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‘The Russia Story’

Throughout 2017, as social-media-addled minds chased one shiny news object after another, one story was constant and inescapable: “Russia.”

But what “Russia” meant, exactly, depended a lot on where you got your news. The “Russia story” that developed throughout the year was likely very different from the “Russia story” as it was understood by your friends, relatives, or co-workers, not just because your politics might be different than theirs but because you might have been encountering different news entirely. To some Democrats, the “Russia Story” was that Donald Trump was a wholesale asset of the Russian government. To others, the “Russia Story” was the F.B.I.’s methodical investigation. And to many Republicans, the “Russia story” was actually a story about the Democrats’ collusion with Russia, not the Trump campaign’s.

We wanted to see how those competing narratives were shaped, week by week, story by story, through 2017 — examining not just broad “liberal” and “conservative” bubbles, but also the different ways highly partisan readers and their less-partisan neighbors might have encountered the story. Would outlets directed toward zealously partisan Democrats frame the story differently than those with readers more evenly distributed along the political spectrum? What about on the other side of the fence?

To re-create approximate social-media “bubbles,” we used “partisanship scores,” developed by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. Rather than attempt to arbitrarily measure the slant of a given publication’s editorial line, these scores gauge the partisanship of its audience, by measuring how frequently its stories were shared by Clinton or Trump supporters during the 2016 election. For our purposes, outlets shared vastly more often by Clinton supporters than Trump supporters are categorized as “Highly Democratic”; outlets where the ratio was closer but still weighted toward Clinton were labeled “Mostly Democratic”; and so on. These reconstructed bubbles aren’t a perfect representation of how people encountered their news, but the partisanship scores allow us to focus on publications’ actual audience — the real citizens of the bubble — rather than our perceptions of their politics.

It’s not as simple as the “liberal” story and the “conservative” story, either: Across social media, multiple competing narratives emerged, even within broad political coalitions. The people obsessively following Louise Mensch would have a different story from those following the New York Times, or, for that matter, Glenn Greenwald — even if all three of those groups voted for Hillary Clinton last year.

Having constructed our bubbles, we selected some of the biggest Russia stories of the year — based on the total volume written — and pulled the most-shared Facebook posts and most-shared articles across social media for the weeks those stories broke.

When you look through the year story by story, filtered by audience partisanship, narratives and strategies begin to come into focus. Most obvious is the difference between the highly Republican bubble and the others: Week after week, the most-shared and read stories weren’t about Donald Trump, but about Democrats, and their relationships to Russia. In fact, it was hard to find a positive defense of the Trump campaign’s actions even among the president’s most fervently loyal outlets; the narrative that developed through the year was not one of an innocent Trump but of guilty — and hypocritical — Democrats, many of whom had, like Trump or his aides, met with the Russian ambassador or been invested in Russian businesses.

On the Democratic side of the partisanship spectrum, other patterns emerged. Highly Democratic audiences preferred dramatic packaging and stirring appeals to the more cautious, news-focused stories that dominated the “Mostly Democratic” bubble. A reader of heavily partisan sites like Occupy Democrats or the Palmer Report lived through a year of near weekly crisis, in which a new development was always going to crack the case wide open, or the president was always on the precipice of impeachment. A reader that tended toward publications with more bipartisan audiences didn’t have, exactly, a relaxed year — but it was certainly less sensational.

And what about the “Mostly Republican” audiences? As the Berkman Klein study that first used these partisanship scores puts it, the center-right is “the least populated and least influential portion of the media spectrum”; very few outlets — and even fewer popular ones — can be categorized as even moderately center-right. Of the publications that can be counted as having “Slightly Republican” audiences, only the Hill drew enough shares to crack the top stories every week, and it was hard to identify a consistent narrative at all.

Below, for each big Russia-related story of the year — from Buzzfeed publishing the “Steele dossier” to the news that Michael Flynn had pled guilty — we’re showing a top Facebook post and providing a list of widely shared stories, as well as our summary of what each bubble was talking about — and what someone stuck inside that bubble might take away from that coverage.

