Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Kremlin-Sponsored Media Outlets on Russia’s 2016 Election Interference
Kremlin-Sponsored Media Outlets on Russia’s 2016 Election Interference

Kremlin-Sponsored Media Outlets on Russia’s 2016 Election Interference

January 28, 2020

Post by Anna Jantzen

Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News, while not always entirely uniform in characterizing President Trump and other 2020 presidential candidates, are remarkably consistent in their categorical denial of Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian state-sponsored media feeds these denials to targeted audiences through a variety of narratives seeking to convince or, in many cases, confuse audiences about the facts and assertions of Russian attribution in electoral interference.

This active and deliberate dissemination of falsehoods to further the Kremlin’s interests is entirely consistent with, even characteristic of, Vladimir Putin’s politics. The disinformation war surrounding the 2014 Ukraine crisis is one well-documented example. Such manipulation is also consistent with the time-honored Soviet practice of institutionalized political warfare, or “active measures,” an integral part of which has, since 1917, been disinformation. Though the USSR collapsed in 1991, Putin, once and always a KGB man, has preserved these tactics, updated them for the digital age, and secured their survival well into the 21st century.  

In dismissing the assertion that Russian meddling occurred in 2016, state-sponsored media outlets employ various rhetorical approaches, usually aligning with four basic narratives:

  1.  There is no evidence. This method is commonly employed by the Russians and the most versatile narrative. Though it can take many different forms, the fundamental claim asserts there is a complete lack of evidence to support allegations of Russian election interference in the U.S. presidential election. Examples range from explicitly writing that there is no evidence for such accusations to misleading statements about the contents of the Mueller report, using language like “empty-handed” and “ill-fated” to describe the report. Anyone who has read Mueller’s report or its 2017 predecessor can identify this narrative, but these outlets make frequent use of the likelihood that many people have not.
  2.  “Deep-state” corruption is to blame. This narrative centers on the claim that allegations of Russian election interference were concocted by the (often Democratic) “establishment” to delegitimize Trump. The narrative seeks to influence those who have read the aforementioned reports rather than those unfamiliar with the Mueller report’s contents. Examples of this narrative often include citing Russian interference as the “establishment narrative,” referring to it as a Democrat-created conspiracy theory or hoax, as well as casting doubt on the overall credibility of the FBI with indirectly-connected accusations of corruption.
  3. Russiagate diehards are just out to get Trump. A far less significant method, this narrative relies on discrediting ad hominem those who believe Russian interference occurred. Examples include RT calling MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as a “rabid Russiagater” from a network “known for its Trump-hatred,” as well as Sputnik’s description of supporters as “paranoid, fantastical and desperate” in “extremely comical ways.”
  4. The Kremlin has officially denied the allegations. The final method of contradiction is rarely used, and represents the least sensationalist form of denial. Official denial by Russian officials appears in articles addressing current events indirectly related to the matter. There is no Kremlin commentary on the veracity of the allegations, but simply reference to Russian interference in 2016 as “something that Moscow denies.”

Thus far, it appears that the Kremlin’s rhetorical lines on this front have been quite successful. What do these methods of denial mean leading into the 2020 election? Surely, sowing seeds of doubt about Russian election manipulation not only undermines efforts to counteract it, but clears the way for the Kremlin to undertake potentially similar disinformation campaigns leading up to November 3, 2020.