Russian and Chinese Narratives on the US Capitol Riots

BLUF:

  • Russian and Chinese IO rapidly adapted to address the siege of the US Capitol and have aggressively attacked American democracy in media coverage
  • China: most concerned with US double standards in criticism of domestic protests, whether they occur domestically or abroad, with a special emphasis on Hong Kong protests.
  • Russia: compared the riots to the Color Revolutions; maintains past approaches to unrest in the US by amplifying radical perspectives and sowing discord with volatile content.

Within minutes of the crisis unraveling at the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, US adversaries seized on the critical moment and began spinning narratives magnifying the damage and consequences of the riots. Russia and China have suggested the crisis marks the beginning of the end of American democracy and compare the situation to historical examples of political collapse. Less than a day after the chaos unfolded, their digital messaging reflected an aggressively derisive portrayal of the US. For months, Russia and China have argued that America is unreliable and unstable, the siege of the US Capitol provides a powerful example for Russian and Chinese narratives to make that case.

In the five days since the Capitol siege, Russia has published 7,560 posts on the riots and driven 2.7 million engagements. Russia expressed an immensely negative position though audiences have been more neutral in response. China published 1060 posts and garnered 615k engagements, about 19.2k engagements per-post — nearly 10 times more than other content from the past week. China also expressed a strong negative sentiment in its coverage, but audiences were only slightly receptive, indicating that China’s messaging was not as effective as its intent. The negativity expressed indicates not so much a disapproval of the riots, but a use of negatively charged terms to describe the situation.

Multiple Russian media sites’ front pages are dominated by articles on the Capitol riots and there is an abundance of volatile headlines. In a tweet, RIA Novosti compared the storming of the Capitol to the October 1917 revolution, and RT France later said the archaism of the US electoral system led to the crisis. Konstantin Kosatsev, chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee said in an interview, “Democracy in the United States has been derailed.” As previously seen in Russian media, the crisis is also being described as a color revolution and as the prologue to a civil war. Beyond the harrowing descriptions of the scene, Russian media is also defending the actions of the Trump-supporters saying, “They [are] blow[ing] off steam,” and were merely expressing accumulated discontent. Most significantly, Russia quoted US Representative Matt Gaetz and claimed “Antifa Mob ‘Masquerading as Trump Supporters’ Were Among Capitol Rioters.” Russia’s approach thereby parallels its past content on unrest in the US, magnifying the chaos and floating conspiratorial ideas to muddy the waters.

China’s coverage is equally as rancorous though not as prolific in terms of content saturation on their platforms. A Global Times headline reads “Double-standard Washington politicians deserve chaos and violence,” and referred to the riots as the US’ karmic justice for supporting the Hong Kong protests last year. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said the US must rethink its double standards on protests overseas and those within its borders. Like Russia, China rebuked US democracy and said the rotten structure is expected to collapse in the future after yesterday’s events. Multiple Chinese posts discuss “division” and “fragmentation” in American society to draw a sharp contrast between the US and China. The CCP is keenly aware of the dangers national divisions may bring given China’s ongoing integration issues in its autonomous regions. Highlighting the consequences of disunity in the US shores up international support for China which has narrowly avoided such crises.

Both Russian and Chinese content demonstrate an intent to discredit and challenge US democracy with critical commentary on the Capitol siege. While Russia is indeed amplifying radical voices concerning the crisis, it is primarily highlighting the failures of the American electoral system. Similarly, China is drawing attention to the US’ inability to retain order, and subtly portrays itself as the best alternative to a wavering US hegemony. There is nothing to suggest coordination between Russia and China, but both actors are clearly prepared with digital narratives tailored to achieve their respective geopolitical objectives.

Omelas stops the weaponization of the Internet by malicious actors