The Biggest Moments in the Russia Story This Year

What developments in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's relationship the Russian government earned the most media coverage this year? The chart below shows, week by week, the number of sentences in stories across approximately 1,500 media sources that include the search terms "Russia" and "Flynn" / "Trump" / "Manafort" / "Mueller" / "Comey" / "Clinton" / "Kushner".

Jan. 10

BuzzFeed publishes the Steele dossier (100,832 sentences written)

Feb. 14

Michael Flynn resigns (132,575 sentences written)

May 9

Trump fires James Comey (136,624 sentences written)

May 17

Robert Mueller is named special prosecutor (153,023 sentences written)

Jun. 8

Comey and Jeff Sessions testify to Congress (108,235 sentences written)

Jul. 9

Donald Trump Jr.: "I love it." (121,811 sentences written)

Oct. 30

Paul Manafort is indicted (78,136 sentences written)

Dec. 1

Flynn pleads guilty to lying to F.B.I. (39,949 sentences written)

Source: MediaCloud (Dec. 19, 2017)

NEW YORK MAGAZINE

The Biggest Moments in the Russia Story This Year

What developments in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship the Russian government earned the most media coverage this year? The chart below shows, week by week, the number of sentences in stories across approximately 1,500 media sources that include the search terms "Russia" and "Flynn" / "Trump" / "Manafort" / "Mueller" / "Comey" / "Clinton" / "Kushner".

Jan. 10

BuzzFeed publishes the Steele dossier (100,832 sentences written)

Feb. 14

Michael Flynn resigns (132,575 sentences written)

May 9

Trump fires James Comey (136,624 sentences written)

May 17

Robert Mueller is named special prosecutor (153,023 sentences written)

Jun. 8

Comey and Jeff Sessions testify to Congress (108,235 sentences written)

Jul. 9

Donald Trump Jr.: "I love it." (121,811 sentences written)

Oct. 30

Paul Manafort is indicted (78,136 sentences written)

Dec. 1

Flynn pleads guilty to lying to F.B.I. (39,949 sentences written)

Source: MediaCloud (Dec. 19, 2017)

NEW YORK MAGAZINE

The Biggest Moments in the Russia Story This Year

What developments in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship the Russian government earned the most media coverage this year? The chart below shows, week by week, the number of sentences in stories across approximately 1,500 media sources that include the search terms "Russia" and "Flynn" / "Trump" / "Manafort" / "Mueller" / "Comey" / "Clinton" / "Kushner".

Jan. 10

BuzzFeed publishes the Steele dossier (100,832 sentences written)

Feb. 14

Michael Flynn resigns (132,575 sentences written)

May 9

Trump fires James Comey (136,624 sentences written)

May 17

Robert Mueller is named special prosecutor (153,023 sentences written)

Jun. 8

Comey and Jeff Sessions testify to Congress (108,235 sentences written)

Jul. 9

Donald Trump Jr.: "I love it." (121,811 sentences written)

Oct. 30

Paul Manafort is indicted (78,136 sentences written)

Dec. 1

Flynn pleads guilty to lying to F.B.I. (39,949 sentences written)

Source: MediaCloud (Dec. 19, 2017)

NEW YORK MAGAZINE

The Biggest Moments in the Russia Story This Year

What developments in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship the Russian government earned the most media coverage this year? The chart below shows, week by week, the number of sentences in stories across approximately 1,500 media sources that include the search terms "Russia" and "Flynn" / "Trump" / "Manafort" / "Mueller" / "Comey" / "Clinton" / "Kushner".

