The Kremlin and its supporters have attempted to rewrite Senator John McCain’s legacy in the United States by portraying him as a supporter of Nazis and terrorists.
Senator McCain passed away at age 81 on August 25, 2018. He had always been a vocal critic of Putin’s Kremlin, strongly opposing Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbors, especially Georgia and Ukraine, endorsing sanctions, and supporting pro-Western leaders in post-Soviet states.
As a result, McCain’s death was cause for celebration among pro-Kremlin trolls and the Kremlin-controlled media, both of which mobilized to rewrite McCain’s legacy to portray him as a warmongering Nazi and ISIS supporter. However, their attacks had little measurable impact outside the core group of Kremlin supporters, suggesting that such smear campaigns may be of limited effect.
The two focal points of attack against McCain’s legacy coming from pro-Kremlin trolls and media outlets, as well as other fringe groups, were two visits he made in 2013. One was a visit to Syria and the other to Ukraine at the height of the Euromaidan protests.
McCain visited Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests in late 2013, meeting a number of Ukrainian government and opposition figures. The protesters were angry at the then-government’s decision not to pursue an Association Agreement with the European Union.
During the visit, he was photographed on stage with the Ukrainian nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok, whose far-right Svoboda movement had neo-Nazi roots. At the time their meeting took place, Svoboda was a significant political force, which held 10 percent of the seats in Ukraine’s parliament. McCain did not endorse Svoboda, nor any other Ukrainian political party, instead choosing to voice support for the pro-European protesters.
It is also important to note that McCain met leaders of both sides during his visit. Any one photo of a single meeting would therefore lack significant context.
Despite that, the Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-aligned media outlets claimed that McCain was supporting Nazis in Ukraine. @DFRLab has already reported on the Kremlin-controlled media’s numerous attacks on McCain; their main evidence for the “Nazi” claim was the Tyahnybok encounter.
A particularly large-scale disinformation attack against McCain came in August 2017, when Kremlin-controlled media managed to seed the “Nazi narrative” into American fringe and alt-right media outlets in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests.
After McCain died, pro-Kremlin media and social media accounts revived the “Nazi” narrative.
State-funded RT, for example, published at least three articles in which it accused the Senator of supporting Ukrainian Nazis. Another state-funded media outlet, Sputnik News, published an article titled “John McCain was the embodiment of the US deep state — journalist”, in which the interviewee, Patrick Henningsen, accused McCain of “aligning himself with neo-Nazi factions” in Ukraine.
Henningsen is a conspiracy blogger and Kremlin supporter who runs 21st Century News Wire, a 9/11 truther site. He should not be considered a credible commentator.
Similarly, pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts @Ian56789 and @Malinka1102 posted several tweets accusing McCain of endorsing Ukrainian Nazis:
These accusations against McCain appear to have served a double purpose, smearing his, while simultaneously delegitimizing the Ukrainian demonstrators of 2013–14.
In the same spirit, a picture from a visit to Syria which McCain made in 2013 to meet Syrian rebel groups was used as “evidence” that McCain was supporting ISIS in Syria. The picture originally went viral in the coming months, after a Hezbollah-linked media outlet accused McCain of posing next to alleged ISIS/Al-Qaeda fighters on a Lebanese television network two days after McCain’s visit.
Despite being debunked, the image sparked a conspiracy theory that McCain was supporting ISIS fighters in Syria. This was picked up by pro-Kremlin and fringe media outlets in the U.S. — including Zero Hedge, a site whose political reporting has a strong pro-Kremlin and anti-NATO bias; the Duran, run by a Moscow-based Vladimir Rodzianko; and Strategic Culture Foundation, run by Yuri Prokofiev, former head of Moscow’s Communist Party and member of the Soviet Politburo.
The conspiracy theory was further amplified by pro-Kremlin trolls, led by @Ian56789, who posted an edited image of McCain, accompanied with a tweet, which read:
“Bloodthirsty, Mass Murdering War Criminal, supporter of al-Qaeda, Traitor to his country for 50 years, enemy of freedom & all of humanity, John McCain has died. One of the most evil people America has ever produced, no decent person or American patriot will mourn his passing.”
Ian56’s tweet was amplified by fellow pro-Kremlin trolls, who copied and pasted the exact same tweet.
Kremlin-controlled and pro-Kremlin media outlets also produced shareable videos attacking McCain’s legacy. RT’s digital content platform, In The Now, published a video three days after Senator McCain passed away, titled “American Hero: John McCain was a racist warmonger”.
In the video, the host accused McCain of “warmongering” and inaccurately accused McCain of calling for the U.S. to “attack” Georgia and Ukraine, which he never did.
As of September 6, it had been watched more than 116,000 times on Twitter.
Russia Insider, a English language media outlet which supports the Kremlin, Russia (including its military) and Putin, produced a video in English, putting together statements from a Russian talk show hosted on the state-funded TV channel Russia-1, smearing McCain.
The video was subtitled in English to reach an English-speaking audience.
In the video, prominent Russian political figures called McCain “the biggest enemy of Russia” (0:20), “the blood and flesh of American imperialism” (0:36), an “insidious and ruthless enemy” (0:46), “the spirit of war” (1:24), “the American Stalin” (2:11), “monster” (3:34), “an example of human vileness” (3:39), and a “scoundrel” (4:21).
The title of the video made its intention of devaluing McCain’s legacy clear: “Must see: Top Russian politicians CRUSH John McCain’s Evil Legacy on #1 Russian TV Show” –.
As of September 6, the video was watched more than 35,000 times.
The Kremlin’s efforts to rewrite McCain’s legacy largely fell on deaf ears as the online conversation was dominated by American mainstream media outlets, such as CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS News.
This shows that RT, Sputnik News, nor pro-Kremlin media outlets managed to hijack the online conversation in remembrance of John McCain.
RT’s most shared article titled “McCain’s funeral was a disgusting exercise in historical revisionism” was only shared 12,300 times, compared to, for example, New York Time’s article titled “John McCain, War Hero, Senator, Presidential Contender, Dies at 81”, which was shared more than one million times.
Pro-Kremlin media attacks on McCain’s legacy focused on his trips to Syria and Ukraine in 2013 and his strong opposition to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine and Georgia. Pro-Kremlin trolls and media outlets utilized memes, videos and old conspiracy theories to smear McCain, but those mostly fell on deaf ears and failed to re-define McCain’s legacy.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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