Russian disinformation in the post-truth age: Lessons from the 2020 US Presidential Elections

By Paakhi Bhatnager

Post-truth is not a novel phenomenon; subjectivity and bias have always influenced the way information is disseminated and reality is perceived. However, the term has gained significance in the aftermath of the 2016 US elections. Indeed, it  is owing to the increasing use of technology and the consequent easier availability of conflicting ideas and opinions that post-truth has surfaced as a buzzword in contemporary politics.

What is Post-Truth?

The terms ‘post truth’ and ‘disinformation’ have increasingly gained relevance after the 2016 United States (US) elections. Disinformation, here, is referred to as propaganda or the deliberate spread of false narratives to manipulate popular opinion. Hence, disinformation goes beyond mere inaccurate information as is the case with misinformation. It is grounded in some harmful political motive. The central distinction between information and disinformation is the concept of truth. Whereas information is perceived to be true, disinformation is perceived to be untrue. Hence, disinformation and truth have an intrinsic relationship. 

Both ‘truth’ and ‘post-truth’ are terms that are heavily contested in academia. This essay will use Biesecker definition of post-truth as it offers a framework that best fits this research question. Biesecher defines post-truth as a “circuitous slippage between facts or alt-facts, knowledge, opinion, belief, and truth”. Extrapolating from this definition, Russia’s disinformation efforts can be characterised as products of a post-truth age owing to three characteristics: obscuration of facts, reliance on emotive appeals, and manufacturing of alternative facts that target the US. These three characteristics show a lack of commitment to an objective reality and can be linked to post-truth. 

Disinformation in the Post-Truth age 

Post-truth’s reliance on alternative facts makes it especially receptive to disinformation. As truth becomes subjective, the production of facts that oppose a set truth becomes increasingly common. This leads to the perpetuation of binaries where one perception of truth is pitted against another perception of truth. It is in this caveat that disinformation starts to flourish. It foments the politicization of facts through its reliance on emotive appeals and attacks on the integrity of other narratives. This leads to an increasing lack of commitment to any objective reality. 

Post-truth is intrinsically linked with technology. Technology not only makes it easier to disseminate such information to a wider audience, eliminating geographical and language barriers (through automated translations on news media interface), but it helps to do so at a rapid pace. A study by RAND corporation revealed that repetitive and rapid spread of certain information can play a significant role in persuading the audience. Russian disinformation campaigns do exactly this. The news produced by Russia creates a continuous cycle of narratives that are hostile to and challenge the ones produced by the US. 

US-Russia relations have operated under a background of hostilities. The extent of these hostilities has been determined by US leadership. Whilst Barack Obama strived to reset the antagonism which flourished under his predecessor George W. Bush, his foreign policy towards Russia was modest in its aims. It was acknowledged that any rapid strengthening of ties would prove a difficult task owing to what has been identified as a ‘values gap’ between the two countries.

This values gap coupled with a reluctance to conform to the American regime has built an alternative truth for Russia. Russia has constantly pointed to the hypocrisy of the American state, especially in terms of undermining the sovereignty for other states to establish American-friendly regimes. During the 2016 elections, this took the form of hacking into Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton’s emails and leaking information that Russia believed would uncover the US’s fraudulent election practices. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s report on The Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election revealed that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) had waged an ‘information warfare campaign’ to harm Hilary Clinton’s chances of winning the election and supporting the Republican candidate Donald Trump. This report further declared that Russia’s interference in 2016 elections was but one part of a larger exercise in polarizing the American public and sowing discord against democratic institutions. 

Fast forward to 2020 , discourse around Russia’s disinformation campaign targeting the US elections has once again gained significance. The important distinction between 2016 disinformation campaigns and the one carried out in 2020, however, is that Russia has not gotten what it wanted out of a Trump presidency. Trump’s cabinet has been hawkish towards Russia and the scope for negotiations and easings of sanctions have not improved. Overall, Donald Trump’s presidency proved to be a missed opportunity for strengthening diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Understanding the Russian Media Ecosystem

The Russian media ecosystem is fuelled by the state. There is stringent control over the flow of information with major online platforms – both social media platforms like VKontakta as well as news outlets like RT and Sputnik – are state-owned. State ownership and extensive media censorship means that information privileging the interests of the state is easier to dispel than in systems where there is more media freedom. 

Russia has also used its media as an instrument of soft power. Yablokov has outlined two broad functions that RT serves to the Kremlin. Firstly, it is used as a public diplomacy tool to defend Russia’s actions. Secondly, it is used to create narratives that undermine the policies of the US government. While Russian-language media are often deployed regionally, as was the case in Ukraine during the annexation of Crimea, English-language Russian media (like RT) are targeted towards foreign audiences and therefore have more relevance as a public diplomacy tool in the West. 

