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A nation must think before it acts.
January 4, 2021
Post by Kristen Chang
Over the course of 2020, foreign state-sponsored media outlets from Russia, Iran and China all focused on American tech companies in their coverage, with “Big Tech” companies like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and others all making major headlines in news outlets Russia Today (RT), Sputnik News, PressTV and the Global Times. Russia placed a particular emphasis on this topic, and coverage of American tech companies by Russian state-sponsored outlets often highlighted themes of surveillance, alleged bias against conservative voices and “Russophobia” with regard to efforts to limit the spread of mis-/disinformation on social media. Facebook, a focal point in such coverage since the 2016 presidential election, was often mentioned by Russia’s state outlets during the lead-up to the 2020 election.
On RT and Sputnik News in 2020, many Big Tech stories focused on controversies surrounding Facebook and/or its founder Mark Zuckerberg, including concerning the 2020 election, like coverage of Facebook’s highly debated political ad policy ahead of the election. Some articles published by Russian media concerning Facebook and Big Tech were among those with the most reach on social media of the articles analyzed by FIE 2020. For example, one article published on RT titled “Don’t make me repeat myself again! Soros threatens Zuckerberg must be removed from Facebook ‘one way or another’” saw nearly 9,000 Facebook interactions.
Kremlin coverage of Facebook often attempted to pit Democrats against Big Tech, using Democratic viewpoints as leverage to criticize Facebook and justify expressed suspicions over Big Tech and what is portrayed as limitless influence. For example, an article titled “Forget privacy abuses, liberals call to DeleteFacebook after learning Zuckerberg met with Conservatives” paints the “liberal” perspective of efforts by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to bolster “free expression” as “an outrage.” In coverage of Facebook’s controversial political ad policy headed into the election cycle, RT capitalized on the critical stances of noteworthy Democratic figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Democratic donor George Soros to criticize Big Tech and Facebook in particular.
Russian state-sponsored outlets also often suggested that conservative voices are unfairly attacked by Big Tech companies. In an op-ed titled “Hit them ever harder, Mr. President! The tyranny of Big Tech is the biggest threat to democracy in our lifetime” RT denounces the “oligarchs of Silicon Valley” as manipulative and anti-democratic—even going so far to reiterate the suggestion that Facebook and others tried to influence the election in 2016. These themes push the notion that Big Tech companies, especially Facebook, are not to be trusted and have deep-rooted biases, a narrative Russia likely hoped to further in an election year when many social media companies removed content linked to Russian influence efforts.
Ultimately, RT and Sputnik News seek to use content themes in coverage—even those that seemingly conflict, such as amplifying Democratic criticisms of Big Tech while also promoting the idea that conservative voices are censored on social media—to coax distrust between America’s tech companies and the American public.