Russiagaters Pivot Focus to Russian State Media

As the race for 2020 heats up, the mainstream media is hard at work, stoking fears of Russian influence. NBC News ran a story on a report about Russia’s English-speaking media outlet’s coverage of 2020 presidential candidates. The report was released Tuesday, by former FBI agent Clint Watts who is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The report analyzes over 1,700 stories from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik and found the coverage of Joe Biden was overwhelmingly negative, while coverage of Iraq War Veteran Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) has been mostly positive. The coverage was more neutral for the other 10 candidates.

NBC’s story on the report is titled, "Russian web trolls boo Biden, often boost Gabbard, report finds." What NBC calls "Russian web trolls" is just Russia’s state-sponsored media. NBC said mentions of Gabbard in these Russian media outlets were "46 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable."

But according to Watts’s report, Gabbard’s mentions were 46 percent favorable, 44 percent neutral, and 10 percent negative. NBC must have mixed up neutral and unfavorable, a surprising mistake for an outlet that loves to smear Gabbard as a Russian favorite. Gabbard ranks 6th out of the 12 candidates in overall mentions in the report, a detail NBC does not include in their story.

Biden’s mentions were only 3 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable. Watts says in his report, "For Russia thus far, Biden is to 2020 what Hillary Clinton was to 2016."

NBC asked Watts Gabbard would be a Kremlin favorite. "Gabbard is saying everything Russia wants Americans to hear," he said. "She’s a U.S. Army officer, and combat veteran claiming – incorrectly – that the US backs al Qaeda. She calls the US an imperialist power that should withdraw from the world."

Watts dismisses Gabbard’s claim that the US backs al-Qaeda by calling it incorrect. For people like Watts and the average NBC News reader, they do not have to go outside of their mainstream media comfort zone to see reports on US support of al-Qaeda.

CNN reported on US arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being transferred to al-Qaeda linked fighters in Yemen. Despite these revelations, President Trump still arms Saudi Arabia and even vetoed a bipartisan effort to ban weapons sales to the Kingdom.

Although the Trump Administration ended the arming of Syrian rebels in 2017 – many of whom were al-Qaeda affiliates – it was a policy that went on for many years under the Obama Administration.

The US government was well aware of al-Qaeda’s presence among the Syrian rebels in the early days of the war. A declassified Department of Defense document from 2012 said, "The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria." Maybe the US is not directly supporting al-Qaeda in Syria anymore, but the claim that the US backs the terrorist organization cannot be dismissed as incorrect.

The Kremlin has an interest in the US not supporting al-Qaeda in the Middle East since Russia is much closer to the region. This fact does not make it any less of an important issue for the American people.

President Trump’s recent reshuffling of troops in Syria came under fire from all sides of the political spectrum in Washington. Unfortunately, Trump failed to withdraw troops from Syria and is now keeping them there to "secure the oil." One of the main criticisms of Trump’s unfulfilled plan to withdraw from Syria is that it would be a favor to Putin.

Syria is one of Russia’s main allies in the region, and it certainly would benefit Putin if the US withdrew. But the fact is a withdrawal would also help America. Occupying a small part of Syria to "secure the oil" puts troops in harm’s way, costs the US taxpayer a lot more money than the oil is worth, antagonizes enemies, and creates new ones. It’s a simple concept: what’s good for Russia can also be good for the US

With all that being said, Russian state media does not just promote foreign policy the Kremlin finds favorable, there is plenty of other valuable content to be found. RT has attracted many prominent American journalists and personalities like Jesse Ventura, Chris Hedges, Larry King, and Rick Sanchez. RT provides a platform for American journalists who have been shunned by the US corporate press. Ventura was fired from his short-lived MSNBC show in 2003 after opposing the Iraq War.

Funding news outlets to broadcast in foreign countries is not unique to the Russian government. The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors) is an agency of the US government that broadcasts news in over 100 countries. The USAGM’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year is over $660 million. The USAGM’s two main networks are Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, both of which broadcast in Russian.

After Russia was accused of interfering in the 2016 election, both RT and Sputnik were forced to register as foreign agents with the US Justice Department. Moscow retaliated by designating Radio Free Europe and Voice of America as foreign agents.

Watts’s report echoes recent comments made by Hillary Clinton on Gabbard. In October, Clinton said of the Hawaii Congresswoman, "She is a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far." Clinton even said that the Russians are "grooming her to be the third-party candidate," Gabbard has repeatedly denied a third-party run if she fails to secure the Democratic nomination.

As far as Russian bots go, Watts told NBC, "Much of the bot and troll activity out there is unattributed. We don’t know what is Russian or not Russian, and when researchers mistakenly attribute the free speech of Americans as a secret Russian bot, it degrades electorate confidence in researchers’ ability to detect Russian influence or that it even exists."

The social media campaign of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency was one of Robert Mueller’s main allegations in his claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Although further research shows, the IRA social media posts were mostly unrelated to the election. A Senate commissioned report by the firm New Knowledge found just "11 percent of the total content was related to the election."

Watts mentions the IRA in his report. "At this point, there may be more people looking for Internet Research Agency accounts and bots than there are Internet Research Agency employees." Watts goes on to present his new approach to understanding Russia’s influence, "read and listen to what Russia says publicly first before scouring piles of social media data in search of their trolls."

More details of this study will emerge over the next year, including Russian media coverage of President Trump, and similar analysis for China and Iran’s state media. Watts has successfully moved the goal post from Russian bots and troll farms to Russian state media.

Americans have a lot of candidates to choose from in the 2020 Democratic primary. Watts’s study is nothing more than an attempt to damage the reputation of those the Kremlin may find favorable, who are the same ones Washington finds threatening.