By Vera Tolz and Vitaly Kazakov with contributions from Stephen Hutchings
In many ways, Russian media coverage of the US 2020 presidential elections seemed predictable. The unfolding events presented Russia’s political and media elites with a perfect opportunity to hone a familiar narrative of dysfunctionality and chaos in Western democracies and disseminate it across domestic and international information networks. Elections are the most important institution within democracies and their integrity is central to sustaining a functional democratic system. For this reason, over the past half-a-decade at least, Russia has striven to undermine democratic elections in various ways. However, the manner in which the Russian media’s diverse US 2020 election coverage blended into the wider media ecology points to the need for a better appreciation of how misinformation has become so prominent in global information flows.
In this report we discuss how the gruelling sequence of ballot counting, protests, and media scandals sweeping across America in early November was grist to the mill of Kremlin-backed media machineries, aiding their promotion of favourable domestic and international narratives. At the same time, we argue that the current proliferation of misleading allegations about mass voter fraud in the current US elections by American and other Western right-wing hyper-partisan media, politicians, and activists has highlighted how counter-productive it was to view Trump’s victory in 2016 primarily as an example of the threat to democracy posed by external authoritarian actors. Likewise, problematic election coverage by Russian international broadcasters such as the state-backed network RT had comparatively marginal reach to Western audiences. We focus here mainly on RT’s output, but compare and contrast it with that of state-backed domestic Russian broadcaster, Channel One.
RT’s Cross-Platform Elections Coverage
From the election day of 3 November 2020, across RT’s different services, as well as its different planforms, pro-Trump bias has been on display and poor reporting practices, including the airing of claims by notorious misinformation providers, have abounded. Also unsurprisingly, Russia’s main state-funded international broadcaster has been using the uncertainties, anxieties, and chaos surrounding the elections to highlight the failings of the liberal democratic order and promote narratives of Western hypocrisy and the biases of Western mainstream media. The fact that RT has been reporting and interpreting the problems facing US democracy very differently from leading mainstream international broadcasters is again unremarkable. RT’s coverage foregrounds its self-image as a ‘producer of alternative news’, marked by hyper-partisanship and uncritical use of conspiracy theories and unverified assertions.
As is usually the case, there has been some variance in the approaches of RT’s different language services. RT International, whose broadcast output is subject to the UK’s OFCOM impartiality regulations, has been making an attempt to ‘perform balance’. But even though, on the whole, RT International reporting is usually more circumspect than that of most other RT services, its version of ‘balance’ combined trivial updates on statements by EU leaders and politicians on the projected election outcomes and their consequences for international politics with open mockery of the ‘shambolic election outcome’ voiced by international adversaries of the US.
RT America and RT Russia, on the other hand, have made no attempt to conceal their strong pro-Trump bias. This included persistently drawing spurious equivalences between Biden’s and Trump’s comments on the results as they were coming in on 4 to 7 November. RT America presented Biden’s victories in a matter-of-fact style, while the Trump campaign and its challenges to the unfolding of the events were covered extensively. RT America explicitly targeted Trump supporters as they were turning away from conservative media outlets such as Fox News to far right, conspiracy theory, and other ‘alternative’ websites and social media platforms for their news endorsing narratives claiming the theft of people’s democratic rights.
RT America’s reporting since Biden’s victory has endorsed left-progressive critiques of the President-Elect, and promoted the idea of a neo-liberal ideology crisis across Western countries. Popular leftist politicians and activists including Bernie Sanders, Greta Thunberg, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all continued to be covered in a way that emphasised their controversial status among RT’s audiences.
RT’s output on social media platforms—Facebook and Instagram—foregrounded the narrative portraying a US democracy in disarray. RT Facebook disseminates op-eds produced for RT’s English-language services. Commenting on the election results as they came in, these suggested that irrespective of who would be the next occupant of the White House, many US citizens would continue leading lives full of challenges and nothing would change in a country completely racked by social, economic, and political problems. RT Instagram’s main approach has been to mock the US electoral process. The activities of Trump’s campaign have not been spared RT’s sarcasm. RT’s Instagram account ridiculed demands by Trump supporters to stop counting the votes where, at that point, Trump was in the lead and to continue counting, where Trump was trailing Biden.
