This piece was originally published in the February 18, 2022 edition of CAP Action’s weekly newsletter, What’s Trending? Subscribe to What’s Trending? here.
This week, Russia invaded Ukraine in the largest military action in Europe since World War II. In the build-up to the invasion, U.S. intelligence announced Russia’s plans to the world and highlighted the groundwork that Vladimir Putin might lay to justify military action. Experts warned about Russian disinformation spreading at home and abroad, with others highlighting social media in particular as a major potential avenue.
To that end, we looked at where people on Facebook were getting their information on the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the days leading up to the invasion (February 19–23). According to data from NewsWhip, 240,000 articles were published referencing “Ukraine” or “Putin” in these five days, generating nearly 30 million interactions on Facebook globally. Of those, the most-engaged web publishers are below.
Just over half of these publishers are mainstream news outlets. The remaining four — the Daily Wire, Fox News, the Daily Mail, and Russia Today — are far right outlets, with Russia Today being a propaganda tool of Putin’s government.
Of the top 10,000 posts from public Facebook pages related to the Ukraine-Russia conflict from February 19 to 23, only 11% of posts matched our database of U.S. progressive-leaning and conservative-leaning pages — the majority were from international news outlets and public figures.
Of the posts that we could match against our database, however, there are clear trends. U.S. conservative-leaning pages had nearly three times as many posts as progressive-leaning pages, 809 to 302. Among progressive-leaning pages, most top posts came directly from President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the White House, with other prominent progressive pages condemning Putin’s aggression and supporting sanctions against Russia.
Among conservative pages, the messaging was contradictory and inconsistent. The post with the most interactions in this period, from Fox News, featured live reporting on the front lines in Ukraine, demonstrating the severity of the upcoming invasion. In stark contrast, the second-most engaged post, from Tucker Carlson, belittled the conflict and insinuated that Biden was using it to cause harm to the American people.
In a wide-ranging monologue, Carlson said, “Democrats in Washington have told you you have a patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin,” questioned why Russia’s actions would pose any threat to the U.S, compared the conflict to immigration reform, and mocked the President and Vice President as weak leaders supposedly ignoring domestic problems. This monologue was re-broadcast in Russia on Russia Today. In another video, Carlson asked why Ukraine was worth defending from Russian aggression and questioned what “values’’ dictate a U.S. response.
Carlson’s attitude was echoed by former President Trump, who recently called Putin a “genius” in the leadup to the invasion and criticized the Biden administration’s sanctions as ineffective and soft on Russia. One could see a contradiction here: This conservative messaging doesn’t actually reflect a will for America to be strong on the world stage, rather a desire for the current administration to be seen as weak, regardless of what happens to the country.
Political strategist Dan Pfeiffer laid out this strategy in his newsletter, Message Box: “In Russia’s aggression, the Republicans see a golden opportunity to portray Biden as weak. Put another way, the Republicans will root for American failure if they think it will increase their chances of gaining political power.”
It’s been a heartbreaking 24 hours, and there will be more violence in the days to come — but there is no excuse for that to be amplified or condoned by platforms and conservative outlets in the United States.
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This newsletter is written by me, Alex Witt (@alexandriajwitt), a progressive political staffer and Dolly Parton enthusiast (she/her), and CAP Action’s fantastic team of designers, data analysts, and email strategists.