By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, The Interpreter
TV1 announcer says Hillary Clinton has ordered fireworks to celebrate her election win well in advance of election day.
Russian media – state, private pro-Kremlin and independent – has been saturated with coverage of the US election, the outcome of which is portrayed as vital to Russia’s national security and position in the world. There was even more coverage of the US campaigns than Russia’s own lackluster parliamentary vote, where the opposition was scrubbed from the running in the previous months, and there was no real contest between nationalist Putin loyalists and communist Putin loyalists.
Russian state media managers have engaged in three types of propagandistic distortions: skewed selection and translation of US media; biased Russian investigation of US news stories; and outright fabrication of stories, sometimes loosely based on real US news stories.
Yet even the more shrill state media has been careful to include, among the puff pieces for Trump or the take-downs of Clinton, some more balanced news stories that portray each news cycle’s developments more neutrally, perhaps mindful that a more sophisticated and increasingly Internet-connected Russian readership can get the news elsewhere.
Generally, coverage in the Russian online and print media in recent months has been skewed toward the positive portrayal of Trump and the negative portrayal of Clinton in about equal parts, with media outlets going out of their way to cover pro-Trump right-wing and alt-right press, and even fetch the more dubious stories from the US conspiracy sites. But in the last two weeks we’ve seen a hasty about-face as state media has dutifully recorded the distancing from Trump in duplicitous statements from President Vladimir Putin and senior Kremlin officials.
Nearly every media site has a separate section just on the US elections, alongside the rubrics on topics such as the war in Syria and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine.
Focus on the Negative for Clinton
State television – from which most people get their news – has tended to focus on the negative about Clinton, showing the sensational video clips or stills that portray her as “crazy” or “sick”. But both TV and online media mix in real reporting with propaganda to appear more credible.
On November 1, TASS featured the story that the FBI hadn’t found evidence tying Trump to the Russian government, but also reported that the FBI was investigating Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager;
On October 28, TASS reported that Trump welcomed the renewed investigation into Clinton’s email; and also that FBI director James Comey had re-opened the email investigation due to a promise to Congress, quoting the Washington Post’s sources.
On October 31, The Hill, a widely-read online news publication based in Washington, DC, reported that Comey did not want the FBI to name Russia as behind the hackers before election day; this was the top story November 1 at the Russian site Vesti.ru.
Russian propagandists have been able to take advantage of the increasing fluidity and copyability of online news to set up echo chambers reverberating in both directions.
For example, Vesti picked out a story from the Daily Caller reporting that former governor of Vermont Howard Dean accused Comey of siding with Putin and featured that October 30 although Dean was ignored in mainstream US media.
Multiply a Russian Tabloid by a British Tabloid
If Russian propagandists can’t find what they need from the US mainstream or alternative press, they turn to the UK. The British Sun, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, blared a headline “Trump Assassination Fears” reporting “outrage as Russian media predicts Donald Trump will experience a ‘JFK moment’ if he elected to the White House – a story only conspiracy web sites in the US carried.
The Sun linked to an article by Dmitry Olshansky in Komsomolskaya Pravda, “Impossible Trump” on October 31 claiming that “it is easier to believe in aliens that that the president of the US will be a person who doesn’t consider Russia evil.”
Olshansky lists Trump’s positions that are “impossible” to expect from an American president let alone any serious American politician — opposition to migration, a free market, and good relations with Russia. Olshansky muses then what might occur if Trump actually won — either he might be stymied in everything he tried to do and even face impeachment, or he might suddenly become “unlike himself” due to unseen influence. “I would not exclude the most dramatic option a la John Kennedy,” concluded Olshansky, implying that Trump could be assassinated.
The Russian state wire service Regnum then claimed that The Sun had not named the Russian newspaper that made the remark, although it had and linked to Komsomolskaya Pravda. Regnum further claimed that the Russian press was merely reflecting the discussion that began in the American press — but neglects to explain that no mainstream media has run anything this sensational in nature; the notions come from Infowars and Quora.
These articles are a textbook example of the kind of reverberation of propaganda and disinformation we see all the time now in the Russian press – articles in far-right or far-left conspiracy sites in the US get picked up by Russian media, both in Russian or English, and then get quoted as sources by Western press as if fresh. Sometimes by digging further we can find that the stories got their start on extremist Russian sites before migrating through social media (that often has help from Kremlin propagandists masters at disseminating such memes via Twitter or Facebook) to extremist US sites and then back again to Russia, before the feedback loop repeats.
