Home / FIE / 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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”