Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts March 2020 – Russia’s Media Mentions of 2020 Presidential Candidates (Update 3)
March 2020 – Russia’s Media Mentions of 2020 Presidential Candidates (Update 3)

March 2020 – Russia’s Media Mentions of 2020 Presidential Candidates (Update 3)

Post by Rachel Chernaskey

April 20, 2020

The field for the U.S. 2020 presidential election has narrowed significantly since FIE’s last update on March 2, 2020 about Russian state media mentions. Senator Bernie Sanders’s recent concession leaves just two candidates in the race: President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Both Trump and Biden have received extensive coverage from RT and Sputnik News, though Russia’s coverage of each is rather different. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden has been the subject of some of the Kremlin’s most outwardly biased stories and is consistently portrayed negatively. President Trump’s coverage is more varied, both negative and positive at times, depending on the issue at hand. As a presidential candidate, Trump is often depicted as unfairly victimized by the American media and the  political elite.

The most significant change since our last update, no surprise, is not how the Kremlin messages about Trump or Biden, but how the COVID-19 pandemic will converge with election 2020 in Russian propaganda. Calls for precautionary election modifications like mail-in voting have only fueled Russian suggestions of a rigged U.S. election and dubious results. With COVID-19, the greatest Kremlin threat to election 2020 may not be so much about the individual campaigns but the electoral process as a whole. 

As of March 23, 2020, the FIE 2020 team has analyzed 4,136 articles and 7,170 mentions of 2020 presidential candidates since January 1, 2019. Below are the narratives observed in Russian state-sponsored media about President Trump and Vice President Biden from March 2 to March 23, 2020.

President Donald Trump

President Trump received an additional 150 mentions in RT and Sputnik News since our last update. While the favorability of Trump’s mentions didn’t change since then (see Figure 15 above), there were a number of new narratives Russian media pushed or amplified about the president: 

  • Since we began analyzing Russian state-sponsored media mentions of President Trump, coverage of the president has trended negatively. While much of Trump’s positive coverage surfaces in the context of his candidacy in 2020, Russian media is quick to cover Trump’s gaffes, criticize Trump administration foreign policy decisions unfavorable for the Kremlin, highlight turmoil within his administration, and propagate anti-Trump narratives from China and Iran.
  • Criticisms on COVID-19 – Russia has pushed its own negative coverage of Trump’s COVID-19 response, but has also amplified Chinese and Iranian critiques of Trump and his administration
  • Oil buy-up – Trump’s expressed desire to purchase oil amid the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia was favorably covered by the Kremlin
  • 2020 chances – Trump’s chances of winning 2020 against Biden are bright, according to RT 
  • Russiagate – Allegedly evidenced by Sanders’s defeat and U.S. officials expressing COVID-19 disinformation concerns, charges of the political establishment using “Russiagate” to rig the election and attack Trump continue to surface

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Biden’s favorability distribution barely shifted since our last analysis (his positive mentions increased by one percent), but he remains a fixture of Russian media criticism. Since our last update, there have been 100 additional mentions of Biden in RT and Sputnik News. Below are narratives about Biden pushed or amplified in March:

  • Pandemic is helping Biden – Russia has consistently pushed the narrative that Biden is ineffective on the campaign trail because of his gaffes and, to his benefit, the COVID-19 outbreak has allowed him “hide … from voters”
  • Aligned with controversial establishment figures – Claims a Biden presidency would maintain the “status quo,” prioritizing elites
    • After Biden announced he would choose a woman as his running mate, Sputnik News ran a story suggesting that his running mate could be Hillary Clinton, who, according to the article, is still trying to “claw her way to the presidency” 
  • Ukraine/Burisma – Allegations of corruption involving Ukrainian company Burisma and son Hunter Biden continue to get coverage
  • American press covering up for Biden – While the media is allegedly out to get Trump, it’s also supposedly covering for Biden 
  • Polling and primary wins – Most positive coverage for Biden comes by way of favorable polling data or reports of the primary results and Biden’s success over Sanders

As November nears, Russian state election 2020 coverage will likely continue to follow many of the same trends that FIE 2020’s analysis has covered thus far. Expect to see some of the following narratives emerge more prominently in Russian media over the coming weeks or months:

  • Coverage of accusations of sexual assault against Biden
  • Alleged bias and claims of censorship against American social media companies
  • Allegations of voter fraud or election rigging related to the COVID-19 pandemic  
  • Further amplification of Chinese and Iranian talking points, especially regarding COVID-19

FIE will continue to analyze state-sponsored media until election day, though we’ll focus on issue-based coverage and examining the online reach of Russian, Iranian and Chinese state-sponsored media stories.