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A nation must think before it acts.
November 2, 2020
Post by Will Marshall
Four years ago, Russian state-sponsored disinformation operations weaponized “Big Tech” platforms as tools to attempt to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In 2020, however, Kremlin-backed media outlets have turned their guns against “Big Tech” itself, propagating narratives that social media giants are exploiting a monopoly over the information ecosystem to push a pro-Democrat, anti-Trump agenda on their platforms.
Although FIE 2020 analysis previously identified the targeting of “Big Tech” as a recurrent theme in Kremlin interference efforts, recent weeks have seen a dramatic upsurge in content targeting digital platforms, these stories aimed at sowing doubts among the American populace regarding information integrity in the run-up to Election Day. In particular, Russian state-sponsored media outlets RT and Sputnik News have amplified censorship narratives, alleging that Silicon Valley has colluded with the Democrat-aligned “deep state” to whitewash scandals involving Democratic political figures while systematically removing pro-Trump content from their platforms.
For example, Twitter’s banning of a controversial New York Post story about allegations regarding Hunter Biden’s involvement with Ukrainian energy company Burisma prompted widespread allegations that the social media giant is conducting a concerted suppression campaign to prevent damage to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Sputnik News ran headlines claiming that Twitter’s decision to remove the allegedly incriminating content amounted to a declaration of “digital Civil War” by Big Tech. RT, meanwhile, highlighted what it described as Facebook’s determination “to keep the story from going viral” as a “suppression campaign.”
These stories link to broader narratives propagated by Kremlin-backed media outlets accusing Silicon Valley of colluding with Democratic politicians to manipulate the outcome of the 2020 election. Google and YouTube stand accused of micro-targeting key voters with a “constant barrage of Joe Biden ads” with the former specifically singled out as “playing god and taking away freedom of speech” due to bias stemming from a “suffocating, overly-political atmosphere” at the firm. Similarly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to help guarantee “safe elections” amid rising pressure from regulators to safeguard election integrity is portrayed as an attempt to skew the presidential vote in key electoral districts.
Notably, RT and Sputnik have also increasingly sought to amplify narratives that social media giants’ monopolization on the free flow of information renders U.S. democracy a sham, using diffuse conspiracy theories regarding QAnon and the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, RT likened Facebook’s banning of QAnon and other “Militarized Social Movements” to the East German Stasi while lending credence to the narrative that “the social media company is part of a ‘deep-state’ apparatus hell-bent on global control.”
Before November 3, Kremlin narratives regarding “Big Tech” remain consistent with long-standing trends in Russia’s “active measures”: stoking political polarization, amplifying conspiratorial voices and seeking to discredit democratic institutions in the eyes of voters. Given Moscow’s strategic objectives, it would be reasonable to expect Russian state-sponsored media outlets will continue to propagate narratives of social media censorship up to and beyond Election Day, undermining a polarized electorate’s confidence in the legitimacy of the election result. Whatever the outcome on Election Day, Silicon Valley will likely stand front and center in Kremlin narratives casting doubt on America’s electoral system and democratic institutions overall.