Jan. 10

BuzzFeed publishes the Steele dossier (100,832 sentences written)

Feb. 14

Flynn resigns (132,575 sentences written)

May 9

Trump fires Comey (136,624 sentences written)

May 17

Mueller named special prosecutor (153,023 sentences written)

Jul. 9

Trump Jr.: "I love it." (121,811 sentences written)

Oct. 30

Manafort indicted (78,136 sentences written)

Dec. 1

Flynn pleads guilty to lying to F.B.I. (39,949 sentences written)

Source: MediaCloud (Dec. 19, 2017)

NEW YORK MAGAZINE

January 10

BuzzFeed Publishes the Steele Dossier

On January 10, BuzzFeed published “the Steele Dossier,” an independently commissioned intelligence report on President Trump’s past relationship with Russia. Among the allegations: that Russian intelligence had a video of the president enticing sex workers to pee on a hotel bed.

Slide for all groups

January 18

Reporters Reveal FBI Investigating Trump Campaign — But Cleared Michael Flynn

In successive reports, McClatchy and the New York Times report that a multiagency working group has been investigating links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, focusing on intercepted communication between Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, and Russian operatives. A few days later, the Washington Post reported that the FBI had examined Michael Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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February 14

Michael Flynn Resigns

A day after the Washington Post reports that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, had lied to Vice-President Pence about discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn resigns. That same day — unbeknownst to most of us — Trump calls FBI Director James Comey into the Oval Office and suggests “letting this thing go” because Flynn is a “good guy.”

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March 1

Sessions Met With Kislyak

The Washington Post reports that the Attorney General met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, twice during the campaign — despite the fact that he’d told senators during his confirmation hearing that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

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March 4

Trump Claims Obama Wiretapped His Phones

In a series of early Saturday-morning tweets, Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping his phone just before the election and calls him a “bad (or sick) guy.” James Comey then asks the Justice Department to publicly refute Trump’s claim, setting the stage for their impending battle. On Sunday, Trump follows up with another tweet demanding Congress to investigate his claims.

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March 20

James Comey Testifies to Congress. Sally Yates Does Not.

On March 20, James Comey — still the director of the FBI — testifies to Congress about his agency’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. A few days later, Trump asks the director of National Intelligence and the head of the NSA to deny evidence that his campaign colluded with Russia; both men decline and later testify about the request. Representative Devin Nunes, who has been making a fool of himself all week, cancels testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

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March 30

Michael Flynn Offers to Testify in Exchange for Immunity

A few days after the Times reports on an undisclosed meeting between Jared Kushner and a Russian banker, the Journal writes that Michael Flynn is willing to testify before congressional intelligence committees in exchange for immunity. That same day, Trump calls James Comey and asks him to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation, later tweeting that it’s a “witch hunt.”

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May 9

Trump Fires Comey

Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein drafts a letter giving Trump a pretext to fire the FBI director, which the president promptly does — though a few days later, it’s reported that Trump, not Rosenstein, was the real cause of the dismissal. Also, at some point in this week, Sean Spicer gives an interview from some bushes, and Trump reveals classified information to the Russian ambassador in a meeting in which the president also calls Comey a “nut job.”

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May 17

Mueller Named Special Counsel

Rod Rosenstein names former FBI director Robert Mueller special counsel in the FBI’s investigation. Trump complains: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” The Post reports that the investigation has identified Jared Kushner as a person of interest, and that Kushner had request a secret back channel with Ambassador Kislyak.

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June 8

Comey and Sessions Testify to Congress

Comey, no longer director of the FBI, testifies in front of Congress about meetings in which Trump asked him to “let Flynn go.” Trump, in quick succession, claims to have been “vindicated,” accuses Comey of lying, and returns to his forte: complaining that Hillary Clinton has not been adequately investigated. On June 13, Jeff Sessions testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his previously undisclosed meeting with Ambassador Kislyak, which he says he doesn’t remember.

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July 9

Donald Trump Jr.’s Russia Meeting Comes Out

The Times reports that during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump Jr. was sent an email — from an English music publicist, naturally — offering “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Don Junior’s immediately iconic response: “If it’s what you say I love it.”

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