The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sean Hannity has a point: He’s not elevating Russian propaganda. Russia is amplifying his.

Sean Hannity speaks during a taping of his Fox News show on Aug. 7, 2019, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

It’s hard to tell when Fox News host Sean Hannity is actually mad or when he’s performing madness; over the years, the affectation and the reality have fused into one consistent cranky vibe. On Tuesday night, that vibe was directed, as always, at Hannity’s opponents out there in the world, some of whom had once again done something hopelessly bad.

“Rolling Stone magazine — the great, let’s see, journalistic integrity that they have — and other liars in the media mob are actually accusing me, they’re saying Hannity is parroting Russian propaganda and supporting Vladimir Putin,” Hannity explained. “Well, not really, because I went out on a limb and I told the truth, and I’ve been saying it since before the election in 2020.”

That “truth” is the claim that Hannity has, in fact, been making for years about President Biden’s cognition. As he did with Hillary Clinton four years prior, Hannity has since at least 2020 spent endless airtime adjudicating Biden’s physical capacity for the job of president. To prove that he wasn’t simply repeating similar claims from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov — although he did air those claims as a direct quote — Hannity showed clips showing himself making similar unfounded allegations over the months.

See? Hannity is a Biden-cognition hipster, into making pejorative, unprovable assessments of Biden’s mental state before Peskov even thought to do the same.

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It’s a fair point — and a revealing one. It’s a reminder that Russia’s efforts to sow dissent in the United States have consistently followed and amplified existing rhetoric instead of injecting new assertions into the massive pool of political rhetoric.

The investigation into Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election emphasized precisely that goal. In his report about the effort, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wrote that the desired outcome of Russia’s social media push in the United States was to “provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.” If you review where the Internet Research Agency (the Russian group that was trying to shape online discourse) invested its time and money, you can see how that worked. Some of its heaviest investments in advertising, for example, came in 2014 in Missouri and Maryland — places where protests over the deaths of Black men at the hands of police were raging. The goal was to find fissures (like those created by Donald Trump) and widen them, not to create new cracks.

This pattern held over and over. In 2019, Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff reported that Russian misinformation spurred the idea that a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich had been intentionally murdered. But, in fact, that rumor was already spreading widely by the time that the Russian theory was injected into the mix — and, in fact, that specific theory never gained any significant traction anyway.

Now, we see the same thing happening with the war in Ukraine. While Russia has for years alleged that the United States was engaged in bioweapons research in Europe, a vanilla version of the conspiracy theory that earlier this month became the dominant form of anti-anti-Putin rhetoric, it was apparently domestic actors who stumbled onto the theory and gave it new momentum as Russian troops hit a standstill in their invasion. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has embraced the idea with obvious relish, and his tirades have been folded into Russia’s nightly broadcasts.

“After failing for two full weeks, Russian propaganda finally had its line that resonated with the global far-right,” NBC News’s Ben Collins wrote: “The reason they invaded is now the biolabs, despite not mentioning that before invading.”

Then there was the attack on a theater in the city of Mariupol, the one outside of which the word “children” was written in large letters to indicate who was sheltering inside. When a Russia-sympathetic American writer noted that Russia denied any attacks in the city, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, lifted it up, suggesting that Russia was being unfairly blamed. As Elliot Higgins, the founder of the open-source investigative group Bellingcat, wrote in response, “Russian disinformation is just stuff they steal off the Internet from conspiracy theorists, it’s rarely ever more sophisticated than that.”

Which brings us back to Hannity. It is, in fact, the case that the Fox News host deserves a disproportionately large share of the credit for elevating doubt about Biden’s cognitive abilities. His show has mentioned “cognition” in the context of Joe Biden four times as often as any other show since the beginning of 2019, according to GDELT analysis of closed-captioning information collected by the Internet Archive. (The second-place show is the one that follows Hannity’s on Fox News.) His indignation at being accused of elevating Russian propaganda is sincerely predicated: If anyone deserves credit for accusing Biden of mental failings, it’s Hannity, not Peskov!

And that’s the point. Hannity isn’t elevating Russian propaganda. Russia is elevating Hannity’s.