Kremlin Broadcasting on Election 2020

Kremlin Broadcasting on Election 2020

June 10, 2020 

Post by Mason Hurlocker

In February 2020, local radio stations in Kansas City, Missouri, started airing new broadcasts: shows by Sputnik Radio, of Sputnik News, the Kremlin-sponsored media outlet. Russia’s RT and Sputnik News use a variety of mediums to target American audiences, and broadcasts—both radio and television—are a central component of Kremlin outreach. (Sputnik airs in Washington, D.C., and reportedly aims to broadcast in other American cities.) Given the outlet’s success in entering the American populace’s media landscape, it is imperative to understand the narratives Kremlin broadcasts seek to propagate.  

FIE 2020 examined 459 broadcasts from Sputnik and RT from its more than 15,500 catalogued stories published from January 1, 2019 to May 19, 2020. Sputnik broadcasts came in the form of radio programs, while RT broadcasts were television clips published in articles or as audio files on Soundcloud. Coverage by these broadcasts has been defined by four major themes with regard to the 2020 election, all of which align with trends observed in the outlets’ print content: 

1) The weakness of U.S.’s democratic institutions, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 

2) Denial of Russian efforts to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 elections 

3) The Democratic Party’s marginalization of progressive voices and “election rigging”  

4) President Trump’s strong prospects of winning the 2020 presidential election 

Many of the broadcasts from RT and Sputnik lean to the political left, with some conservative outliers; however, much of the content at both ends of the spectrum aligns broadly with the four narratives above. These narratives broadly align with the Kremlin playbook of secure the base, split the opposition”: targeting the divides in U.S. society, particularly in the Democratic Party, while reinforcing and amplifying Trump’s perceived chances of victory.        

U.S. Democracy in Decline

One major narrative in election-related RT and Sputnik broadcast content is the claim the U.S.’s democratic institutions and system are weak and eroding internally. This is often evidenced by examples of political spending by candidates, voting issues, and the U.S.’s response to COVID-19. For example, this episode of Sputnik’s show Loud and Clear, titled “How Much Money to Buy the Presidency? Bloomberg Tries to Find Out,” focuses on former Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg’s prolific campaign spending, with frequent claims that U.S. elections have always been bought and Bloomberg’s spending is evidence that it is only getting worse. 

Similar to RT and Sputnik’s print narratives during the Iowa caucuses, broadcasts link delays in vote counts to the weakness of democracy. This is illustrated in the caucus coverage by RT’s show Going Underground. One episode, titled “Iowa Caucus Chaos: People are Losing Confidence in Election Results!” says that the Iowa caucus chaos is representative of the overwhelming failures of the Democratic Party. Sputnik’s Loud and Clear repeats this notion in episodes titled “Who Rigged the Iowa Caucuses?” and “Democratic Party ‘Sows Confusion’ and ‘Undermines Confidence in Democracy’ in Iowa.” Hosts of both shows are openly conspiratorial, stating that the caucus’s issues were not glitches but orchestrated by the establishment to try and undermine democracy and stop Senator Bernie Sanders’s rise in the race. 

Underlying this narrative more recently is the idea that the social upheaval caused by COVID-19 is too much for a dysfunctional system like the U.S.’s to bear—perhaps best captured in RT’s “Coronavirus Fallout Could Lead to Revolutions in the West!” Most of the episode is devoted to the host’s claim that democracy as a system cannot handle COVID-19 or similar events in the future, and that the U.S. will dissolve “kicking and screaming.”                    

“Russiagate”

Another common narrative in state-sponsored radio and television programming is one of Russian innocence with regard to interference in the 2016 and upcoming 2020 U.S. elections. Sometimes this denial is delivered in the form of wry humor. For example, one Sputnik News By Any Means Necessary broadcast titled “Anyone-but-Bernie Strategy in Full Effect- Only Russian Trolls Notice,” references Sanders’s comment that some of his more abrasive online followers are likely Russian troll accounts. In other places the narrative of denial is more explicit; such as in this episode “Proper ‘Propaganda’ from Moscow to Missouri” from February, where hosts refute a New York Times article about Sputnik News and paint the American media as biased against Trump.

RT and Sputnik programs routinely dismiss evidence of Russian election interference, making false or inaccurate claims in the process. An episode titled “Did Russia Steal DNC Emails? No Proof, According to New Transcripts” restates the fallacy that it was not Russia, but the Democrats, in coordination with Ukraine and the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, who attempted to influence the 2016 election to harm Trump’s campaign. This theme—Russia as America’s scapegoat for its domestic problems—features prominently in other episodes as well. Such content claiming Russian innocence is frequently intertwined with the narrative of U.S. democracy in decline, reinforcing the idea that as America destroys itself, its establishment elite are blaming their woes on the Russian boogeyman.