Distortions in US and Russia Media from the Echo Chamber
Most of the Trump stories in the Russian press appear to be taken selectively from mainstream US media or given further life from extremist American sites, and appear a day or two later after the US stories first break.
Another type of reverberation is when US media covers a story about Trump that may have originated in the Russian media, or investigates a figure in Russia about whom there may have been past coverage, then the Russian media covers the US coverage. The echo chamber inevitably leads to distortions.
When the Clinton campaign made a video ad detailing Trump’s alarming connections to Russia, they mistakenly labeled singer Lev Leshchenko, identifying him as Aras Agalarov (at 4:07).
Watch, RT and pass it along pic.twitter.com/KwRX0wgauO
— Adam Parkhomenko (@AdamParkhomenko) 15 октября 2016 г.
This happened because Leshchenko had also appeared in the same video celebrating Emin’s 35th birthday that Trump was featured in.
An examination of a screenshot from the Clinton video and photos known to be of Leshchenko and Agalarov show that indeed these public figures were mixed up.
This mix-up enabled Aras to discredit all of the Clinton campaign’s opposition research, saying in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda published on October 17, 2016, that Clinton was “beyond the bounds of lying.”
When the Washington Post interviewed him this past March, he recorded the meeting and then later hired an American lawyer to threaten a libel suit. (See “Inside Trump’s Financial Ties to Russia” and “Donald Trump And The Felon: Inside His Business Dealings With A Mob-Connected Hustler“).
The Kremlin Walks Back the Cat – But Stays Negative on Hillary
Despite a long period of frenzy, Russian TV coverage of the US election in general has waned somewhat; after all Russia has its own daily staple to cover of plane crashes, bribing scandals, citizens poisoned by the water supply, and the glorious men in uniform fighting terrorists in Syria.
But the reduction in US election coverage comes in tandem with an evident Kremlin decision to distance itself from Trump. The directive for the messaging change seems to be to focus on the negative about Hillary rather than the positive about Trump.
On November 1, for example Channel 1, the most widely watched Russian state TV channel, ran the same story as Russian Internet news sites that Hillary was improvidently planning her victory celebration even before the election was over.
“Hillary’s campaign headquarters are already divvying up the skin of a bear not yet killed,” minced Channel One’s news announcer, using the Russian idiom for premature activity. Her story was based on The New York Post’s item of October 31, “Hillary Already Planning Her Victory Celebration” reporting that New York’s Fire Department had been told to prepare for fireworks on a barge on the Hudson River.
Channel 1 also reported that Clinton’s unfavorable rating was now 60% to Trump’s 58%.
Like the US pro-Trump press, Russia’s TV1 luridly talked about Hillary’s “Halloween nightmare” and the “skeletons in her closet” coming to haunt her (the e-mail investigation) in the style of New York Post’s “Hallow-Weiner.” But its round-up of mainstream US press on the main campaign stories of the day was more or less accurate, although narrators then pontificated at length on how complicated — and unfair and undemocratic — the electoral college system is.
Although all major media have correspondents covering the elections in the US, the tend merely to translate what the US press is saying, mainly on the right, or the alternative press and conspiracy sites.
On October 20, Clinton was acidic, quipping that Putin would “rather have a puppet as a president.” Trump then later lashed back that Putin had “outsmarted her [Hillary] and Obama every step of the way. The Russian site Expert.ru covered the debate, claiming it was a “tie,” but softening somewhat Trump’s candid remark to: “Putin has beat her and Obama on all the issues.”
Rossiyskaya Gazeta (RG), a state online news service often called “the newspaper of record,” appeared to regularly ferret out stories that portray Clinton negatively and the media as biased. For example on October 23, RG published the story“CNN: Crooked Air – Popular TV Channel Interrupts Speech of Congressman Who Tries to Criticize Hillary Clinton,” along with a video clip with translation. The story originated on Fox News but some commentators said the station merely lost its satellite link for a short period and then resumed the interview later.
Steady Diet of Positive on Trump, Negative on Clinton Mixed with Accurate Reporting
The shift in Russian press coverage in this month can be seen by examining RG’s dedicated election feed over the last three weeks.
Out of 50 stories posted October 25 or earlier at Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s dedicated rubric on the US elections, 14 were negative about Clinton; 4 could be said to be negative about Trump, or at least reported the facts of major news stories with negative news about Trump; 14 were positive on Trump and 9 were neutral, i.e. covering the events of the campaign, such as Hillary’s gain in percentage of those who approved of her in polls. In addition, 9 stories were negative on the elections in general, as part of the Kremlin messaging that claims America’s very system of democracy is disintegrating.
