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A nation must think before it acts.
August 31, 2020
Post by Rachel Chernaskey
Coverage of the 2020 election by foreign state-sponsored media outlets has ebbed and flowed throughout the year. Stories increased during the primary season and predictably slowed as COVID-19 and protests across the U.S. dominated news cycles. Now with Election Day just roughly three months out, the 2020 race has seen renewed attention in RT, Sputnik News, PressTV and the Global Times.
Kremlin outlets RT and Sputnik both extensively cover 2020 candidate-related issues as well as election integrity issues, particularly mail-in voting and ballots. The outlets’ coverage of the 2020 election—which runs the gamut and consists of both trivial political stories as well as broad coverage of larger topics—continues to dominate both in spread on social media platforms and volume when compared to stories published on Iran’s PressTV and China’s Global Times.
As the volume of content has increased, Russia’s overarching trends haven’t shifted much. Stories covering President Trump continue to be a mixed bag, while former Vice President Biden and, as of recently, Senator Kamala Harris see consistently negative coverage. More broadly, Russia’s narratives about election integrity and current unrest in the U.S. have taken on a more conspiratorial tone in the past few months. Articles outright allege that Democrats will fix the election through mail-in voting and ballot stuffing. Stories have also highlighted potential for military intervention or violence because of chaos on and after Election Day. One of those articles, “Wayne Dupree: The Democrats will use fraud to win this fall’s presidential election, and Trump may have to call on the military,” received 5,640 public engagements on Facebook (measured in reactions, shares and comments) as of this writing.
PressTV has also increased coverage of election integrity issues, such as mail-in voting and voter suppression. Like Russia, PressTV has published a handful of articles highlighting the potential for chaos and violence post-election. Iran continues to be negative toward both candidates and focuses on U.S. foreign policy. Trump sees far more forcefully negative coverage than Biden from Iran, though Biden is by no means covered positively on the whole. This trend is true with regard to PressTV’s coverage of election integrity as well. Two articles on mail-in voting—“Trump: November election will be ‘most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history’” and “Biden slams Trump’s ‘bald-faced lies’ about mail-in voting as pre. suggests election postponement”—illustrate this theme, with PressTV’s coverage aimed more at criticizing Trump than propagating narratives about mail-in voting or boosting Biden. (Neither of the articles, however, saw any public engagement on Facebook.)
While Russia and Iran have largely stuck to their playbooks, the Global Times’s coverage of the 2020 election saw a recent divergence from its typically more apolitical coverage with a story on August 19 comparing the candidates and more positive toward Biden. The article, titled “Biden smoother to deal with,” notes that under Biden, “the US approach would be more predictable,” and “Biden is much smoother to deal with than Trump.” And though the Global Times’s stories typically see less traction on American social media platforms, this story was an outlier, garnering 1,149 Facebook interactions as of August 30. (A previous analysis of more than 2,600 Global Times stories published from January 1, 2019 to April 21, 2020 found that the article published in that timeframe with the most Facebook engagement had just 373 public engagements.)
Another recent article, titled “Will there be dramatic changes with Biden’s China policy?” examines what U.S.-China policy might be like under a Biden administration, noting that Biden’s “China policy may be different from Trump’s in both doctrine and style.”
Chinese state-sponsored media outlets also paid special attention to the RNC, which featured Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng as a speaker. Articles criticized the Republican Party, President Trump and his administration. While China’s anti-U.S., pro-China sentiment will persist, coverage in the Global Times may continue to be more pointed toward specific candidates if rhetoric about China increases in the campaigns.
In sum, looking forward, Russia’s RT and Sputnik will likely continue to heavily cover both candidates and election integrity issues, publishing conspiracy-laden op-eds to promote chaos in the U.S. and content especially negative toward Biden. PressTV will likely criticize both candidates with a particular emphasis on Trump and U.S. foreign policy as a whole. China may tailor its coverage to candidates depending on the extent to which China surfaces as an issue in campaign rhetoric while maintaining its typical anti-U.S. themes. All four outlets push content aimed at sowing doubt in the 2020 election’s integrity and as November nears, we can only expect to face increased coverage aimed at subverting democracy from these outlets and others.