On RT America, however, the self-contradicting demands have been treated seriously, and alleged election fraud has been to the fore in this service’s coverage throughout. Reports claiming voter fraud have also dominated the election coverage on RT’s mobile app which is an increasingly significant platform for the network’s news dissemination alongside RT’s website and TV broadcasts. For this app’s ‘News’ tab, most election-related reports have been selected from RT America, with a particularly large number of them focusing on fraud allegations. Between 4 and 7 November, a dozen articles reporting these allegations uncritically were featured on RT’s app. Thus, on RT America and even more so through RT’s app news feed, the impression has been given that fraud is a major issue, meaning that the election results cannot be trusted.
RT’s coverage of fraud claims differs markedly from that of the mainstream media. The absence of any credible evidence of deliberate fraud has not been adequately acknowledged in many RT reports. Instead, RT has devoted entire reports to claims regarding ‘evidence’ made by widely discredited far-right disinformation providers, such as InfoWars and Project Veritas. Since these outlets have been established in the past twenty years, Trump himself has also been quoting them in support of his outlandish assertions and praising their ‘amazing’ journalistic reputation.
Russian Language Media on the Elections in (Dis)United States: Promoting National Unity in The Time of International Troubles
RT Russia, the Russophone branch of the international broadcaster RT sharing news to transnational Russian audiences, took a similar approach. One of the themes it centred on was the exposition of free speech ‘hypocrisy’ by mainstream Western media and liberal politicians. Such narratives were promoted through the publication of a long translated interview by Trump’s lawyer Giuliani with RT, and Trump’s own controversial press-conference, which was aired and translated by RT Russia in full. Neither RT Russia, nor those of RT’s English services that covered the press conference, acknowledged that the US President’s allegations about ‘stolen elections’ might be untrue.
Airing without questioning the widely dispelled claims of electoral impropriety voiced by Trump and his aides helped RT to promote the idea of the dysfunctional nature of the Western democracy in a literal sense: that the voting was neither free, fair, nor transparent, a narrative mirroring frequent Western accusations concerning Russia’s own elections. The story of democratic dysfunctionality also acquired a contextual interpretation suggesting that public trust in democratic process and the democratic consensus itself were breaking down. Raw footage and detailed reports by Russian outlets of the various clashes between protesters on the streets in the US served to demonstrate this.
RT Russia regularly reported official Russian government interpretations of developments in the US, foregrounding discussions of corruption among US politicians, reassuring Russian-speaking users familiar with the theme in a domestic context that political corruption is rife in democracies, too. Significantly, the main example of corruption—in terms of shady financial deals—among the US political elites, according to RT Russia, is Joe Biden’s family. Another narrative equated Trump supporters following his loss in the election with Russians around the world experiencing a ‘loss of political rights, expulsion from economic life, persistent humiliation, and complete, total, hopeless dehumanisation’ at the hands of political and economic elites in Western states. This narrative targeted both members of Russian diaspora and Russia’s domestic population via an op-ed shared by Russian international network Sputnik in Latvia, Lithuania, and Kyrgyzstan, and Russia’s major domestic news agency RIA Novosti. Like many pieces appearing on RT, this op-ed openly questioned the legitimacy of the US election outcome.
The domestic political convenience of the disarray following the closing of the polls in the US was further reinforced through its fortuitous yet opportune coincidence with the Day of National Unity in Russia. This national holiday introduced during the Putin Presidency to commemorate the end of a period of domestic turmoil and foreign intervention in the seventeenth century known as the Time of Troubles overlapped with the spectacle of the US elections. The leading domestic broadcaster Channel One presented an idyllic image of ordinary Russians celebrating this relatively new national holiday on November 4, conveying a sense of unity around a history shared harmoniously by the diverse peoples, languages, and cultures making up contemporary Russia.
This coverage was contrasted within the same news bulletin with the chaotic, disputed, and uncertain outcomes of the US elections. Highlighting disturbing times in the US and the West helped to promote Russia’s own relative political stability on the very day Russia recalled how it overcame its own Time of Troubles – a collective memory also projected in Putin’s political discourse on the turmoil of the 1990s in Russia. Russian state media frequently deploy such comparisons as regime legitimation techniques.
