Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Foreign State-Sponsored Narratives on Mail-in Voting and Social Media Reach
Foreign State-Sponsored Narratives on Mail-in Voting and Social Media Reach

Foreign State-Sponsored Narratives on Mail-in Voting and Social Media Reach

November 2, 2020

Post by Mathilde Venet

Russia, China and Iran’s propensity to spread disinformation about the U.S. political climate on their respective state-controlled news outlets is an opportunity to dissect how each employs different conspiracy theories and preferred narratives, particularly those about mail-in voting in the 2020 U.S. election. FIE 2020 wrote about the narratives on mail-in voting pushed by state-sponsored media—particularly Kremlin outlets—in July. With Election Day tomorrow, coverage of this issue from state-backed outlets has only increased, aiming to denigrate trust in American institutions as well as the electoral process as a whole.

In our previous analysis of the themes and narratives pushed by Russian, Iranian and Chinese outlets, FIE 2020 found that Russia’s coverage was the most prolific and the most outlandish in its coverage. This appears to have helped earn Russian media more social media traction on this topic as well. Russia’s stories about mail-in voting regularly earn more than 1,000 Facebook interactions, whereas Iran’s PressTV and China’s Global Times coverage see far fewer. For  comparison, PressTV’s most engaged story on Facebook about mail-in voting—titled “Trump encourages voter fraud, asks North Carolinians to vote twice” and published on September 3, 2020—saw just 43 Facebook engagements as of October 25. Meanwhile, the Global Times minimal coverage of mail-in voting saw no substantial engagement on Facebook.

Since 2016, Russian state-backed outlets have consistently promoted the notion that “election fraud” or “election rigging” is occurring in the U.S. In 2020, Russia sought to capitalize on this narrative during the primaries, where incidents like the Iowa Caucus’s delay in reporting results of the election sowed confusion among the American public. This also provided the perfect foundation for Russia’s narratives regarding mail-in voting in the general election in 2020. Many popular stories about mail-in voting—such as one RT article titled “Wayne Dupree: The Democrats will use fraud to win this fall’s presidential election, and Trump may have to call on the military” (5,640 Facebook interactions as of October 25)—often parallel mainstream Republican talking points. Another article that amplified claims of widespread fraud, “Trump warns of ‘RIGGED’ election, claims millions of mail-in ballots will be forged by foreign powers” published on June 22, 2020, saw 1,346 Facebook interactions. Coverage aims to convince readers that if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election, it will be due to fraudulent voting, likely orchestrated by the Democratic establishment. 

RT’s central strategy in pushing this rhetoric seems to be maximizing claims of voter fraud via op-eds, which are typically more conspiracy-laden than its general news. This allows the outlet to maintain plausible deniability for its most outrageous claims—RT states at the bottom of its op-ed pages that “the statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.” RT and Sputnik News also amplify instances of alleged fraud while boosting President Trump’s positions, evident in articles like “Ohio county elections board confirms mailing 50,000 WRONG BALLOTS, denies Trump’s ‘rigged’ race claim” (525 Facebook interactions) and “Trump fires off ‘told you so’ tweet as 100,000 NYC residents sent INVALID absentee ballots” (1,166 Facebook interactions).

Unlike its Russian counterparts, Iran’s PressTV appears to be much less invested in pushing particular narratives about mail-in voting. Though PressTV has more recently increased its content about the 2020 election—in particular the suggestion that there could be violence post-Election Day—Iran has not shown the same interest in mail-in voting as a divisive issue, often repeating President Trump’s claims but not laying them at the feet of a Democratic establishment as Russian media does. As noted above, PressTV’s posts get very little social media traction on Facebook compared to RT and Sputnik News. Similarly, on YouTube, while Russia’s RT has posted multiple videos on YouTube about mail-in voting receiving upwards of 4,000 views, PressTV has no content on YouTube as its account was banned in 2019 for posting false and incendiary content. 

Iran’s lack of coverage on mail-in voting likely represents the outlet’s goal of denigrating President Trump rather than boosting him; its focus on criticizing the U.S. via regional foreign policy; and its amplification of the notion that there will be post-Election Day violence in the U.S. regardless of vote outcome.

For its part, China’s Global Times sees even fewer social media interactions for its paltry coverage of mail-in voting—its stories regularly see no Facebook engagement and its YouTube channel’s content focuses on U.S.-China relations rather than the U.S. election’s integrity. While China has remained mostly neutral, perhaps slightly favoring former Vice President Joe Biden in its overt state-backed coverage in recent months, China’s Global Times content differs significantly from  Russia’s content  on RT and Sputnik News.

After analyzing content about mail-in voting from Russia, Iran and China, it is clear that RT has the most aggressive campaign pushing narratives about mail-in voting and its role in the 2020 election. This syncs with evidence of Russian meddling in the 2020 election and their attempts to undermine a Biden win. As it is unlikely that the outcome of the election will be known on Election Night, the potential impact for disinformation efforts about the validity and integrity of mail-in votes undertaken by Russian state-backed media is greater than in past years. However, Russia’s content about mail-in voting largely echoes and builds upon what U.S. officials—including President Trump—say in the domestic space. This is notably different from 2016, which has created a distinctively vulnerable political environment, something which will likely continue in the coming weeks and months.