#ElectionWatch: RT’s One-Sided Coverage of Midterms

Assessing partisan bias in the Kremlin broadcaster’s reporting

(Source: @DFRLab)

RT, funded by the Russian government, appears to have bias in coverage favorable to the Republican Party for this year’s midterm elections in the United States, producing a string of recent articles biased against the Democrats and sympathetic towards the GOP.

The midterms are set to take place on November 6, 2018. American voters will elect 35 out of 100 Senators and the entirety of the 435-member House of Representatives. The United States intelligence community has expressed continued concerns that Russia might target the upcoming elections.

@DFRLab analyzed 31 articles on the midterms that were published on RT between mid-June and mid-August this year. Of those, 19 were strongly negative towards the Democratic party and its representatives, and six explicitly linked to a Republican campaign ad. Over the same period of time, RT published no articles that were critical of the Republican party or shared links to Democrat campaign ads.

Summary table of articles published between mid-June and mid-August with negative coverage of the Democratic party. (Source: @DFRLab)

This unbalanced coverage was so systematic that it appeared to constitute an editorial policy of attacking the Democrats while boosting the Republicans. While editorial bias can be seen in many commercial U.S. outlets, RT is neither commercial, nor a U.S. outlet. RT is registered as a foreign agent of the Russian government, it is funded by the Russian state, and its own editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, has referred to it as the Kremlin’s “information weapon”.

The majority of the remaining 12 articles that did not focus on the two parties instead covered the recent developments in the Mueller probe and the intelligence warnings of Kremlin meddling in the upcoming elections. RT’s coverage of those was not neutral, referring to those warnings as “painting a scary picture” and accusing both sides of the political spectrum of using “Russian meddling” to justify their failures, while simultaneously arguing that due to poor infrastructure, anyone can “mess with the US midterms”.

Attacking Pelosi, Waters, Warner, Bloomberg and Clinton

Of the 19 RT articles which attacked the Democratic party, nine targeted specific individuals: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Maxine Waters, Senator Mark Warner, businessman and politician Michael Bloomberg, and former Democratic Presidential nominee Hilary Clinton.

Of the five, Representative Waters was targeted the most. In the past two months, RT published three highly critical articles on Waters’ remarks asking her supporters to confront members of the Trump administration in public.

The three articles on Rep. Waters used highly biased language, such as “Waters was savaged by President Donald Trump”, “[Waters is] a committed anti-Trumper”, “Waters turned up the trash talk”, and “Waters seemed happy to revel in her newfound status as a victim of both the right and left”.

RT’s headlines quoted Trump’s insults to Waters.

(Source: RT / Archived version)
(Source: RT / Archived version)

RT’s editorial tone was similarly hostile to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Between mid-June and mid-August, RT published three articles attacking Pelosi. Two concerned an interview she gave to Rolling Stone magazine in which she said that “Civilization as we know it today is at risk in this election” and rebuffed her critics who said the Democratic party needed younger leadership as “a little bit on the sexist side”, explaining that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell never received such criticism.

RT’s article on Pelosi’s statement that our civilization is at risk referred to her statement as “weird” and “trying to create havoc”, and RT correspondent Caleb Maupin added, “but let’s not forget that the vote is still months away and the hysteria will probably escalate and pick up steam.”

RT called Pelosi’s printed comments a “ramble” and quoted a Tweet from a conservative news site Breitbart, which suggested Pelosi took dementia medication. In total, the article quoted five tweets; of those four were negative towards Pelosi and one was neutral. Not one was positive.

The third article critical of Pelosi concluded by citing a Daily Beast poll that showed she is less popular than the Korean leader Kim Jong-un among Republican voters, which was juxtaposed to her quote, “I have great support in my [Democratic] caucus.” This hyperbolic reference appeared to be designed to undermine her claim of popularity, since the likelihood of Republican voters backing any Democratic candidate in the current hyper-partisan atmosphere remain remote.

RT also published an article mocking Hilary Clinton’s outfit she wore to OZY festival in New York city, calling her “disheveled”.

(Source: RT.com)

The article quoted five tweets, all of which were highly negative towards Clinton.

Senator Mark Warner and philanthropist and politician Michael Bloomberg were singled out in one attack piece each. Mark Warner was attacked as a “proponent of [the] Russiagate narrative” and Michael Bloomberg was referred to as a “billionaire pumping cash to swing an election”, who “has a well-oiled communications machine ready to spread his message”.

Over the same period, RT did not publish any similarly negative articles on any Republican donors, nor candidates.

Not all Democrats were covered unfairly by RT. Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received well-balanced coverage of her campaign and its effects on the Democratic party.

However, overall, RT’s coverage was significantly unbalanced, devoting far more attention to critics of the Democratic candidates than it did to their supporters.

Demonizing Democratic Party Supporters

RT also used loaded language to describe Democratic party supporters themselves, referring to them as “far left”, “hysterical democrats” and “lefty”.

Over the same period of time, RT did not publish any articles using loaded language to describe Republicans in its coverage of the upcoming midterms.

One article went even further and accused Democratic supporters of “leftist rage,” criticizing their behaviour, while reporting on calls by Republican supporters to arm themselves as a legitimate response. The calls to arms were published in an article titled “Fear and loathing: Trump aides advised to arm themselves, as leftist rage escalates”.

Sharing Links to G.O.P. Campaign Videos

Six out of 31 articles concerning the midterm elections published by RT in the past two months linked to the Republican party’s campaign ads. No articles published by RT over the past two months linked to any Democratic party’s campaign content.

RT’s commentary accompanying links to the campaign videos included some analysis, like:

Banking on turning public harassment of Trump officials into votes in the November midterm.”

However, some instances were one-sided, like:

Its point is clear: Death threats from the left are now both a rite of passage for conservatives and political ammunition for Republicans.”

(Source: RT / Archived version)
(Source: RT / Archived version)
(Source: RT / Archived version)
(Source: RT / Archived version)
(Source: RT / Archived version)
(Source: RT / Archived version)

Conclusion

RT’s editorial stance deduced from its midterms coverage between mid-June and mid-August made it clear that RT’s reporting was systematically biased against the Democratic party and appeared to be in favor of the GOP. RT’s articles surveyed by the @DFRLab explicitly targeted four elected Democratic party representatives, a Democratic donor and a former Democratic presidential nominee, while simultaneously promoting GOP. campaign materials in at least six instances over the course of two months.

Its one-sided midterm coverage strongly suggests that the Kremlin is still attempting to influence American elections through editorial bias in its highest-profile English language media outlet to date — RT, which gets approximately 15,000,000 visits from American readers every month.

@DFRLab will continue monitoring Kremlin-funded media’s coverage of the U.S. midterms.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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