Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Kremlin Outlets on the First Presidential Debate: Highlighting Chaos and Denigrating Biden
Kremlin Outlets on the First Presidential Debate: Highlighting Chaos and Denigrating Biden

Kremlin Outlets on the First Presidential Debate: Highlighting Chaos and Denigrating Biden

September 30, 2020

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

The first U.S. 2020 presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was filled with shouting, interruption and general on-stage chaos. Russia’s RT and Sputnik News took the opportunity to highlight it as such.

Russian state-backed outlets RT and Sputnik, which have both extensively covered the 2020 election throughout the year, published a slew of stories about the debate that strongly aligned with previously observed trends in Kremlin media: denigrating Biden, portraying Trump as outrageous yet forceful, mocking the American media and highlighting chaos within the U.S. Iran’s PressTV and China’s Global Times also published stories calling out the debate’s messiness, but coverage was far more limited compared to Russia’s extensive, detailed reporting. 

Further, RT-affiliated, Berlin-based media outlet Ruptly livestreamed the debate, posting clashes between Trump and Biden on its YouTube channel, content that RT also promoted in its coverage. Ruptly’s video content has frequently highlighted racial justice protests and violence in the U.S. over racial tensions, often garnering hundreds of thousands of views and, at times, getting shared—it is assumed unwittingly—by U.S. commentators on social media.

In an article titled “Trump-Biden ‘debate’ full of hoaxes & emotional manipulation shows the press has failed as guardians of the American Republic,” RT blames the U.S. media for the “shouting match filled with personal attacks, interruptions, hateful hoaxes asserted as facts, and emotional manipulation.” The article paints a portrait of Trump under attack by the American media, including the night’s moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, while Biden is given a pass on making false claims. In an effort to further mock the U.S. press, articles criticize CNN and the New York Times for fact-checking efforts, portraying the outlets as either incompetent or biased toward Biden or both. One story covering the Biden campaign’s use of a Twitter handle to fact-check the debate writes of “suspicion among critics” about “how they came to get the handle,” suggesting that social media companies are also biased against Trump. 

RT’s coverage paints Biden as weak, a narrative that’s been a common thread in RT stories throughout the 2020 election cycle. “‘Will you shut up, man?’ Biden struggles to talk over interjecting Trump as debate gets off to messy start” writes that Biden “lost his temper” and “struggled to make his points while being interrupted incessantly by President Donald Trump.” The story also included a number of embedded posts from Twitter users, the first of which exclaims “BIDEN IS UNHINGED.” The president, while noted as constantly interrupting Biden, is in contrast described as “domineering” and as having amused Twitter. 

Similarly, Sputnik writes that despite mainstream media polls reporting that respondents thought Biden “won” the debate, Trump “managed to look ‘stronger’ than Biden,” coming out “‘on top as he had the advantage in accomplishments over Biden,’ whose defence ‘consisted of sarcastic grins and childish insults.’” 

Throughout RT and Sputnik’s coverage of the debate, Trump is portrayed as a leader trying to fight off corrupt establishment interests and tackle supposed “Antifa” extremist violence, while Biden is depicted as an establishment figure who is gaffe-prone and beholden to “sensitive voting blocs.” These narratives are consistent with the larger themes about each candidate observed in Russian state media throughout our FIE 2020 project—which, coupled with Russia’s amplification of claims about mail-in voter fraud and the denigration of U.S. election integrity—make for especially divisive reading headed into Election Day.