Russians have reacted ecstatically online to the two-hour interview between former Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson and Russian president Vladimir Putin, hailing it as a historic, internet-breaking moment that will change the world. Many are now even calling the former Fox News presenter a national hero: Some have called for February 9 to be renamed as “Tucker Carlson Day,” while others posted pictures of Carlson wearing a Russian ushanka hat and claimed Carlson wore a tie during the interview bearing colors that closely resemble the colors and pattern of Saint George’s ribbon, a Russian military symbol.
The much-hyped interview ran for more than two hours on Tucker Carlson’s new streaming platform and X, and saw Putin spending a huge amount of time laying out a revisionist history of Russia and the Ukraine in a bid to justify Russia’s invasion. Carlson spent most of the interview listening, and rarely interjected to question Putin’s narrative. He also failed to push the Russian leader on his country’s widely reported war crimes in Ukraine.
The interview marks Carlson’s further embrace of the far-right and conspiracy world since departing Fox News last year, and comes on the back of Russia ratcheting up its interference operations ahead of the 2024 elections. This week, WIRED reported on a coordinated Russian disinformation campaign where state media, influencers, bots, and others claimed the Texas border crisis was pushing the US toward civil war. By providing Putin with direct access to millions in the US and around the world, Carlson gave the Russian leader an unprecedented opportunity to spread propaganda virtually unchecked, marking a new, and possibly even more comprehensive, era of Russian disinformation.
In a bid to highlight how Putin dominated the conversation, some Kremlin-linked trolls have also been sharing a meme of the interview that replaces the former Fox News presenter with a Swedish cartoon character called Karlsson who is beloved in Russia and known as a mischievous, overconfident liar. The memes depict Karlsson sitting in Carlson’s chair during the interview and include comments in Russian such as, “Tucker Carlson, when he finally got the coveted interview with Putin, which could make him one of the top modern journalists.”
The memes have been shared by accounts on X which have been linked to Kremlin disinformation campaigns in the past, according to researchers at Antibot4Navalny, a Russian anti-disinformation research group that has been closely tracking a Russian disinformation network known as Doppelganger on X.
“The Karlsson character is in the top three themes among pictures posted by Kremlin trolls,” a researcher with the group who did not want to be identified due to security concerns tells WIRED. “Using a widely-popular animation character was the obvious choice to maximize nostalgia, as the character refers to the best years of the target audience, [and] to the USSR, which was comfortable and predictable when they were young.”
According to data shared exclusively with WIRED by the researchers, all of the content posted by the Kremlin troll accounts they are tracking was related to the Putin–Carlson interview as of Friday morning.
“Across social media, Kremlin sources have moved quickly to take advantage of Tucker Carlson’s interview as an opportunity to amplify propaganda aimed at building support for Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine,” Ben Scott, director at Reset, a London-based nonprofit that tracks disinformation campaigns, tells WIRED.
This blanket coverage was repeated across Russia’s state-run media. Newsroom homepages are filled with multiple stories about the interview, and many of them highlight how successful Putin has been at getting his message to a Western audience.
In one of a dozen articles published by state-run news agency RIA Novosti, the author claimed the interview was “aimed at a Western audience that knows nothing about Russian history so that it realizes that Russians and Ukrainians are one people,” referencing Putin’s 30-minute introduction to Russian history that went back to 862.
Even before the interview was published, Russian state-run TV channels had been tracking Carlson’s every move while in Moscow, including his trip to the Bolshoi ballet and the fact that he was charging his phone and using Wi-Fi.
The interview was also broadly disseminated on Telegram, including on channels created or renamed especially for the occasion, according to research shared with WIRED by Reset. These channels quickly accumulated large followings: One newly-created Telegram channel called “Tucker Carlson in Russian” gained over 18,000 new subscribers interested in the interview. Another channel, renamed “Tucker Carlson’s Interview with Putin,” has over 200,000 subscribers. Some pro-Kremlin Telegram channels published dashboards alleging through-the-roof statistics about how the interview performed online, while others posted screenshots of charts claiming to show interest in the interview on Google over time.
On Russia Today’s official Telegram channel, the news station celebrated how Western media reacted, writing: “Mainstream media’s Putin–Carlson meltdown reveals the Western narrative’s weak hand.” Other Telegram channels also posted clips of Western media reactions to the interview.
“Much of the Russian audience believes [the interview] was conducted with the sole vision of educating the West,” Kyle Walter, director of research at Logically, a company that uses AI to track disinformation, tells WIRED. “Many channels are focusing on just how much attention the interview got, as well as the articulated lengthy history associated with Russia that ‘America does not have.’”
In the aftermath of the interview, Vladislav Davankov, the vice speaker of the State Duma and presidential candidate from the New People political party, suggested that the Russian telecommunications agency Roskomnadzor should unblock X because the platform hosting the Putin interview had shown “it is neutral in disseminating information” and had “deleted more than 90 percent of the content prohibited in Russia” since Musk took control.
Many Russian Telegram users also celebrated Elon Musk’s role in disseminating the interview: On his X profile, Musk pinned the interview and encouraged followers to watch.