As Trump and his right-wing media allies seized on the Covington teen controversy, Russian propaganda outlets followed in their footsteps.
The racist incident involving a group of white students from Covington Catholic High School surrounding and taunting a Native American elder in Washington, D.C., last weekend has officially become the latest battle in America's culture war.
Days after the initial viral video surfaced, the story is still making headlines, with one narrative spreading in mainstream media outlets, and an alternative reality being peddled by right-wing outlets and figures like Gateway Pundit, Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson.
Naturally, Trump was happy to amplify the narrative being spun by the right, which portrayed the MAGA hat-wearing students as the victims of a biased, left-wing media mob — just innocent teenage boys caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and then unjustly accused of racism.
But Trump and his right-wing allies weren't the only ones who seized on the incident.
Russian state-sponsored propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik were also hard at work, churning out multiple stories a day with sensational headlines emphasizing violence, media bias, and the divide around racism in America.
"Breaking the silence: Trump blasts media for pouncing on 'MAGA boys,'" read one headline by RT, a state propaganda outlet formerly known as Russia Today.
"'MAGA kids go into the woodchipper': Disney producer tweets violent threat against Covington boys," declared another headline by RT.
Notably, the pro-Trump website Gateway Pundit blasted nearly the exact same headline, writing, "Hollywood Producer Calls For the Murder of Covington Catholic Kids: 'Go Screaming – Into the WOODCHIPPER.'"
Meanwhile, another RT headline focused on the apparent "death, arson & bomb threats" that the school received after the incident.
The overlap between right-wing media and Russian propaganda channels was hard to miss. Sputnik News, another state-sponsored propaganda outlet, followed the lead of networks like Fox News, portraying the students as "falsely accused" and pushing a narrative that blamed the press for rushing to judgment before the "real story" was revealed.
In the ultimate moment of irony, pro-Trump commentator and former CNN contributor Scottie Nell Hughes, who now works for RT, appeared on the Russian propaganda outlet to blast "the shoddy, partisan media for spreading fake news about the youths and suppressing the truth about the encounter."
The incident made perfect fodder for Russia's propaganda machine — and in this case, as in many others, the messaging came straight from Trump and his right-wing allies, who often find themselves in the position of aiding the Kremlin's attempt to undermine U.S. society through information warfare.
As former Army officer, FBI special agent, and counterterrorism expert Clint Watts has warned, the goals of Russia's information war against America go far beyond influencing an election or propping up certain candidates.
The broader and much more corrosive goal is to disrupt U.S. democracy and divide our society by exacerbating existing divisions in U.S. society — often, the very same divisions that Trump seizes upon and amplifies.
Ultimately, Russia seeks "to undermine democracy, to make Americans lose confidence in democratic institutions and elected officials by turning every crack in our country into a chasm and pitting different race, ethnic groups, religious groups, socioeconomic groups, Second Amendment, abortion rights, whatever it might be where we fight, instead of being a unified front against them," Watts told PBS in June 2018.
"The biggest challenge we face moving forward isn't the Russians," Watts warned. "It's really other Americans who see this technique and see the political gain that can come from it and adopt it on their own, meaning they come up with their own news outlets which maybe aren't telling the truth, but tell a truth that is preferred."
This is exactly what happened in the days following the Covington incident, as Trump and his preferred media outlets told their own version of the story, spinning the "facts" into a narrative they wanted to tell — one in which the MAGA hat-wearing teens were the real victims of a biased media that collectively "rushed to judgment" because the students were Trump supporters.
In the right-wing echo chamber, the same few talking points were repeated relentlessly, with the ultimate effect of discrediting objective sources of information and encouraging people to distrust not only the media but their own eyes.
The Daily Signal even used the controversy to call into question the very notion of American democracy.
In order to push their narrative and avoid confronting reasonable evidence that conflicted with their version of events, right-wing media sources resorted to one of their favorite tactics: finding the most extreme examples of bad behavior on the other side, amplifying them, and disingenuously portraying them as representative of "the left" as a whole.
When a few isolated Twitter users called for violence or outing the teens' personal information, right-wing media homed in on them, presenting them as if they reflected a widespread pattern.
As seen in the coverage by Russian propaganda outlets, these extreme examples were seized upon, weaponized, and used as proof of the decline of American society.
And this is far from the first time we've seen such close alignment between Trump, his media allies, and Russia's propaganda machine. Whether he's undermining the intelligence community and attacking special counsel Robert Mueller, demonizing immigrants and refugees, exploiting racial animosity, or peddling Islamophobic messages, Trump's talking points consistently advance the Kremlin's agenda.
Ultimately, Russia's information war against America is succeeding not because of its sophistication, but because it found an accomplice in the White House — and an entire right-wing media ecosystem that is willing to wage war from the inside.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.