Why Did Russia’s State-controlled Media Play Down the U.S. Election-hacking Story?

Commentators are less interested in focusing on the reports of hacking, focusing instead on the uproar they have provoked and what it shows about American democracy.

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Russia's then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso after talks in Moscow, on Feb. 6, 2009.
Russia's then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso after talks in Moscow, on Feb. 6, 2009. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AP
Ilya Lozovsky
Ilya Lozovsky

While headlines in the United States in recent weeks have been dominated by stories about Russian hackers and whether they – allegedly, under Vladimir Putin’s orders – really tipped the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, in Russia’s state-controlled media the story is playing very differently. The hacking attempts themselves have gotten comparatively little attention, receiving scant and dismissive coverage. Instead, the commentary has focused on the uproar itself – and on the flaws it exposes about American democracy.

“Donald Trump is not even in power yet, but he’s already facing an overthrow attempt. In effect, we’re talking about a coup,” proclaimed Dmitry Kiselyov, host of "Vesti Nedeli," a weekly news show aired by a government broadcaster. In his telling, during a broadcast this week, the CIA – which, he reminded his viewers, has been responsible for coups around the world – got particular mention.

“It’s funny to watch the American press eat from the hand of the CIA,” said Kiselyov, concluding that the intelligence agency and the press are colluding with the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep the establishment in power.

Kiselyov is not the only Russian commentator who treats the allegations of hacking with condescension and a heavy dose of sarcasm. A different government-run outlet mocked the American press for taking up the theme of “frightening Russian cybermonsters,” describing them as “mythical.” In a Tuesday night broadcast of his show "Vecher," host Vladimir Solovyev called the situation “quite amusing,” and as yet another feeble attempt by the American establishment to hold onto power: “Whatever they try [to get rid of Trump], it doesn’t go anywhere. They tried to do a recount in the states, and Trump got even more votes!”

The Russian media, which is almost entirely state-run and relentlessly promotes the Kremlin’s interests, has made no secret of its disdain for Hillary Clinton, who is viewed in Moscow as an enemy. Its coverage of Donald Trump has long been far more positive – not surprising, considering his evident willingness to repair the United States’ troubled relationship with Russia.

But, caution Russia media watchers, this doesn’t mean that the Kremlin’s explicit goal was to make Trump president – or that the pro-government press will now be celebrating his election as a victory. Instead, media analysts suggest, a more useful tack may be to exploit the whole episode to undermine the legitimacy of American democracy among already-skeptical Russian viewers.

“What you take away from the Russian reporting,” Kevin Rothrock, an editor at the Moscow Times, told Haaretz, “is that there’s not a lot of substance to the allegations, and [so] let’s talk about the crisis of American democratic institutions that this segues to.”

The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg pointed to a similar theme, tweeting that the story is “useful for Moscow domestically” because it enables it to “contrast [the] discord in [the] U.S. with ‘stability’ at home.”

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll publicized this week, which found that 57 percent of Americans say the apparent hacking efforts didn't make a difference with respect to the election results, received widespread coverage in the Russian press just hours after it was released, becoming one of the most widely shared takes on the story.

Democracy scholars have frequently warned of Moscow’s longer-term goal of showcasing and encouraging mistrust in American democratic institutions. But Oleg Kozlovsky, a Russian opposition activist, notes that the Kremlin may also be wary of overplaying its hand. “I suspect that the [government outlets] are holding their horses, so as not to spoil the game through excessive triumphalism,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “If they start saying that we made Trump president, this will help the Democrats, and the new administration will have to take a harder line on the Kremlin.”

Unsurprisingly, the Russian public has become profoundly skeptical about the allegations being made about the hacking.

“Most Russians don’t believe a single word,” said Maria Snegovaya, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and columnist for the Vedomosti business daily. “They laugh about it. They say the CIA is lying and it’s just a lot of American propaganda.”

Similar things are also being said, added Snegovaya, in the small camp of liberals who oppose Putin and are friendly toward the United States. “Even among people who are more or less Westernized – and I spoke with some of them – it’s pretty much the same. Even IT specialists say it’s impossible to know who did the hack,” she said.

Rothrock agrees. “Whenever I’ve asked around, people seem to be skeptical of the claims,” he said, noting that reports of hacking attempts – which have not yet been corroborated independently – carry a conspiratorial air that Russian dissidents find suspicious, since they themselves are frequently attacked by their countrymen.

“I think a lot of them have the reaction of, well, presumably that’s a conspiracy theory – just like we’re often targeted in Russia,” Rothrock told Haaretz.