Moreover, under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has been represented as the ‘ultimate opponent’ of the US. This has strengthened the US versus Russia binary, stressing on the supposedly unbridgeable values gap between the countries. Owing to state ownership of news media, Russian news outlets have been especially receptive of this narrative. Within such a media ecosystem, disinformation and fake news (or fraudulent news practices) become increasingly common as media functions not as a watchdog of society but rather as a state lapdog. As Russian media absorbs state rhetoric, disinformation campaigns particularly target the key principles of liberal democracy to undermine the US. News outlets are hence vested in the production of alternative facts and subjective truths that oppose the values of liberal democracy.

Case Study: RT News and Editorial Reporting on the 2020 US Elections

The following case study looks at articles published on RT covering the US elections leading up to November 2020. The criteria for selecting the articles were the inclusion of the names of any of the Presidential candidates (specifically Joe Biden and Donald Trump) as well as the mention of the 2020 elections in general. Overall, a total of ten articles were analysed to reveal two dominant patterns. Firstly, news reports targeted US election integrity, highlighting alleged fraudulent election practices. Secondly, Biden was depicted more unfavourably compared to his Republican counterpart, Trump. Both these narratives fluctuated between news and op-ed (opinions and editorial) pieces.

News reports that underscored the potential for electoral fraud disproportionately targeted the Democratic party. For example, one op-ed piece headlined: ‘Wayne Dupree: The Democrats will use fraud to win this fall’s presidential election, and Trump may have to call on the military’. This headline not only underscores how RT manufactures truth by relying on the opinions of those who fit the pro-Trump narrative but also exemplifies the perforation of a hyperbolic tone in its writing. The addition of ‘Trump may have to call on the military’ serves to depict the US on the verge of a military state owing to the fraudulent electoral practices of the Democratic party. A special attention is given to headlines here as they both reveal the tone of the article as well as its orientation.

Furthermore, news reports, too, were perforated with opinionated statements as they were written around remarks made by American officials. One report headlining ‘Trump warns of ‘RIGGED’ election, claims millions of mail-in ballots will be forged by foreign powers’ (RT – 1) regurgitated a tweet by Trump that which stressed on election fraud. This style of reporting was very common within RT as can be seen in another article that similarly used Trump’s tweet on election fraud as a starting point to attack election integrity in the US:

(RT – 2).

Here, the practice of selective inclusion of quotes in order to manufacture evidence that supports the state narrative is reminiscent of a post-truth age. Evidence, in the case of RT, relies on opinions of Republicans in power rather than on any objective reality. 

Another trend, as mentioned before, is the disproportionate targeting of Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. A similar strategy of selective inclusion of quotes was used but it was manufactured in a manner that depicted Biden unfavourably. For example, one news article headlined: ‘I need to earn your votes: Biden tries to lure in Bernie supporters, but sales pitch flops HARD’ (RT – 3). In this headline two things are evident. The inclusion of a quote supplemented with the phrase ‘Biden tried to lure in Bernie supporters’ depicts Biden as desperately needing more votes. The final phrase, ‘but sales pitch flops HARD’ is not only heavily laden with subjectivity but is also presented as a fact that further pushes the narrative that Biden is an incompetent candidate. 

Moreover, RT exploited the Biden-Ukraine conspiracy theory which alleged that Joe Biden had engaged in corrupt activities to aid his son, Hunter Biden’s employment in the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings. Several op-ed and news reports were published on this topic, all maintaining that Biden was corrupt in his dealings with Ukraine. The narratives built into the reporting were often skewed to depict Biden unfavourably. For example, one news article focused on statements made by Ukrainian Prosecutor General, Viktor Shokin, claiming that he had been fired while he was investigating Biden’s involvement with Burisma (RT-4). This insinuates that he was fired so as to not oust Biden. However, the article fails to mention that several US and European officials were already pushing for Shokin’s dismissal owing to his incompetence as the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. Opinions and alternative facts manufactured so as to oppose a set truth are given primacy over objectivity. The two dominant narratives on RT – attacking election integrity and pointing out corruption in the Biden family – both serve to undermine liberal democracy and portray US as a hypocrite international power. The construction of such skewed narratives and elimination of relevant contextual information is reflective of a post-truth age.

Conclusion 

Both the US and Russia reflect distinct values in their forms of governance and international outlook. Hence, they also have distinct and often differing perceptions of realities. Russia, especially under Putin, has presented itself as an alternative to the liberal, democratic form of governance propagated by the US. In the international arena, this has perpetuated a US versus Russia narrative. This has often relied on producing facts which oppose that produced by the other state. Such reliance on alternative facts, punctuated with differing interpretations of what is and is not true, has created a post-truth age under which disinformation has flourished. 

Image credit: https://www.axios.com/fake-news-fix-suggestions-politicians-social-media-f20fa11b-5a19-4015-bc30-fdc19896ca50.html

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