Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russian State-Sponsored Media on the Iowa Caucuses
Russian State-Sponsored Media on the Iowa Caucuses

Russian State-Sponsored Media on the Iowa Caucuses

February 5, 2020

 Post by Rachel Chernaskey

Though caucusing for the 2020 Democratic candidates began in Iowa around 7 p.m. local time on February 3, a final result was still unreported as of the early afternoon on February 5. The Iowa Democratic Party said that a coding issue in the app used to report caucus results was responsible for the delay after the app had reported only a portion of results data. Later, on February 4, the party released the majority of the election results.

As the delay caused confusion and frustration among the American public, Russian state-sponsored media outlets RT and Sputnik News highlighted the chaos and amplified voices questioning the integrity of the election.

Some stories published by RT gave room to suggestions that the race in 2020 had been rigged against Senator Bernie Sanders or Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Using a domestic narrative to amplify frustration, RT radio content pushed allegations of establishment efforts to deny Sanders the win. Some stories on RT and Sputnik highlighted the fact that multiple candidates seemed to expect victory before official counts had been reported, while simultaneously promoting claims that President Donald Trump is the real political winner. One RT article published ahead of the caucuses seemed to imply that YouTube’s measures to remove conspiracy theories from its platform were evidence that Big Tech is rigging its platforms to silence political content it dislikes. Two articles on Sputnik News highlight the app’s connection to veterans of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

After nearly claiming victory before official results had been reported, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was at the center of online conspiracy theories on Twitter as reported by the Daily Beast, with trending hashtags including #CIAPete and #MayorCheat. Pushing some of these narratives, the Russian media highlighted theories claiming the Democratic establishment intentionally favored Buttigieg over Sanders. 

An RT op-ed titled “Not a great look: Failed Iowa caucus app is deeply linked to self-declared winner Buttigieg… and Hillary Clinton” quickly waves off the conspiratorial nature of the allegations, writing that “Americans can be excused for their distrust of the system after what happened in 2016.” Though the article expressly calls the trending narratives about Buttigieg and the Democratic establishment a “conspiracy theory,” it runs through the alleged evidence of nefarious behavior and lists details “adding to the suspicions” or “raising even more questions.” Another article on RT highlighting the assertion that the Democratic establishment and the Buttigieg campaign worked against Sanders writes about comparisons made between Buttigieg and Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó. 

Iowa’s caucuses are the first of many primary elections to come in the lead-up to the 2020 general election. If this first election is any indication, Russian state-sponsored media will be using every electoral misstep as a means to divide Americans politically and undermine confidence in U.S. institutions all the way through November.