August 17, 2016
Understanding the Role of Russian Propaganda in the US Election
By Ben Nimmo
The Kremlin's main propaganda outlets in the US are the television station RT—formerly Russia Today—and the radio and online outlet Sputnik. Both are headed by Kremlin loyalists and closely mirror Russia's foreign policy. While their effect on the presidential race is likely to be minimal, their reporting is useful for the insight it provides into the Kremlin's intentions.
That reporting focuses on specifically attacking US Presidential Democratic Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the general nature of US democracy . As such, it appears that the Kremlin is less interested in promoting Trump than promoting discontent.
Coverage of Trump by RT and Sputnik is uncharacteristically balanced. Some recent reports have presented the Republican candidate favorably, such as when he endorsed a number of his critics for re-election “in an attempt to ease party tensions”, or accused Clinton of founding ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
Other coverage, however, was unfavorable. Some have quoted a neo-Nazi leader as backing Trump’s candidacy, and accused him of hypocrisy. One report even asked: “Is Trump an embarrassment to the [Republican Party] because he's an incompetent, uninformed, pathological menace, or because he's just saying out loud what most Republicans now believe?”
No such balance is apparent in the two outlets' coverage of the other candidates.
Clinton is the most obvious target. In August of 2016 alone, RT reports covered accusations of corruption, lying, and ill health against her; accused her of launching a McCarthy-style “witch hunt” against Trump; and linked her to the use of nuclear weapons in 1945. Sputnik's reporting called her and her team “war hawks”, accused her of wanting to “make more families suffer” the deaths of soldiers, and named her the “Queen of War”.
If the Kremlin has nothing good to say about Clinton, it has nothing but good to say about Jill Stein—the Green Party's candidate for president—who is currently polling at 3.8 percent. RT and Sputnik have given the Green Party so much coverage that they appear to be serving as a public-relations agency.
Between December 28 of 2015 and July 31 of 2016, RT and Sputnik interviewed Stein a total of nine times, with soft questions such as “Why does it make sense to step outside the system and support the Green Party?” and an introduction terming her "a better woman than Clinton, a better democrat than Sanders". RT even hosted a presidential debate among the Green Party candidates, and ran a report on the highlights of the Green Party convention.
Earlier in the electoral cycle, Bernie Sanders enjoyed similar coverage, with headlines such as “Why only Sanders can prevent President Trump”. In March of 2016, RT even ran an interview claiming that Clinton and Google were collaborating to rig voting results—with the interviewer asking, “Sanders scored a 35 percent swing, maybe, in Michigan, I mean, it hasn't worked so well for Clinton, has it?”
The Kremlin's propaganda is not so much pro-Trump as it is anti-Clinton and anti-establishment. This fits into a broader pattern of behavior.
Liz Wahl—an RT whistle-blower who resigned on air in 2014 in protest at the station's violation of journalistic standards—wrote in March: “RT’s main goal is not to seek truth and report it. Rather, the aim is to create confusion and sow distrust in Western governments and institutions by reporting anything which seems to discredit the West.”
This is the optic through which the Kremlin's coverage—and the related hacking of the Democratic National Convention—can be understood: It is not about making a candidate look good, but making American democracy look bad.
One recent RT headline read, “Leaked emails, rigged elections, media blackout: Welcome to democracy, American-style.” An editorial described US politics as an establishment conspiracy; another was headlined, “Did you think US presidential debates were open and fair? Think again.” Sputnik, meanwhile, ran stories talking up the chances of third parties—despite poll numbers to the contrary—before repeating the accusation of a Google conspiracy.
In this campaign, the media are a prominent target. Some comments are aimed at the media as a whole, such as this RT editorial: “The surging fundraising and poll numbers for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein since the end of the Bernie Sanders campaign must be hitting a nerve, because Democratic insiders and the mainstream media are resorting to smear tactics.” Some are aimed at specific targets, such as Google, BuzzFeed, and Vice. Trump's own accusations of media bias and rigged voting procedures reinforce that narrative: in that sense, he seems to be supporting Russia's propaganda rather more than Russia's propaganda is supporting him.
Not all of the reported comments can be attributed directly to Kremlin writers. However, on both RT and Sputnik, the choice of third-party quotes is so systematically anti-Clinton and anti-establishment that it can only be the result of a deliberate policy.
There are two possible reasons for this anti-establishment drive. The first is that it is part of the Kremlin's effort to deflect accusations that it has abandoned the path of democracy by painting its critics as equally undemocratic. In this sense, Putin's comment on June 17 to CNN's Fareed Zakaria is instructive:
“Well, (the Americans) lecture everyone on how to live and on democracy. Now, do you really think presidential elections there are democratic?”
The second is more troubling. Russia's military doctrine—updated in December of 2014—identifies the “wide use of the protest potential of the population” as one of the key elements of modern conflict. The Kremlin tried to harness that potential in its annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas; it appears to have attempted to stir up protest in Scotland in September of 2014—following the Scottish referendum on independence—when a Russian election observer claimed the vote did not meet international standards.
Given that Russia sees rabble-rousing as an integral part of modern conflict, and positions itself rhetorically as in a state of geopolitical conflict with the US, it would be logical for the Kremlin to attempt to seed discontent in the United States. Its media coverage is certainly consistent with that goal.
Ben Nimmo is an information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @benimmo.