This pattern of coverage was more bias than distortion, but occasionally there were stories that are quite tendentiously reported, such as the claim that Russian diplomats were “denied” the ability to observe US elections and “threatened with criminal prosecution”.
This is a story that Kremlin propagandists have trotted out in past elections, based on the fact that in a few states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, any person who is not a voter or election worker cannot enter a voting precinct and has to keep back a specified number of feet. Those who violate the regulation face criminal prosecution. So it is not that Russian diplomats are specifically being singled out or being individually threatened as such, it’s that any outsiders are not allowed and could face prosecution. These local regulations have not prevented OSCE and other bodies from extensively monitoring and reporting on US elections.
In the next 35 stories at Rossiyskaya Gazeta (from October 26 through November 1), there were 12 negative stories about Hillary; zero negative articles on Trump; 8 positive pieces about Trump; 4 neutral news stories; 6 items negative about the US elections in general; and 3 stories devoted to Putin claiming that he wasn’t meddling in the US elections. The negative stories went from selecting any bad news from Hillary’s campaign trial to the alt-right methods already familiar to American users of Twitter. RG used the “Hillary barking” video on October 26 and that same day also ran a story based on an email from Huma Abedin published by WikiLeaks that in the original English said “She is still not perfect in the head” which RG translated as “not everything is right with her head” and finally recapitulated Trump’s contention that Hillary will “start World War III”.
TASS, whose initials once stood for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union is today a staid government-run news service which isn’t as tabloid-y as some of the other news sites that even print fabrications. Even so, in its dedicated US elections section, TASS has followed what appears to be a directive to stay mainly negative on Clinton with stories such as “WikiLeaks – Clinton Prepared Discrediting of Trump Nearly a Year” and Billionaires Prefer to Finance Clinton.
On October 28, TASS reported that Trump welcomed the renewed investigation into Clinton’s email; but also that FBI director James Comey had re-opened the email investigationdue to a promise to Congress, quoting the Washington Post’ssources.
The news site Vesti.ru often replays or is the source for what is on Russian state television and tends to be more propagandistic than other sites but again appears to draw mainly from US sources in its dedicated elections section.
On October 31, The Hill reported that Comey did not want the FBI to name Russia as behind the hackers before election day; this became the top featured story November 1 at Vesti.ru although other US media such as Esquire carried detailed investigations by cybersecurity firms indicating Russian intelligence was likely behind the hacks.
Vesti played up Trump’s rhetoric that the US elections would be “rigged”: “Trump Will Only Recognize Honest Elections” and ran fluff pieces on Trump like “100 Days of Trump: Billionaire Urges Americans to ‘Dream Big’; if there was any negative reporting, the headline let the reader know the site’s attitude toward Trump’s accusers with stories like “Porn Star Describes Abuse by Trump”.
But Vesti must have received the message to switch to a distancing of the Russian leadership from Trump this week, however because its coverage morphed to “Ivanov: Russia is Always Prepared for Realistic Policy,” based on the Financial Times interview with Ivanov in which he denied that the Kremlin was backing Trump.
In the old days of Soviet disinformation, a figure like Victor Louis might have to invent and write his own copy and work to plant it in the Western press and then replay it in the Soviet press or visa versa. Today the wonders of the Internet and the proliferation of media mean that disinformation workers just have to use Google or social media to pick out what works and cut and paste.
Expert.ru is among the properties owned by the companyEkspert, said to be close to Russian intelligence (the notorious antisemite and disinformation specialist Israel Shamir is associated with these sites); Russkiy Reporter, one of the outlets in this group sent a reporter to interview Julian Assange when he was living in Vaughan Smith’s mansion in England and later helped Wikileaks film Mediastan, an ambitious project spanning Russia, Central Asia and the US.
Ekspert is one of the proponents of the negative US campaign stories then cited by others. A story headlined October 24, “Victory in USA Presidential Elections Will Be Determined by Soros Machines,” which sounds lurid indeed and is part of the chorus to undermine America’s very democratic system is actually a false story based on a true report from the Daily Callerthe previous week, “Soros-Connected Company Has Provided Voting Technology In 16 States.” The Daily Caller at least reported accurately that the voting machine company run by close Soros associate Mark Malloch Brown had withdrawn its machines from the US market due to the controversies so there won’t be any allegedly tainted “Soros machines” on which Americans will vote in the federal election November 8.
