A Look Back at How US and UK Media Colluded to Spread Fake 'RussiaGate' NewsCycles

Published March 25th, 2019 - 02:03 GMT
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


Al Bawaba Editorial Team


The arrival of the U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel’s report on alleged attempts by Trump campaign to collude with Russia is finally here, and its primary takeaway lays bare a landscape of frenzied collusion stories that now appear outlandish.


The two year investigation, led by Robert Mueller, found no evidence to suggest officials within the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to elect Donald Trump, thus rendering thousands of articles, interviews, media clips and feature segments irrelevant.

Most media outlets that continually ran stories speculating on and breaking the occasional false piece of news regarding supposed collusion were influential and considered mainstream: CNN, MSNBC, NBC, NYT the Guardian, BBC and others.

Al Bawaba collected dozens of headlines regarding the collusion story get a sense of how these outlets understood the claims therein and its impact on domestic politics.

Most of the stories fall along a spectrum: on one end lies the central claim that Russia indeed tried to criminally sway the U.S. presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor but the election was still legitimately won by Trump. This view is supported by the Counsel’s findings. A slightly stronger version, one which dominated many headlines, all but claimed Trump colluded with the Russians to win.

On the farthest end however, some stories sounded existential alarms, warning that Russia is actively hijacking American politics by installing Trump and destroying America’s social and civic fabric from within using sophisticated cyberwarfare tactics. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was this view’s most public proponent.

Overall, there are a surprisingly large amount of stories that furthered the view on the farthest end of the RussiaGate spectrum.


The Milder View: Trump Was Secretly Working with Russia to Win


The most widely circulated view held that Trump was working with Russians to win the election. Unfortunately, there was no evidence to support this claim.

Many outlets whose editorial angle on Trump depended on him secretly colluding with Russians continually claimed to have found the proverbial ‘smoking gun’ linking Trump to Russian foreign agents.

Within these outlets, stories were circulated and recirculated that featured highly qualified individuals who were often tied to different sectors of the government insisting Trump was criminally liable for conspiracy.






Other stories yet emphasized Trump’s supposedly desperate attempt to escape the reach of the Mueller investigation by lying.


(The New York Times)

Outlets generally considered more serious like The New York Times released lengthy, feature-length pieces detailing the connections between Trump campaign officials and Russians. While many steered clear of directly implicating Trump as part of the collusion efforts, they nonetheless signalled that the President was attempting to cover up their attempts as a sign he may be part of it.



(New York Times)



These screenshots reflect a much larger array of articles and television segments all revolving around the question of collusion and pointing the finger squarely at Trump.

In numbers, MSNBC appears to be the biggest mainstream outlet that was almost singularly dedicated to promoting the theory as fact.

A cursory analysis by Al Bawaba found that MSNBC produced 3142 stories on the Robert Mueller investigation, with 371 discussing the possibility of Russian collusion. Meanwhile, MSNBC only produced 211 stories on the war in Yemen and 189 stories on Hurricane Maria.

The war in Yemen, which has raged since March 2015, has likely claimed over 100,000 lives and has put the country on the brink of famine. The U.S. has been supporting Saudi Arabia throughout in its war efforts, providing intelligence, arms and even refueling for its jets.

Hurricane Maria killed nearly 5,000 people under Trump’s watch. Somehow, these stories are deemed to be far, far less important to American politics than speculations about Trump’s efforts to collude with Russian spies.


The Extreme View: Russia is Decimating America from the Inside

Rachel Maddow (MSNBC)

Eventually, the hype surrounding Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election reached fever-pitch, and produced a cry from some that Putin is America’s new boogeyman, working to dismantle America from the inside.

Russia was to blame not just for Trump, but for a host of supposed infiltrations, hackings, infrastructure failings and even sicknesses. In some cases where Russia could not feasibly be tied, commentators simply wondered how terrible it would be if Russia could be involved. Take the now-notorious clip of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow reporting on a cold front that surged over the Midwest.

