Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How Has State-Sponsored Media Used COVID-19 to Subvert Democracy and Capitalism?
How Has State-Sponsored Media Used COVID-19 to Subvert Democracy and Capitalism?

How Has State-Sponsored Media Used COVID-19 to Subvert Democracy and Capitalism?

June 23, 2020

Post by Charlie Mathews

FIE 2020 examined the ways in which state-sponsored outlets have exploited America’s existing flaws to denigrate the U.S. on the world stage. But Chinese, Iranian and Russian state-sponsored media outlets have also pushed explicitly anti-democracy, anti-capitalism narratives as well. Given that these nation states cannot ensure absolute security amid COVID-19’s spread, the virus represents a threat to the legitimacy of these authoritarian systems. The narratives advanced by this triad of disinformation are designed to maintain domestic control at home while influencing global opinion about the respective governments’ responses to the outbreak throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aiming to denigrate the U.S., Chinese, Iranian and Russian state media aligned on the common narrative that capitalism and democracy in America rendered the government structurally incapable of effective crisis management. All three countries sought to contrast their domestic responses with that of the U.S.—the wealthiest democracy in the world and the hardest hit by COVID-19—arguing that capitalism works only for the elite and democratic electoral politics inhibit an effective response. 

Kremlin media claims COVID-19 has shown that the United States is focused on the economy over its people. A story in Sputnik News claims that the “deep class character of the virus’s impact,” due to inequality, “further undermines the credibility of capitalism.” RT argues the result of a for-profit healthcare system is individuals’ lack access to healthcare, and the costs are so extreme that the coronavirus is both medically and financially lethal. Sputnik furthered the narrative that capitalism means the U.S. cannot provide even “the bare basics to its first responders and frontline medical personnel.” Russian media has also questioned the ability of democracies to respond effectively given their focus on individual rights. For example, RT questions whether China will “be able to mobilize the personnel required to sterilize the streets, confine people to their homes and monitor the health of its population if it wasn’t such a heavily regulated communist state?” In America, the article goes on, “a large demographic will always [balk] at state-mandated orders … even if they are issued for their own good.”

Iran has also used COVID-19 pandemic to undermine faith in American democracy and capitalism, albeit to a lesser extent than Russian state media. PressTV furthers the narrative that the U.S. pandemic response has revealed the hypocrisy between America’s professed values and the harsh reality of its capitalist democracy. One article, for example, writes that the coronavirus has “exposed all the bleeding ulcers and festering sores” in the American system of “corporate capitalism, social oligarchy and political plutocracy.” PressTV argues that American values apply only to the rich and powerful, not to the general public: One op-ed questions how the “most prosperous” nation in the world leaves “the elderly patients unaccompanied in the hallways of hospitals,” while citizens fight “over a pack of toilet paper in the stores.” The central narrative is that American values are superficial, used only for influence in geopolitics. Instead, capitalism and democracy in the U.S. are simply tools for “economic exploitation.”

Chinese state media has also joined in criticism of the United States’s response to COVID-19 and attributed its failures to the inherent flaws of capitalism and democracy. China, seeking to defend its own coronavirus response amid mounting Western criticism, claims that life in “America’s increasingly unequal society can be a grim struggle for survival” and COVID-19 has revealed “what is wrong with capitalism.” Inequality, according to the Chinese outlet the Global Times, “is not an accident, but a feature of capitalism.”

Like Russia and Iran, China also pushes a narrative that democracies are incapable of responding to crises due to a focus on individual rights. The Global Times claims that the interventionist measures needed to contain the coronavirus are “radically at odds with the values and political practices found in Western liberal democracies.” One Global Times article argues that the state must have total control because the public would never consent to the measures necessary to contain the coronavirus. 

State media also attributes electoral politics for the “inadequate” government response, claiming that President Trump is focused more on his re-election than the coronavirus. In one article, the Global Times claims the administration believes a “recovering economy” is worth the “negative impact more deaths will bring.” The presidential election, the article says, threatens “the lives of a large number of Americans.”

Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media see the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to undermine faith in American capitalism and democracy, while deflecting attention away from their own COVID-19 responses. Russian state media argues that capitalism’s inadequacy has been exposed in the United State’s failures responding to COVID-19. PressTV says inequality in the age of COVID-19 exposes the hypocrisy of America’s professed values. And the Global Times is more focused on defending China’s own COVID-19 response, contrasting that with the struggle to contain the virus seen in the U.S.

Overall, these countries are united in using the pandemic to denigrate the U.S. both domestically and internationally, exploiting the U.S.’s flaws to sow discord and divide the country at a time of heated political competition. As the election approaches, these three authoritarian countries will likely converge their coverage of the U.S.’s COVID-19 response, U.S. democracy and the upcoming 2020 election to cast doubt on America, its electoral system and democracy as a whole.