Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How Russia Covered Election 2020’s “October Surprise”
How Russia Covered Election 2020’s “October Surprise”

How Russia Covered Election 2020’s “October Surprise”

November 23, 2020

Post by Nakeshia Diop

It is difficult to assign a singular event as the 2020 election cycle’s October surprise. There was of course President Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis in early October. But after Trump’s recovery, there was another “October surprise” of sorts: allegations published in the New York Post about President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and what is purported to be the younger Biden’s laptop, said to contain emails and other compromising material. According to the Post’s story, the material on the computer shows alleged corruption by both Bidens. After the story was published, however, the Post saw widespread criticism, given the inability by others to verify many of the story’s claims or suggestions. 

Russian state-sponsored media outlets took an interest in the Hunter Biden story published by the Post, using the story to continuously criticize both Hunter Biden and President-elect Joe Biden. RT and Sputnik News also wove different narratives together in their coverage of the allegations, in some cases using the Hunter Biden story to deflect from recent New York Times reporting that revealed President Trump’s previously unknown bank account in China. For example, one Sputnik News article frames the New York Times’s revelation of President Trump’s Chinese bank account as a smear by Biden to get back at Trump, writing it is “logical that the Biden camp would retaliate and try to find whatever they could in order to lend a point.” 

Russian state-sponsored media outlets also used the story to further their criticisms of the American press and Big Tech, with a particular focus on Twitter, after the company temporarily banned the article from being shared across its platform. Coverage bemoaned the mainstream’s media’s “backing censorship” and ABC’s town hall with Joe Biden, which according to RT “ignore[d] the elephant in the room” asking “ZERO QUESTIONS about censored NY Post scoops on his son’s overseas business dealings.” Other stories propagated the notion that Big Tech is intentionally censoring coverage to promote one candidate over the other. Headlines like “‘Censorship Rubicon’? Big Tech burying Biden-Ukraine story either wakes up Republicans or drives nail in their political coffin” and “Twitter BLOCKS sharing links to NYPost’s Hunter Biden emails story, invoking ‘HACKED MATERIALS’ policy for first time ever” amplify the idea that Twitter’s decision was born of partisan politics rather than efforts to allow a repeat of  the 2016 election’s hack-and-leak campaign.

Russia also pushed back against the suggestion that the story may have been part of a foreign disinformation campaign. An RT op-ed characterized Joe Biden as “blaming Russia” for the stories about his son as “a key mistake,” since “it is a very bad idea to blame his problems on a foreign power” and “when voters see something being blamed on Russia, they tend to roll their eyes.” 

Overall, Russian media outlets favored sensationalized reporting on the alleged scandals surrounding Hunter Biden throughout 2020 and the responses to those stories, a strategy that served Russia’s aims of denigrating Joe Biden as a candidate, the media and tech companies close to Election Day. While ultimately the allegations and subsequent news coverage largely fell flat with Biden winning the election, this attempted fueling of the fire reinforced Russia’s apparent interference efforts aimed at denigrating President-elect Biden’s candidacy in 2020.