In her segment, Maddow openly speculated about the possibility that Russia could shut down power grids during the winter, leaving it up to the viewer’s imagination to ponder the horror of families trapped inside their homes slowly freezing to death thanks to Russian cyber efforts.

“What would happen if Russia killed the power to Fargo today?” Maddow ponders. “What would you do if you lost heat indefinitely as the act of a foreign power when the temperature of your front yard matched the temperature of Antarctica?” There was no evidence Russia had shut down any electrical systems during the winter surge.

No matter, the logical conclusion to that speculation is only that Russia stands as America’s greatest single threat, and should be taken down by all means necessary.


Other similar stories found that Russia was attempting to hack into the U.S. electrical grid to shut elements of it down, as it did in Ukraine in 2015 and 2016. Some of these stories were then used to claim that Russia was indeed successfully infiltrating various U.S. infrastructure grids.

Nevermind that Russia’s own cyberwarfare abilities is dwarfed by that of the U.S., and that by most measures, Russia is a fledgling state held together by failing infrastructure and a chronically hampered economy.


(Wall Street Journal)


(The Washington Post)

One particularly outrageous story claimed Russian spies used a mythological technology to cause brain damage to U.S. State Department officials in the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.


(The Guardian)



The story, which was circulated widely, held that Russian agents deployed a top-secret technology utilizing sonic waves to disrupt the neural functions of U.S. officials. Neurology experts debunked the story, but the damage was done, editorially speaking.

The broad message was clear: Russian agents are engaging a secret war against the U.S. and are deploying a range of cyber and unconventional weapons to enact untold damage on Americans.

Other remarkable stories claimed that Trump officials were meeting with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to arrange the release of sensitive information from inside the Democratic party.


(The Guardian)

Even after the Mueller report’s findings broke, some doubled down and insisted Mueller was flat out wrong. MSNBC’s Joy Reid went as far to say "It feels like the seeds of a cover-up are here."

"The fact that this investigation takes place within the Justice Department, which Donald Trump essentially controls and he got rid of the problem Jeff Sessions, who the one decent thing that he did was recuse himself," she said.


What It All Means

A veritable ecosystem of Russia stories emerged throughout the two year investigation by the Special Counsel to determine whether Russia and the Trump campaign conspired to get Trump elected. Many of the stories featured outlandish claims that were then picked up and circulated by other outlets, granting those stories a level of validity that did not reflect the story’s veracity.

Each story built upon each other, coalescing into a sweeping narrative that the U.S.’ society is weak, fragile and parts of it have been hijacked by Russia; that the U.S. has been powerless to relentless Russian cyber-assaults, which have installed a foreign agent as President, who is working to slowly dismantle American society by being a flagrant, anti-establishment racist hellbent on demeaning America’s place in the world.

The narrative became a sticking point in many major media outlets, despite the fact that most Americans did not consider the story newsworthy or an important voting issue.

It looked to be a story driven less by truth and more by an ideologically driven desire to understand why Trump was president.

Trump could not have come from an America graced by a figure like Obama, whose soaring rhetoric and appeal to higher values transfixed the insulated media outlets and convinced them that America was making durable moral progress. Trump’s virulent rise, which relied on racism, Islamophobia, and a recasting of America as an insular nation, has no place in this worldview.

Rather than modifying the worldview to account for Trump, the hope of America’s moral progress was kept alive by the claim that Trump was installed by enemies to undermine the U.S. Instead of reckoning with the possibility the supposed moral progress America had made was hollow and superficial, media outlets, disconnected by reality, simply insisted Russia was to blame.

In the face of the Special Counsel report, which concluded that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia and indeed is not a foreign agent working for them, the narrative collapsed overnight. Claims of "CIA-TV" and that the probe was deliberately intended to undermine a sitting US President have been put forward. 

That narrative will remain a testament to how disconnected its media peddlers had become to the hard truth that Trump’s presidency spawned from within America and by Americans.

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