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How the DNC hack is boosting anti-US sentiment in Russia

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Russian state-supported media is using the Democratic National Committee leaked emails to portray the American presidential elections as a corrupt spectacle akin to 'House of Cards.'

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    A technician works in a studio during a live broadcast showing nationwide call-in attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a private TV company in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, April 14, 2016.
    Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
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With US and Russian tensions flaring around the world, anti-American sentiment has been rising in Moscow for some time.

And the recent Democratic National Committee email leaks that many experts and US officials have blamed on the Kremlin appear to be further hardening anti-Western attitudes and benefiting Russian President Vladimir Putin's standing at home ahead of his September reelection bid.

"The anti-Western narrative does seem to be one of the most effective narratives that the Russians are able to use," says Robert Orttung, assistant director at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University.

"The main idea is simply to distract the Russian public from the problems they face at home," he says. "Putin is using that as a way of maintaining his power."

Mr. Orttung says the Russian government uses its control over dozens of media outlets to promulgate that message. After the DNC hack, for instance, Russian TV reporters attempted to embarrass Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and emphasize corruption in the US electoral process, including reports that connected the former Secretary of State to murders of political figures

Experts say that Mr. Putin can benefit from the anti-Western messages even though he's the likely winner of this fall's vote. Protesters overshadowed presidential election in the 2011. Now, with Russia’s economy stuck in recession for the past six quarters, experts say that concerns of electoral turmoil have emboldened efforts to use the DNC hack as a distraction.

"The [DNC] hack has been framed in a broader narrative of a broader western conspiracy against Russia," says Alina Polyakova of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. "This idea that everything is corrupt, that everything is rotten, that there’s no such thing as a real democracy – this kind of sentiment legitimates what President Putin has grown in Russia which is this illiberal political system. It makes it seem like it’s OK."

The Kremlin's control over the country's television media is also a powerful megaphone for the government. A 2015 poll from the independent Russian Levada Center found that about half of the Russian population found television reporting to be effective and useful. That's also where most Russians get their news. In June of last year, the Public Opinion Foundation found that TV is the leading source of information for 90 percent of the country.

But observers doubt that many Russian channels have much independence. In its "Freedom of the Press 2016" report, the pro-democracy organization Freedom House rated Russia's media as "not free," noting that the promotion of the Kremlin's policies "became especially important amid growing economic hardship in Russia, and Kremlin-friendly media attempted to direct public discontent toward the United States and Europe," in regards to the deteriorating currency and the conflict in Syria. 

Several important Kremlin figures, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have issued colorful denials of the DNC hack, leading Russia Today to remark that "US media and politicians keep crying ‘wolf’ – or Russia – over the DNC email hack without providing any proof." 

Dr. Polyakova of the Atlantic Council said the media's job is to repackage Moscow's potential involvement in the hack as a Western attack on Russia.

“The US is portrayed as a horrible dirty political campaign, unlike the Russian case where the elections are supposed to be civilized,” Maria Snegovaya, a New York-based columnist with the Russian business daily Vedomosti, told Passcode. "It’s House of Cards on Russian TV channels."

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