Sean Hannity is right: he does not elevate Russian propaganda. Russia amplifies its own.
“Rolling Stone magazine – the great, let’s see, journalistic integrity they have – and other liars in the media crowd are actually accusing me, they say Hannity is repeating Russian propaganda and supporting Vladimir Putin “, explained Hannity. “Well, not really, because I went out on a limb and told the truth, and I’ve been saying that since before the 2020 election.”
This “truth” is the claim that Hannity has, in fact, been making for years about knowing President Biden. As he did with Hillary Clinton four years prior, Hannity has since at least 2020 spent endless airtime judging Biden’s physical fitness for the job of president. To prove he wasn’t just repeating similar claims by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov – although he did disseminate these claims as a direct quote – Hannity showed clips showing him making similar baseless allegations over the months.
To see? Hannity is a Biden-cognition hipster, who makes pejorative and unprovable assessments of Biden’s mental state even before Peskov thinks of doing the same.
This is a fair point – and a telling one. It is a reminder that Russia’s efforts to sow dissent in the United States have consistently followed and amplified existing rhetoric instead of injecting new assertions into the immense reservoir of political rhetoric.
The investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 elections pointed to precisely this goal. In his report on the effort, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III wrote that the desired outcome of Russia’s social media push in the United States was to “cause and amplify political and social discord in the United States.” . If you examine where the Internet Research Agency (the Russian group that was trying to shape online discourse) invested its time and money, you can see how it worked. Some of its heaviest advertising investments, for example, came in 2014 in Missouri and Maryland — places where protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of police were raging. The goal was to find cracks (like those created by Donald Trump) and widen them, not create new ones.
This pattern has held up again and again. In 2019, Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News reported that Russian misinformation had spurred the idea that a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich had been intentionally murdered. But, in fact, that rumor was already spreading widely by the time the Russian theory was thrown into the mix – and, in fact, that specific theory never gained significant traction anyway.
Now we see the same thing happening with the war in Ukraine. With Russia claiming for years that the United States was engaged in bioweapons research in Europe, a vanilla version of the conspiracy theory that earlier this month became the dominant form of anti-terrorism rhetoric anti-Putin, it was apparently domestic actors who stumbled upon the theory and gave it new impetus as Russian troops stalled in their invasion. Fox News host Tucker Carlson embraced the idea with obvious relish, and his tirades were folded into Russia’s nocturnal emissions.
“After failing for two full weeks, Russian propaganda finally had its line that resonated with the global far right,” said Ben Collins of NBC News. wrote“The reason they invaded now is biolabs, even though they didn’t mention it before they invaded.”
Then there was the attack on a theater in the city of Mariupol, the one outside which the word “children” was written in large letters to indicate who was sheltering inside. When an American writer sympathetic to Russia noted that Russia had denied any attacks in the city, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, lifted him up, suggesting that Russia was unfairly blamed. As Elliot Higgins, the founder of open-source investigative group Bellingcat, wrote in response: “Russian disinformation is just something they steal from the internet from conspiracy theorists, it’s rarely more sophisticated. only that.”
Which brings us back to Hannity. In fact, the Fox News host deserves a disproportionate share of the credit for raising doubt about Biden’s cognitive abilities. His show has mentioned “cognition” in the context of Joe Biden four times more often than any other show since the start of 2019, according to GDELT analysis of closed captioning information collected by the Internet Archive. (The show in second place is the one following Hannity’s on Fox News.) His outrage at being accused of elevating Russian propaganda is sincerely justified: If anyone deserves credit for accusing Biden of mental failures, it’s Hannity, not Peskov!
And that’s the point. Hannity does not elevate Russian propaganda. Russia elevates Hannity’s.