In the days since November 4, Channel One reporting of the elections pointed to flaws in both American presidential candidates and in their supporters, presenting Trump’s and Biden’s statements and personalities as equally controversial and divisive, and questioning the transparency of the electoral process. The initial reports persistently warned of the looming dangers of unrest resulting from the election fall out. The eventual public celebrations in Washington in the wake of Biden’s projected victory—referred to in one news report as enjoyed mostly by ‘members of various minorities and BLM activists’—were likened to the outcomes of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan, thus questioning its legitimacy.
Additionally, there is strong evidence of the strategic alignment and amplification of coverage of the US 2020 presidential elections by various branches of Russian state broadcasting. RT’s interview with Giuliani, for example, was conducted by one of its UK-based presenters, Afshin Rattansi, and aired via RT Russia to its transnational Russophone audiences. Only select episodes of Rattansi’s show, Going Underground, on which Giuliani appeared, are translated and shared by RT Russia, pointing to the particular significance of this English-language story to RT’s Russophone audiences.
Misinformation and the Political Significance of Russian Reporting of the US Elections
That Russian state-sponsored broadcasters would seek to instrumentalise the US election for political gains was obvious and predictable. They used the occasion to target domestic viewers for regime legitimation purposes and appealed to Russian compatriots living outside Russia’s borders, Trump supporters in the US, and global audiences interested in counter-hegemonic narratives. In different political contexts, coverage centred on the theme of dysfunctionality and chaos in Western democracies and showed evidence of cross-platform and cross-network coordination as well as a keen awareness of specific political factors and environments.
Such reporting needs to be understood in the wider context of its political significance and outcomes. One critical issue here is the way RT, and other Russian state-sponsored media outlets, fit within the ecology of actors responsible for producing and circulating misinformation. Studies of misinformation which attempt to assess broader threats it poses to democratic processes are only meaningful if they acknowledge the pathologies of the entire global media ecology, rather than focusing on and assigning exclusive blame to individual actors, such as authoritarian states using misinformation for their own political purposes.
Alongside long-established mainstream media, this system features proliferating hyper-partisan outlets of right and left, tech giants whose algorithms drive misinformation to the fore, audiences who disseminate misinformation because they mistrust mainstream sources, and authoritarian states, as well as certain politicians within democracies, who attempt to exploit these phenomena. In this global system actors of multiple provenances can easily collaborate, whether knowingly or unwittingly, in circulating, reinforcing and amplifying misinformation.
RT’s coverage of the election fraud allegations has undoubtedly inserted itself into multi-faceted transnational misinformation networks. These networks have been multiplying, expanding and becoming more elaborate thanks to the affordances of new media technologies since the end of the previous century. What distinguishes the activities of Russia and other authoritarian governments, such as China and Iran, is the level of involvement by government and state institutions, including state-funded international broadcasters, in the use of misinformation networks to achieve political goals. It is not, however, as is often claimed, the case that Russia pioneered current misinformation techniques themselves.
The second major context in which we should understand Russian state-sponsored coverage of the US elections is its reach and potential for impact. The coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s presentation of the election fraud case on behalf of the Trump campaign by one of the US’ best-established extreme right-wing providers of hyper-partisan information, Newsmax, had 1.6 million views within hours of being posted on YouTube on 10 November. It has now been viewed more than 2 million times. In comparison, RT America’s report of a similar nature airing voter fraud claims by Giuliani and other members of Trump’s team achieved 9.1 thousand views on its YouTube platform on November 11. It has now been viewed just under 18 thousand times. Such a disparity is in general representative of the fact that across its international branches, RT reaches smaller audiences when compared with both established and controversial Western outlets. In Western democracies, RT’s audiences are particularly small.
It is important to acknowledge the poor practices of RT and other Russian information networks and their role in circulating misinformation which damages democracies. What is more troubling, however, is that the multi-million hits on YouTube videos produced by the West’s own right-wing election misinformation machine easily dwarf the viewings, running only into the tens of thousands, of programmes made by leading mainstream broadcasters such as CNN and ABC which are meticulous in debunking unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. The way Russian state-sponsored actors will continue to operate within this dangerous misinformation ecology, while adhering to the interests of Russia’s political and media elites, needs to be explored further.
 Another RT service that often adopts a somewhat more careful approach to reporting is RT France.
 RT’s app News tab in English included this report in its news selection on 8 November 2020.
 The 2013-14 EuroMaidan uprising continues to be portrayed in Russian state media as an illegitimate coup against Ukraine’s legally elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich.
Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.
Vitaly Kazakov is a Research Associate for “Reframing Russia”.