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State-Sponsored Media Twitter Activity on 2020 Election Integrity
August 25, 2020
Post by Katherine Trauger
In the past decade, Twitter has transformed from simply a social media platform to a key access point for news for millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. Twitter’s importance in this sphere has only increased as President Donald Trump has used the platform as a core method of speaking to American constituents and conducting foreign policy abroad.
State-sponsored foreign media outlets have also used the platform to speak with American audiences, typically sharing content published on their platforms, but also at times responding in real time to current events. Recently, Twitter began labeling selected state-sponsored foreign media outlets in an effort to increase transparency for users about these sources of information and their connections to foreign governments. RT, Sputnik News and the Global Times’s Twitter accounts were all affected by this change.
FIE 2020 analyzed Twitter activity for four state-sponsored outlets—Russia’s RT (@RT_com), Sputnik News (@SputnikInt), Iran’s PressTV (@PressTV) and China’s The Global Times (@globaltimesnews) from January 1, 2020 to May 31, 2020. Eighty-six tweets were further analyzed with regard to their content covering the integrity of the U.S. 2020 presidential election or a pertinent issue (such as voter fraud or mail-in voting). Engagement data (number of likes, retweets and replies for each catalogued tweet) was also recorded.
Of these tweets, Russia’s state-sponsored media outlets RT and Sputnik News made up the majority of posts covering 2020 election integrity, with 81 of the tweets posted by one of these two accounts. Given this disparity between Russian outlets and the others, as well as the amount of election-related content published by RT and Sputnik sites compared with PressTV and Global Times, it is clear that Russia appears considerably more concerned with creating conversations and pushing narratives on U.S. election integrity. See below for each outlet’s most engaged tweet on U.S. election integrity published from January 1, 2020 to May 31, 2020 (as of May 31, 2020).
#Editorial: The US presidential election is threatening the lives of a large number of Americans, world stability and peace. It is no longer a process that respects the people’s will, but has become a malicious manipulation of public opinion. https://bit.ly/2L4Q2vp
Russian Outlets on Twitter
Both RT (3 million followers) and Sputnik News (327.2K followers) publish a high volume of tweets every day, tweeting upwards of four to five times an hour or more depending on the world events of the day. For example, RT’s Twitter account tweeted 98 times on January 3, the day Iran’s General Soleimani was killed, while still posting 84 times on January 1, a comparatively less engaging day in world news. Both accounts also repeatedly republish some tweets promoting certain articles, most likely an effort to amplify certain stories on their outlets and gain further traction.
For example, a RT article alleging that Mike Bloomberg bought his way into the Democratic primary debate in Nevada was tweeted twice,both times including a video of Bernie Sanders speaking about Bloomberg’s net worth as an incentive to the DNC to include him in the debate. In another example, Sputnik tweeted about an article concerning the relationship between Joe Biden’s campaign and the company that created the app used in the Iowa caucuses three times. A total of eleven individual articles were tweeted more than once within the timeframe noted above, either tweeted twice or three times with varying captions.
Themes that surface in RT and Sputnik tweets about election integrity include:
Claims the DNC perpetually works to stop Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination for president
This narrative is best summed up in a particular tweet from RT claiming that the “Democratic establishment unites against Bernie Sanders” ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries.
Another tweet from RT during Super Tuesday refers to Joe Biden as the “establishment darling,” claiming that Bernie had been “brushed aside” during the primaries.
An early March tweet from RT also claims that “the DNC is trying to bury Bernie.”
The Democratic Party in disarray
Russian state-sponsored Twitter accounts blamed the malfunctioning Iowa Caucus app on the Biden campaign in one tweet, and Hillary Clinton and her former campaign staff in another. Another tweet argues that the DNC had a “had much bigger role in the failed app than it claimed,” purporting that the failures of the app were self-inflicted by the Democratic Party. RT and Sputnik, and their Twitter accounts, seem to portray the DNC as unreliable and messy as possible, an idea best shown in an RT article and tweet featuring a picture of a dumpster fire with the post “The utter disaster of the #IowaCaucuses shows that the Democrats still have no clue why #Trump won.”
