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A nation must think before it acts.
October 28, 2020
Post by Raadhika Tandon
Foreign preferences for U.S. political candidates are nothing new. However, after Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and more recent reporting that Russia and other foreign adversaries currently interfere in this year’s election, preferences for one candidate or the other in 2020 have been critical to understanding any foreign interference efforts in the lead-up to November. We’ve watched state-sponsored news from Russia, China and Iran over the past year and it’s quite clear: Russia cares the most about the election and knows who they want to win.
Mentions of President Trump in Russia’s state-sponsored media have largely trended positive since our project started tracking coverage in January 2019. Recent RT coverage frequently praises the president for championing the rights of the people and criticizes American media for its treatment of Trump. There have been some fluctuations throughout the year with coverage of Trump—particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic—but coverage of Trump as candidate in the 2020 election has remained favorable. Russian outlets have heavily pushed narratives claiming that Trump is treated unfairly and that criticisms of him are largely unfounded.
As the U.S. entered the final weeks before the election, denigration of former Vice President Biden’s campaign has accelerated. Former Vice President Joe Biden receives a steady drumbeat of corruption claims about he and his son Hunter in Ukraine, and negative coverage of Biden has steadily increased to include the allegations over time.
RT’s recent criticism of Michelle Obama and Sputnik’s coverage of the Democrats lauding the BLM movement for political gain illustrate Russian media’s targeting the Democratic party more generally, all of which aims to be a reflection of Biden in the final stretch of his presidential campaign. There has also been an increased focus on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign from 2016, a clear effort to link Clinton to Biden and increase negative sentiment toward Biden.
Iran’s coverage of specific candidates doesn’t appear to have changed much as Election Day nears—it covered both Trump and Biden negatively throughout the year—though PressTV has recently pumped out an increased amount of stories that suggest that the November contest will unleash violence or civil unrest in the U.S. and amplify the idea that the election is rigged.
Meanwhile China’s portrayals of the presidential candidates has seen something of a slight shift over the past few months, more pointedly portraying Biden favorably in overt state media. Articles published by China’s Global Times depict the increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington as Trump continues to push anti-China rhetoric in his own re-election bid. Biden has recently been portrayed as a more stable option in overt state media, though ultimately Beijing will continue to try and denigrate the U.S. as a whole, as neither candidate will be pro-China U.S. leaders.
Coverage by RT, Sputnik News, PressTV and Global Times may shift even more during the post-Election Day period, particularly if the outcome of the election is not known on Election Night. This is of particular concern regarding Russia’s media: State-backed outlets might use this period of uncertainty to support or denigrate one or both candidates. However, coverage by these outlets will likely pale in comparison to potential domestic disinformation efforts about the outcome of the election should the results come in slowly.