So most of Russian domestic media coverage of the US elections comes from US or foreign media of some type even if it at first seems unrecognizable. US mainstream media has not always covered all the revelations of WikiLeaks from hackers widely described as Russian government-related in order either for ethnical reasons or because sometimes the texts are found to have been tampered.
The South China Morning Post was not so scrupulous, running a story from WikiLeaks, “How Many Clinton Staff Does It Take to Decide If She Should Tell a Joke? Five, Hacked Emails Show.”
This showed up later at Lenta.ru as “Hillary Clinton Needed 5 Aides to Invent a Joke.” Lenta is the site that lost its independence in 2014 when its editor-in-chief was fired over her coverage of the Ukrainian war and who decamped with the publication’s main editors and journalists to Riga, Latvia to put out Meduza.io.
Lenta is one of the few sites, however, that has attempted to do original reporting on the campaign rather than just regurgitate the US domestic press – even if biased. Earlier this month Lenta published a puff piece for Trump that even his supportive outlets might have blushed at running: “How Donald Trump is Trying to Draw Gays, Blacks and Indians to His Side” purporting to show how Trump, a “man of the people” was drawing in minorities, proof of his role as leader of an American popular revolution.
Sergei Millian: Positive Press for Trump is Good for Business and Better for US-Russian Relations
Some of Trump’s shadowy Russian émigré business partners have been drawn into production of positive press for Trump in the Russian domestic media.
Sergei Millian, a Soviet-era emigre and now American citizen, head of the Russian American Chamber of Commerce since 2006, made the acquaintance of Trump and began talking about how his presidency would improve US-Russian relations, theFinancial Times reported on November 1. He is the kind of figure that is getting a lot more scrutiny now as Trump’s ties to Russians are examined. The Financial Times (FT) said, “questions are mounting over whether Mr Millian was one of a number of people who could have acted as intermediaries to build ties between Moscow and Mr Trump.” His organization, which he said is funded by members, is the kind of operation that would serve as a springboard of intelligence in the Soviet era.
Millian was one of 50 business people who took part in a 2011 trip to Moscow organized by Rossotrudnichestvo, the state agency for cooperation abroad, which is the modern Russian version of the old Soviet Friendship Society or Soviet Peace Committee and described as Russia’s “soft power” nowadays. Millian met Trump at the 2007 Millionaire’s Fair and helped facilitate dozens of condo purchases by Russians in 2007-2008, says FT.
An article by Aleksandr Sirotin in Chaika, a Russian emigre news and culture site, describes how Trump marketed specifically to Russians, quoting him at a press conference in New York to which Russian journalists were specifically invited in September 2008. Trump described Russians as “great buyers…people with good taste and good money who understand the value of the Trump brand.” Trump bragged about the fact that a Russian was buying a property from him “for a $100 million” (this was Dmitry Rybolovlyev who in fact brought the property for $95 million).
“Russians are notable for the fact that they love the best and are prepared to pay for it, regardless of the price,” Trump was quoted as saying in the Russian-language article. The article quoted Trump on his partnership with Alex Sapir, son of Timur Sapir on the Trump Soho towers and his plans to order sculptures from Zurab Tsereteli.
Trump concluded by saying “By the way, I really like Vladimir Putin. I respect him. He does his job well. Much better than our Bush.”
Back in 2008, Russian journalists weren’t as supine as they are nowadays, and asked him about the failure of Trump’s casino in Atlantic City; one even tried to determine his plans for a political career. Trump’s reply at that time indicates that it is not only Obama whom he believes to be a weak president. Trump said: “Not now. I like what I’m doing now. But I would be a much better president of America than Bush.”
Millian has now been actively placing positive interviews about Trump in the Russian domestic press all year. In an interview with state news service RIA Novosti on April 13, 2016, updated September 30, Millian gave a glowing account of his relationship to Trump — and Trump’s character. RIA Novosti is widely read on the web and social media and the basis for state TV news, so the interview would have been widely seen; this particular article shows 35,532 page views (if these metrics are to be believed). Since it’s typical of a lot of the material about Trump in the domestic Russian media, we will summarize it here.
Asked how often he met with Trump, Millian replied that he had just seen him a few days prior to the interview. He said by contrast to his TV persona, Trump came across as more paternal and more business-like in person. While Trump himself doesn’t drink, he offered Millian a glass of Kristall champagne. “He knew that Russians like to have a drink sometimes. Let’s put it this way: he knows the culture of other countries,” said Millian.