U.S. democracy in decline
Outlets portrayed societal shifts due to COVID-19 as the decline of American democracy
Quoting an RT op-ed, one RT tweet alleges that the COVID-19 crisis is being used by Democrats and “liberal technocrats” to further cloak the election process in obscurity. Another post says that the Governor of Wisconsin “sidestep[ped] the Constitution” by delaying the state’s primary, state, and local elections due to the covid-19 outbreak, and anotherfalls in line with the narrative that the DNC is anti-Sanders, arguing that the postponing of primaries will “give the DNC even more time to cheat Sanders.”
Sharing an article about COVID-19 in the U.S., RT wrote that “US lawmakers bask in coronavirus panic while quietly building the police state of their dreams.” “Constitution quarantined,” anothertweet states.
Iran’s PressTV on Twitter
PressTV’s Twitter account (244.2K followers) posts far less than the Russian outlets about U.S. election integrity and its posts generally tend to see less engagement than Russia’s do. Whereas RT and Sputnik post about a variety of issues within the U.S. political sphere, PressTV takes a relatively offensive position on its Twitter, mainly posting articles that express international support for Iran or negatively report on their adversaries. As in its coverage overall, PressTV’s Twitter account tends to negatively report on Trump and his administration, a trend expressed in one PressTV tweet that writes: “How #Trump normalized distrust of America in #Iran.” PressTV also positively tweets about Democrats who believe in less aggressive policy toward Iran, demonstrated in the promoting of both Biden’s and Sanders’s remarks on the event.
The trend of negative coverage toward President Trump acts as a primer for the ways PressTV speaks about election integrity surrounding the U.S. 2020 presidential election. Two tweets from PressTV within the timeframe noted above concern the threat of Trump pushing back the election. The first tweet covers a comment by Biden, writing “Trump aims to delay November election to stay in power.” The second tweet deals with a comment made by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, about the possibility of delaying the November general election due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, on the whole, PressTV’s Twitter account appears to work more as a pro-Iran image-setting tool as opposed to a means to denigrate the U.S. election’s integrity.
China’s Global Times on Twitter
Much like Iran, there is little to speak about in the case of the Twitter account for state-sponsored outlet The Global Times (1.8 million followers). The Global Times posted two tweets within the noted timeframe about U.S. election integrity, with the account focusing more largely on pro-China issues and promoting Chinese officials’ statements. Tweets about the 2020 election’s integrity appear to be framed generally through the lenses of tensions in tech between the U.S. and China, pro-China/anti-U.S. sentiment, or anti-democracy narratives.
For example, one Global Timestweet commented on Twitter’s fact-checking of Trump’s tweet about mail-in ballots, while the second tweet argues that the U.S. presidential election “is no longer a process that respects the people’s will.”
In response to reporting that Trump believed China wanted him to lose reelection, the Global Times’s Twitter account also tweeted that China “has no interest in interfering in the US election,” adding they hope “#US politicians will not stick to the China issue.”
Much like the case of PressTV, there are few stories published—and subsequently few tweets about—U.S. election integrity specifically. While both PressTV and the Global Times regularly criticize Trump and America’s foreign policy and promote narratives about domestic discord within the U.S., the 2020 election remains a lesser-covered topic as compared to the Kremlin’s output.
However, as election day moves closer, new narratives surrounding election integrity will continue to emerge. For example, Russia’s state-sponsored media readily highlighted Trump’s suggestion to delay the 2020 election on their Twitter accounts. And while Russian, Iranian, and Chinese state-sponsored Twitter accounts all put out some form of dialogue on U.S. election integrity, Russia consistently pushes more content and narratives about U.S. election integrity, speaking to American audiences on social media platforms like Twitter to sow their narratives.
Social media platforms like Twitter may continue to label these outlets as state-sponsored media to increase attribution and better alert audiences to the content’s ties to foreign governments, limiting the outlets’ abilities to influence.