

All three countries are also using their coverage of COVID-19 to highlight economic inequality in America, and the disconnect between struggles of everyday people and the policies shaped by elites. The Global Times argued that the U.S. response to the virus reveals the national government’s “blithe disregard for the most disadvantaged members of society.” Sputnik News criticized the government’s relief package, calling it little more than a “cosmetic” gesture that fails to help working and middle-class citizens. PressTV connected these narratives to President Trump, suggesting that he is prioritizing economic strength and reelection chances over helping combat the virus. All the outlets’ coverage of the virus’s financial ramifications focus on pre-existing grievances: corruption within the banking industry, American consumerism and rampant inequality

Conclusion: Attacks on Ideology

These four myths of American culture—individualism, strength of domestic governance and private sector, global leadership, and economic equality—are all under attack from Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state-run media. This is nothing new. But COVID-19 is providing an augmented weapon with which to launch these attacks. The charges levelled against U.S. ideology and institutions are familiar, from the Chinese assertion that the U.S. is showing itself to be “incapable of tolerance and reconciliation” to Russia’s writing that the virus reveals how “liberalism and free-market ideologies are silent killers.” But the fact that these outlets are framing these attacks through the lens of COVID-19 makes these ideological assaults even more potent.

It is true in some respects that COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the flaws and inefficiencies of the U.S. system. Russia, China and Iran are taking advantage of this fact to sharpen their tools of criticism and peddle conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 in an attempt to exacerbate divides in U.S. society. Examples include the idea that the bike company Peloton created the virus to boost its stock recovery after the holiday advertisement scandal; or that Democrats manufactured the virus to harm the U.S. economy and prevent Trump’s reelection; or the theory that U.S. business elites are behind the virus because they want to use vaccines to introduce harmful chemicals into the population. These narratives reflect the same tactic employed by the more mainstream stories described above: both utilize pre-existing controversies in American society in order to fracture an already-divided citizenry by magnifying polarizing issues. 

Social Media Reach Shows Russian Dominance

An analysis of the public Facebook engagement of coverage related to COVID-19 and attacks on the themes described above clearly reveals the dominance of articles published by Russian outlets. Public Facebook engagement  of Russian-produced stories dwarfs those published by China and Iran combined. Of the 50 articles analyzed (published between March 10 and March 26 and chosen for their mentions of COVID-19 and the aforementioned American “myths”), 16 achieved public Facebook engagement (measured by shares, comments and reactions) above 100 as of May 4. Thirteen of these stories were published by RT or Sputnik News. PressTV’s article suggesting that Trump purposefully introduced the virus in order to postpone the presidential election garnered public 1,184 Facebook engagements; another story describing U.S. mask shortages and another covering the U.S.-imposed sanctions attracted 666 and 551 public Facebook engagements respectively. But the rest of the outlet’s stories’ engagement totals were below 100. Of the articles analyzed, the Global Times’s stories failed to gain any substantial public Facebook engagement. The chart below demonstrates how RT and Sputnik News far outpace both PressTV and the Global Times in their public Facebook engagement for the 50 articles about these topics examined for this analysis.

Further, the articles published by RT and Sputnik News were coded for relevance to each of the four myth categories (individualism, domestic governance, global leadership, and economic equality). This categorization was based on each article’s topic and main points. Some articles fell into two categories, such as this RT story, which references “the myths of rugged individualism” in its examination of economic woes. This analysis of the Russian articles and their public Facebook engagement, as of May 4, shows a focus on stories discussing two of the themes discussed above: U.S. economic equality and global leadership. Articles like these, capitalizing on the intersection of societal, economic, and political issues, achieved wide reach, showing how Russian media is successfully using American myths to push critical narratives about the U.S. during the COVID-19 crisis.