Since FIE 2020’s last update on Russian state-sponsored media, the 2020 election landscape has evolved considerably—some candidates have dropped out, others have surged. As the candidates weathered the Iowa caucuses and subsequent primaries, Kremlin media shifted its coverage of the race to advance new narratives, both about the candidates themselves and the integrity of U.S. elections.
Kremlin media continued its pattern of negative coverage for establishment Democratic candidates, and unfavorable mentions for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg increased noticeably. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg also continued to receive more negative coverage than positive from RT and Sputnik News (see Figure 12 below for data on mentions for candidates polling at 5% or more nationally).
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s coverage represents the most significant change in Kremlin content. Russian state media is particularly sharp toward Bloomberg: 55% of his total mentions were negative, the highest percentage in the field. Such negative coverage of Vice President Biden (who received the highest total count of negative mentions among Democrats) was expected. Putin’s administration naturally characterizes Biden in 2020—a centrist, establishment Democrat from the Obama era—as it did Clinton in 2016: an adversary. But Bloomberg, a one-time moderate Republican who rarely talks foreign policy would not necessarily be a Kremlin opponent if elected the way Biden would be.
This Kremlin denigration of Bloomberg suggests their media coverage is not so much for the long-term purposes of shaping foreign policy or to “create chaos,” but rather supports last week’s revelations that U.S. officials briefed the House Intelligence Committee that the Kremlin favors Trump and separately notified the Sanders campaign that the Kremlin may be boosting them in some way. (Following the report that his campaign had been notified about such efforts, Sanders condemned Russian interference in the U.S. election.)
Kremlin media also took to mocking the revival of what it refers to as “Russiagate.” One RT op-ed openly pushes the conspiracy theory, suggesting “DNC insiders” are “weaponizing” fear of Russian meddling in 2020 elections as a way to install their preferred establishment candidate. A Sputnik article about the South Carolina primary mocks American “fears of potential ‘Russian hacking’” of the election.
To date, the FIE 2020 team has analyzed more than 3,800 stories and 6,500 total mentions published by RT and Sputnik News since January 1, 2019. Here are some of the highlights in candidate mentions from December 29, 2019 to March 2, 2020—our third assessment and second update since November 2019:
President Donald Trump’s mentions shifted slightly more negative
President Trump’s negative mentions reached 25% of his total volume, a 3% increase since our last assessment.
Negative mentions of Trump continue to surface mainly in a foreign policy context
Though at times the Russian media’s coverage isn’t overtly critical of Bloomberg, even neutral coverage nearly always mentions his wealth and elite status, further amplifying the populist-versus-establishment approach of Kremlin coverage
Senator Elizabeth Warren continued to garner more negativecoverage than positive, a divergence from the populist-versus-establishment narrative observed in match-ups of Sanders versus establishment candidates
Warren’s negative coverage compared to Sanders—despite little difference between the candidates’ policy proposals—may signal an attempt to highlight Sanders as the clear Kremlin preference to Democratic establishment candidates
Negative mentions of Mayor Pete Buttigieg shifted in the wake of the Iowa caucuses
RT recently wrote an article about Gabbard’s statements in a video posted on Twitter alleging “deceptive efforts” by the Trump administration and mainstream media to paint extremists as “freedom fighters.”