By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia
Many assume that Donald Trump was portrayed in the Russian media as Russia’s friend until last summer when it became clear that he would not be willing or at least able to deliver any improvement in Russian-American relations; but that view is incorrect, according to two scholars at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
Instead, Anastasiya Kazun and Anton Kazun say the Moscow media was largely neutral or hostile to Trump before the election, treated him as a friend of Russia for only the first three months after his election, and now have returned to an almost uniformly hostile evaluation of the American president.
In a new study using content and agenda-setting analysis, entitled “A Friend Who Was Supposed to Lose: How Donald Trump was Portrayed in the Russian Media,” the two say that the Moscow media have treated the American president very differently over the course of three periods (publications.hse.ru/preprints/211786222 and iq.hse.ru/news/212732033.html).
“Before the election,” Kazun and Kazun write, “the tone of articles about Trump in the Russian media was more neutral or negative than positive;” and he was discussed mostly as the unpredictable opponent of the candidate, Hillary Clinton, Moscow expected to win. But after Trump won, “the situation changed,” with Trump becoming “Russia’s friend.’”
“But this positive news about Trump predominated in the Russian media for only three months,” the two say. “In February 2017, negative articles [about him] were more numerous than positive ones” – and by June, “it was already practically impossible to find positive publications about the new American president.”
Public opinion, the scholars say, tracked along with what the media outlets were saying. “When Trump won,” Russians and the Russian media experienced what can be called “the honeymoon effect,” a brief rise in the popularity of a politician after an election, with many Russians assuming that relations between Moscow and Washington would now improve.
But the new US president rapidly lost his positive image in the media and in the population, they write, but not because of sanctions as some think given that Russians accepted the Kremlin’s message that Western sanctions were either having a positive impact on Russia or no impact at all.
The most probable cause of this shift is that public opinion followed “the metamorphosis of Trump” offered by the media and that shift in turn “reflected the position of the authorities.” That is the case even though the state doesn’t control all media, but it controls enough that even the more independent parts follow its lead in the way many subjects are treated.
Initially, government outlets suggested Trump could and would lift sanctions and improve relations, but when he didn’t, the media had to come up with a different explanation of that and of him, Kazun and Kazun say. Had Clinton won as Moscow expected, explaining the continuation of sanctions would have been easy, but with Trump, it was a problem.
“It is possible,” the two researchers say, “that the elites themselves for a certain time believed in the possibility of positive changes … but when these hopes did not prove out, the new [US] president quickly lost the media image of ‘the friend’ of Russia” and as the media changed so too did the attitudes of the population as a whole.
By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia
Illustration by iq.hse.ru