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A nation must think before it acts.
January 8, 2020
Post by Samantha Lai
Following the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Democrats and Republicans have developed distinctly different accounts of the events leading up to the inquiry. As a result, the House’s impeachment vote was split mostly along party lines and the American public remains divided over whether or not President Trump should be impeached. Sputnik News, meanwhile, continues to follow the Kremlin’s 2016 playbook—publishing articles meant to promote preferred narratives within English-speaking audiences that split Americans along political and social divides. In the case of the impeachment proceedings, Sputnik appears to favor the argument that President Trump should not be impeached.
At first glance, much of Sputnik’s reporting on the impeachment hearings might not seem all that different from that of mainstream American media, with standard updates on daily proceedings. That is, until one reaches the final paragraphs of typical Sputnik articles, which usually provide contextual information about the impeachment. These concluding paragraphs frequently repeat certain narratives that help push the position that President Trump is innocent. In particular, these three narratives appear in varying orders:
Despite how frequently Sputnik reports on the impeachment hearings, the outlet does not mention much about the case for impeachment. Most articles dedicate a sentence to how the impeachment inquiry is “over a whistleblower complaint that claimed President Trump might have abused his power by allegedly pressuring Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.” However, articles typically avoid reporting the specific contents of released call transcripts that Democrats consider to be damning evidence. Instead, Sputnik advances the narrative promoted by Republicans that Democrats “have yet to present one piece of evidence … that suggests that President Trump has committed a crime.”
With specific articles, Sputnik elaborates on viewpoints that encourages readers to distrust certain key players. The outlet does this through:
Fabrications are not always necessary to reshape mass perceptions. By choosing aspects of the impeachment proceedings to highlight and others to omit (i.e. selection bias), Sputnik News advances selected information supporting Sputnik’s preferred view to persuade the public that its favored narrative is the correct one.
Sputnik also finds ways to delegitimize its opponents. The element of distrust is powerful—once it is present, there is little that Kremlin opponents can do to rectify the reputational damage done, as audiences will now be predisposed to dismiss anything Kremlin opponents have to say.
Certainly, Sputnik-favored narratives and techniques can be found in domestic rhetoric as well. This makes it all the more critical to understand how foreign-sponsored media outlets differ from domestic U.S. outlets, and where foreign perspectives drive U.S. domestic coverage.
Sputnik News, as a Russian state-sponsored media outlet, seeks to advance its preferred narratives in order to divide Americans on the issue of impeachment. The more divise the issue is, the less likely compromise becomes. More resources are diverted to infighting, and less gets done. And when people begin to doubt the content of domestic news outlets and politicians, they begin to turn to alternative sources like Sputnik, not just on issues like the impeachment but others that Russia also has a vested interest in. With this, Sputnik successfully makes its way into American political discourse.