Election Rigging Against Progressives and a Corrupt DNC

A third narrative trend centers on the marginalization of progressive voices in the Democratic party and the attempts by the “establishment” to rig U.S. democracy against them. This narrative is repeated on nearly every RT and Sputnik program about the 2020 election in explicit terms. For example, Loud and Clear clearly pushes this narrative in episodes like “Dem Establishment Tells Millions of Young Sanders Voters to F*** Off” and “Democratic Establishment Mounts Full Court Press to Stop Sanders’ Surge.” This messaging paints the U.S. political system as fundamentally rigged against certain demographics of voters and the 2020 primary as “stolen” by the establishment. 

This narrative is also used in attempts to create apathy among voters, such as Cenk Uygur’s appearance on Larry King’s RT show encouraging Democrats not to compromise with or vote for moderates in the party. The outlets’ more right-leaning programs, like RT’s Crosstalk, also echo this sentiment, urging progressives not to consolidate around Joe Biden as they did with Hillary Clinton in 2016.        

Part and parcel to this narrative are portrayals of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and Joe Biden as incompetent, corrupt, and willing to do anything in order to stay in control, such as in Loud and Clear’s episode “Super Tuesday: Dem Elites Prop Up Pathetic Biden Campaign vs Sanders.” The Democratic establishment is portrayed as being threatened by progressives, but also having control of the “mainstream media”; Biden’s presumptive nomination is also frequently referred to as illegitimate, with suggestions that by November the DNC will be suffering from “buyer’s remorse.” Biden’s campaign is called “limping” and his mounting primary wins are attributed to American “oligarchs pulling DNC strings,” or “corporate media and the Democratic establishment.” 

Trump’s Strong Chances of Winning the 2020 Election

Hand in hand with arguments of Biden’s weakness are assessments that Trump will be reelected in 2020. While many Sputnik and RT radio programs are also vocally critical of Trump, the narrative that he will win in the face of voters’ failure to support Sanders and Biden’s corruption and incompetence is common. This is explicit in Sputnik’s Faultlines episode “Acquittal and Iowa: Trump Keeps Winning” and Loud and Clear’s Was Trump the Big Winner in the Democratic Party Super Tuesday Primary?” In the latter for instance, hosts state that because Biden was “pushed forward like a corpse” to victory, “Trump will mop the floor with this guy, and Democrats have to know that.” 

Output like this reinforces the message that by bungling the primary process in multiple states and allegedly working to secure Biden the nomination, the DNC is ensuring Trump’s victory in November. By Any Means Necessary frames the consolidation of other Democratic candidates around Biden in similar terms, asserting that their quick endorsements will cause moderates to defect to Trump and voters on the left to stay home from the polls in November altogether. The elements of this narrative are best encapsulated in RT’s episode “Donald Trump Will Probably Win Re-Election,” which bemoans the state of the Democrat’s leadership and calls Trump an “unvanquished political force” likely to finish two terms. 

Public Engagement with Broadcasts on Facebook

Of 459 RT and Sputnik broadcasts (published between January 1, 2019, and May 19, 2020) examined by FIE 2020, 436 contain some mention of the 2020 U.S. election. In total, the episodes mentioning the election garnered nearly 236,000 public interactions on Facebook (measured in shares, comments and reactions) as of May 25, and four of the five most shared broadcasts make mention of the 2020 election. 

The most popular broadcast, an episode of RT’s America’s Lawyer that featured a segment about stock trades made by members of Congress amid the COVID-19 outbreak, received more than 221,200 public Facebook interactions—more than 175,700 shares, 27,900 comments and 18,100 reactions as of May 25. The public Facebook interaction with this episode dwarfed the episode with the second-most public engagements, a broadcast titled “How much money to buy the election? Bloomberg tries to find out” published on Sputnik News (2,600 public Facebook interactions). The third-most popular broadcast was from RT’s Going Underground, “Guy Standing: Universal basic income needed against coronavirus’ economic damage! (E855),” which received 1,000 public Facebook interactions.

The RT and Sputnik broadcasts examined by FIE indicate several things. First, the vast majority of RT and Sputnik broadcast public Facebook engagement stems from a select few episodes that receive outsized attention online. Second, given that Russia’s state-sponsored radio aligns so closely with narratives observed in Kremlin print media propaganda, Sputnik’s ability to target American audiences via its online presence as well as its programming on the air in multiple American cities should be cause for concern. Lastly, RT and Sputnik News broadcasts continue to closely cover U.S. elections, especially the 2020 presidential election. These media outlets, in part through narratives pushed via broadcast mediums, will continue to attempt to create apathy among American voters and sow division within U.S. audiences leading up to Election Day.