Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russia’s Narratives about U.S. Election Integrity in 2020
Russia’s Narratives about U.S. Election Integrity in 2020

Russia’s Narratives about U.S. Election Integrity in 2020

May 25, 2020

Post by Samantha Lai

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Russian state-sponsored outlets have published content seeking to erode trust in the American government and undermine confidence in U.S. election integrity. Claims of rigged elections, suggestions of voter fraud and narratives discouraging voting blocs like Sanders supporters and minority voters from participating in the system litter RT and Sputnik News’s 2020 election coverage. Stories blend conspiratorial suggestions of nefarious behind-the-scenes efforts with glitches in technological infrastructure and coordination to imply that vote counts are not to be trusted.

Russisan state-sponsored media has been rehashing its tactics from 2016 in 2020, posing similar questions about the integrity of election results. In its coverage of the Iowa caucuses after technical failures caused significant delays in results reporting, RT implied that inconsistencies reported during the caucuses were intended as part of an effort to undermine the Sanders campaign. “New revelations about those who funded the fiasco,” RT noted in one article, “suggest a campaign to steal not just the election, but the party.” The article goes on: The Democrats’ “sheepish walk-back of a set of phony results for Black Hawk County,” which had “mysteriously handed a large chunk of Sanders votes to billionaire Tom Steyer and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick,” illustrated the extent of the alleged corruption. Other stories published on RT about the Iowa caucuses perpetuate the narrative that the DNC altered the vote to rig the primary against Senator Bernie Sanders. 

After Iowa, narratives of establishment corruption continued to crop up in Kremlin primary coverage. With former Vice President Joe Biden’s success on Super Tuesday came the notion that former President Barack Obama had become the “hidden hand” behind centrist Democrats’ efforts to coalesce around Biden. An RT article titled “Super Tuesday round-up: Biden surges, Sanders takes the top prize & Bloomberg quits as complaints of ‘voter suppression’ mount” highlighted complaints of long wait times for voters and suggestions of voter suppression. RT shed doubt on the legitimacy of the results in Nevada in a story titled “‘Don’t let them take it away!’ Trump congratulates ‘Crazy Bernie’ as Sanders wins big in Nevada,” writing that amid “occasional calculation glitches and confusion” Nevada may “end up in a similar situation as Iowa when it comes to actually reporting the final results.” Another story suggests the legitimacy of the “Biden Wave” is questionable, highlighting tweets posted by people noting that they personally knew no Biden supporters and that the results were fake.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread and election precautions entered the national conversation, narratives about COVID-19 and dubious election integrity converged. Russian state-sponsored media portrayed discussions of moving the voting process online as part of a larger scheme for the DNC to further benefit Biden. One op-ed titled “Coronavirus is coming, hide the ballots! Calls to cancel campaigns & voting erode already-thin trust in US primaries,” argues that in the status quo, Sanders’s ability to fill venues with crowds makes it difficult for people to claim that Biden enjoys the vast support of Americans. Canceling the nominating convention and other campaigning events “plays into the hands of the DNC” and “shifting the electoral contest into the shadows requires voters to place their trust in an establishment that, quite frankly, has not earned it.” The story concludes by noting that election integrity could be a problem with “voters already concerned about being technologically disenfranchised.” 

With regard to the Ohio and Illinois primaries, Russian outlets reported on local authorities’ responses to challenges posed by the pandemic. The articles underlined how the pandemic caused confusion among voters and placed the wellbeing of American citizens at risk. Coverage of the Michigan primary, held amid the COVID-19 outbreak, featured sentiment that seemed further aimed at delegitimizing Biden’s win in the state, writing that although Biden had recently surged in the race, “some have raised alarms about vote-counting abnormalities in several of the states he won” and noting that “college students – one of Sanders’ strongest constituencies – have reported absentee ballots being sent to the wrong address or not at all.” Coverage of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to cancel the Democratic primary amid the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres’s decision to restore the election helped further push the narrative that mainstream Democrats were trying to undermine Sanders.

As more Americans began turning their attention to mail-in ballots, Russian outlets have also picked up on the issue and promoted doubts about the method’s efficiency and accuracy. One RT article notes that President Trump “has said he believes mail-in voting presents too much opportunity for fraud.” An article published on Sputnik News promoted claims that “voter fraud has been ‘out of control’ for many years.” As it becomes increasingly likely that the 2020 presidential election will include mail-in ballots, it is not a stretch to assume that Russian outlets will intensify efforts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of this method. 

All of these articles fit into a larger Kremlin narrative arguing that democracy does not actually exist in America. This theme is further advanced by one-off broadcasts and articles, such as coverage of the following:

  • Claims that the Democratic Party has a history of “[changing] rules to get whatever outcome they prefer,” implying that voters don’t have any actual power
  • Claims that the Republicans also participate in “historic and ongoing voter suppression,” actively disenfranchising minorities by removing them from voter rolls, while criticizing Democrats for allegedly trying to “steal” the election
  • A lawsuit filed against a county in Pennsylvania for questionable voter rolls that claimed “some 1,600 dead people are registered to vote in the 2020 election”
  • The election system’s lack of international oversight and multi-party competition, undermining the integrity of American elections as this enables parties to “[rig] their internal elections as much as they want”

Stories about Election Integrity and Social Media Reach

Stories about U.S. election integrity see significant public engagement online. RT’s article “Voters face delays, untested new procedures in Michigan, Missouri, Washington, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota,” received the most public Facebook engagement of the articles about U.S. 2020 election integrity that were analyzed, with 417 public Facebook shares, 288 public comments and more than 1,200 public reactions as of May 19, 2020. The article with the second-most public Facebook engagement, titled “100s of DEAD voters still registered for 2020 election in Pennsylvania – lawsuit,” saw 475 public shares, 301 public comments and more than 1,100 public reactions on Facebook as of May 19. “Obama’s  ‘hidden hand’ in Biden’s surge tells us all we need to know about what kind of president he’ll be” reaped the third-most public Facebook engagements with 302 public shares, 469 comments and 755 reactions as of May 19. 

Although all these articles report on a range of events, the overarching narrative is painfully consistent. All of the stories pick out flaws within the U.S. electoral system to suggest that there are sinister, hidden forces at play among American political elites seeking to control results of the upcoming election and echo narratives suggesting the occurrence of voter fraud. Instances of incompetence are portrayed as malevolence. Furthermore, the pieces with the most engagement tend to be among those with the most conspiratorial and speculative language, hinting at trends in readership that should be a cause for concern.