Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts For Whom the Bird Tweets: Analyzing State Media Citing Twitter Throughout the 2020 Election Cycle
For Whom the Bird Tweets: Analyzing State Media Citing Twitter Throughout the 2020 Election Cycle

For Whom the Bird Tweets: Analyzing State Media Citing Twitter Throughout the 2020 Election Cycle

March 5, 2021

Post by Samantha Lai

During coverage of the 2020 election, all four state-sponsored outlets from Russia, China and Iran analyzed by FIE 2020 embedded and or cited Twitter posts in articles on a variety of topics, including divisive stories about presidential candidates and the election itself. This strategy of embedding social media posts into articles allows news outlets to directly quote from the statements of politicians—including misinformation spread by domestic sources during the 2020 election—or the heated words of so-called “netizens” on both sides of a divisive issue. 

The tactic of embedding social media posts into content, however, also presents the opportunity for manufactured or inauthentic commentary to be integrated into mainstream discourse on topics of strategic interest. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russia’s propaganda outlets reportedly used social media accounts to further spread misleading stories online and also published messaging aligned with the narratives published on Internet Research Agency (IRA), or the notorious St. Petersburg “troll farm,” accounts. Our analysis from nearly the past two years shows the Kremlin’s state-sponsored news outlets cite tweets in their article twice as often as Iran and China, an indicator of how Russian outlets utilize social media posts to further their own strategic narratives and amplify divides.

State-Backed Media and Twitter Embeds

Russia’s RT and Sputnik News most frequently embedded Twitter posts into their articles during the 2020 election cycle. Twitter accounts embedded in online posts were often government officials or other notable public figures; however, tweets from unverified accounts that were not public figures, usually of a  partisan and divisive nature, routinely surfaced in Kremlin news coverage. Articles from Russian state-backed media that embedded Twitter posts covered issues like criticism of the American political system, the credibility of mainstream media, and so-called “cancel culture.”

Some of the accounts embedded in RT and Sputnik stories were later suspended or removed by Twitter. For example, in the Sputnik article “‘Disgusting’ Trump’s Campaign Slams CNN Over ‘Disrespecting America,’” one Twitter account cited in the post tweeted:

“The best thing I can suggest as a concerned citizen is just not watch nor responded to CNN. Please consider that this media outlet distort reality, undermines factual content and devotes all its hateful broadcasts toward Trump bashing.” 

The account was later suspended. In the RT story “Hillary eviscerated for likening Trump to ‘failed-state fascist’ in Roger Stone sentencing upset,” an embedded account that posted (typos included in original):

“it truly isbut do turning other nation states into slave markets nextbefore any one thinks your tweet makes you a decent human” 

was also suspended. The nature of these accounts—authentic or inauthentic—is unclear, but the pattern of suspensions mirrors methods and tactics previously employed by Russian influence efforts aimed at sowing chaos among American political factions.

Iran’s PressTV and China’s The Global Times rarely embedded tweets into stories. When the outlets did, they most often articles cited former President Donald Trump’s account. PressTV also occasionally cited posts by politicians in response to news events, such as U.S.-Iran tensions surrounding economic sanctions and territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine. 

Outlet No. of articles analyzed in dataset No. of articles with one or more tweets Percentage of articles with tweets
Sputnik News 2668 1343 50.34%
RT 1412 940 66.57%
PressTV 2547 490 19.24%
The Global Times 1196 10 0.84%

RT and Sputnik

While Russian state-backed outlets RT and Sputnik News show differences  in coverage and tone, both outlets use Twitter citations in similar fashion, amping up American cultural divides illustrated by content on Twitter. For example, articles like “Meghan McCain calls for firing of Fauci for ‘inconsistent messaging’ on Covid, gets roasted for calling vaccine rollout a disaster and “America Re-canceled? Black activist Young Pharaoh booted from anti-censorship themed CPAC event for ‘reprehensible views’” built on Twitter reactions to highlight divisions among Americans. Other coverage including embedded tweets, like RT article “Joe+Barack=BFFs: Biden recycles cutesy friendship bracelets photo,” illustrate broader trends in RT’s coverage, with largely negative reactions to Biden included in the story.

Former President Trump’s Twitter account was often referenced by both Kremlin outlets, as were other presidential candidates.

Mentions of presidential candidates (from most to least frequent) RT Sputnik News
1 realDonaldTrump (234 citations) realDonaldTrump (409 citations)
2 BernieSanders (25 citations) BernieSanders (33 citations)
3 JoeBiden (18 citations) ewarren (25 citations)
4 TulsiGabbard (18 citations) JoeBiden (21 citations)
5 ewarren (15 citations) KamalaHarris (17 citations)
6 KamalaHarris (6 citations) PeteButtigieg (15 citations)
7 PeteButtigieg (4 citations) TulsiGabbard (15 citations)

Both outlets also embedded tweets from various media outlets, with controversial outlets OANN and Project Veritas at times cited as often as more mainstream news outlets, like NPR or MSNBC.

Mentions of news outlets
(from most to least frequent)
RT Sputnik News
1 ABC (12 citations) ABC (9 citations)
2 nytimes (9 citations) FoxNews (8 citations)
3 FoxNews (5 citations) nytimes (3 citations)
4 MSNBC (4 citations) MSNBC (3 citations)
5 Project_Veritas (3 citations) NPR (3 citations)
6 OANN (3 citations) Project_Veritas (2 citations)
7 NPR (3 citations) OANN (2 citations)

China’s The Global Times

The Global Times embedded very few tweets into its articles. Beyond former President Trump’s account (now suspended)—@realDonaldTrump—the outlet rarely included tweets from other accounts on a regular basis. When the Global Times did cite Trump’s tweets, coverage was  predominantly negative, such as article “Trump to turn July 4 show into personal primetime spectacle,” unless Trump’s actions aligned with the CCP’s strategic narratives, such as in the Global Times article “Trump tells truth about HK riot, sets off hysteria among backers of violence.”

Username Name Frequency
realDonaldTrump Donald Trump 7
Mike_Pence Mike Pence 1
mPinoe Megan Rapinoe 1
PressSec Kayleigh McEnany 1
DavidGizz David Gizz 1

Iran’s PressTV

As noted, Iranian outlet PressTV cited presidential candidates’ Twitter accounts more regularly compared to the Global Times, but less frequently than Russian state-backed outlets. The outlet quoted Trump’s Twitter account on a more regular basis compared to other significant Democratic primary candidates. This is consistent with PressTV’s reporting on U.S. affairs, which is generally more focused on the foreign policy decisions of the existing U.S. president over domestic tensions during the 2020 election. While PressTV also provided extensive coverage of then-former Vice President Joe Biden’s activity running up to the 2020 elections, the outlet rarely cited tweets from Biden’s account. However, the outlet at times spotlighted Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, exhibiting support for her foreign policy stances favorable for Iran, such as in articles “Tulsi Gabbard is the only true peace candidate in presidential debates: Scholar” and “Gabbard playing very positive role in silent US Congress: Analyst.

Username Name Frequency
realDonaldTrump Donald Trump 235
TulsiGabbard Tulsi Gabbard 11
BernieSanders Bernie Sanders 8
ewarren Elizabeth Warren 8
JoeBiden Joe Biden 3