Millian said Trump was a “shrewd person who knows what he wants” who had a “very clear thought structure.” He disagreed that Trump was the American version of Zhirinovsky, viewed by many Russians as a provocateur or even a clown, although he allowed that this could be due to the fact that he knew Trump personally — and didn’t know Zhirinovsky. “How Trump positions himself in public differs somewhat from what I have seen in reality,” he explained.
The RIA Novosti interviewer prompted him to more praise. “Perhaps that is in fact a consequence of the fact that he clearly knows what he wants, and such a manner of behavior is a clearly-thought out strategy?”
Millian said that if Trump believes people like this persona and it “brings him political dividends,” then they “didn’t have the right to judge him.”
Asked if Trump was a populist, Millian dismissed the criticism because Trump is a “successful businessman: and populists “usually talk, but don’t do.”
“This gentleman talks, does and achieves great results,” he gushed, citing the TrumpWorld Tower, the Hotel Commodore and other big Trump projects.
“To be sure, he lost a lot of money on the casino in Atlantic City, you could say he went bust there,” added Millian.
RIA Novosti asked Millian if America “wouldn’t go bust” if Trump became president.
Millian said Trump would only improve things because the government had become very bureaucratized; the wait time for medical treatment was worse than other countries, he complained. RIA prompted him again to say that Americans were “tired” of their political system and Millian agreed as it had produced only the Clinton and Bush “clans.”
But the main thing was improvement of relations with Russia, said Millian – the paramount theme for all Russian media coverage of Trump.
“He is a practical and business-like person and I know for sure that he does not have a single business conflict in Russia. For major entrepreneurs working in Russia, that is rare. Trump hasn’t built anything in Russia, but he registered his trademark back in 1993.”
Millian said his relationship with Trump involved studying the market in Moscow; he said Trump was “waiting for the right time.”
Asked about what Trump would do about sanctions, Millian said he would “resolve political conflicts and come to an agreement about Syria and Ukraine” which would “clear the way” for removing sanctions and resuming a “full-fledged dialogue” with Russia.
“After all, if you look from the historical perspective, Putin cannot be compared in any with Stalin, but even under Stalin there wasn’t the sort of negative coming from the USA that there is now. American engineers traveled to the USSR and equipment for Soviet factories was purchased in America.”
(Millian may not be aware that a number of the American engineers who went to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s disappeared or ended up in the GULAG, and later some US leaders regretted helping the Soviet Union with the Lend-Lease program as it helped Stalin to build his own atomic bomb.)
Millian believes the “argument” between Russia and the US is “overblown” and that it “hurts the middle class”; he knows of companies that had to close up shop in Russia. The reality is that trade between Russia and the US has never been large for lots of reasons and would hardly be described by any sane economist as a factor in the demise of the American middle class.
RIA’s interviewer posed as a skeptic that relations with Russia would really improve; what was so different about Trump as compared to Obama? Millian said Obama was in “another party and has completely different views” although he admitted that generally Republicans were more critical of Russia than Democrats. RIA commented again that the “Republican elite” wanted to “torpedo Trump”; Millian agreed that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had the intent to “dump Trump”.
Millian voiced the thesis found in many propaganda pieces: Trump was a man of the people, not a populist but a real change-maker; the people of America were tired of their economic crisis and of being lied to by politicians; they were ready to overthrow elites — and all for the sake of making nice to Russia again as hostility to Russia only “hurt the middle class.” It’s like a classic Soviet-style Marxist analysis only with a “neoliberal” twist to invoke the “middle class.”
RIA tried one last Soviet-style stereotyping of the rapacious rich man to see if he could shake Millian – and by extension, numerous skeptical Russian citizens reading about Trump — wasn’t there the danger that Trump would see Russia as a client and not a partner? Millian demurred that partnership was based on mutual respect and mutual understanding but business was the mundane relationship of a seller and buyer. Since he only knew Trump in a business capacity, he couldn’t speak to other aspects but he countered RIA’s question as to whether a businessman question was “good for America” by saying that the US had had an actor (Reagan) and a military man (Eisenhower) — why not a businessman? Millian reiterated his concept of Trump as a red-tape cutter who would streamline procedures and accelerate government administration at every level.
Millian said at the time of the interview, before the Republican nomination of Trump, that he would vote for whomever the Party chose — and who would support good relations with Russia, of course.
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, The Interpreter