#BalticBrief: Kremlin Pivots to Video in the Baltics

How Sputnik tried to use short video stories to drive traffic to its Baltic Facebook pages

@DFRLab
@DFRLab in DFRLab
Aug 21, 2018 · 5 min read
CC0 license via pixabay.com

In January, Kremlin-owned media outlet Sputnik’s branches in the Baltic states began posting videos produced by a social media based outlet TOK on its Facebook pages.

The videos were mostly entertaining, like a story about an African boy who found his mother, a mysterious city of the dead, a dog disturbing a piano player, and similarly engaging but non-substantive content.

TOK did not promote the fact that it is also state-owned by Russia. Contact details on Facebook disclosed the connection with the Russian government. Digital marketing practitioners suggest that videos help to enhance organic reach on Facebook. @DFRLab analyzed how Sputnik used TOK’s videos to grow its Facebook audience in the Baltic states.

TOK

TOK has channels on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, VKontakte (VK), and Odnoklasniki (OK). Neither of TOK’s descriptions on these social media channels mentioned who was behind the videos.

Its short description on Instagram read (in Russian):

TOK

Video news

#ток_добро (#tok_good)

#ток_интересное (#tok_interesting)

If you share our video on your page, please place a link @tok_media!

We are on VK:

vk.com/tokvideo

The description on VK was longer. It read (in Russian):

TOK is a sea of cool videos from Russia and from around the world, interesting stories, live broadcasts and live communication in the comments. TOK is not hype. We stand for quality, we show different points of view and have our own opinion.

The TOK responds to messages, so write to us more often, share your videos, ideas, stories and emotions.

TOK is interested in what you think.

#ток #tok

The “About” section on Facebook mentioned an email address which was hosted on the domain “rian.ru”.

Description translated from Russian: “TOK — is a sea of cool videos from Russia and the whole world, interesting stories, livestreams and live conversations in comments. TOK is not hype” (Source: Facebook / TOK)

The domain led to the news agency RIA which is owned by Rossiya Segodnya, the same Kremlin media agency that owns Sputnik. A Whois Record on Domaintools.com, confirmed that TOK’s email address was hosted on a domain owned by Rossiya Segodnya.

The registrant organization of rian.ru domain was Rossiya Segodnya, a media group owned by the Russian government (Source: Domaintools)

TOK’s Content

The most popular videos on TOK’s YouTube channel were about a tragedy in Kemerovo (Siberia), where 64 people died during a shopping mall fire, according to official reports.

Translated from Russian: #1: A Fire in Kemerovo: Debunking fakes (Source); #2: The Relatives of the Dead in the “Zinaya Vishnya” demand (Source); #3: The Last Words of the Children who Died in Kemerovo (Source); #4: Kemerovo: They Saved People in “Zinaya Vishnya” (Source); #5: A Soldier Came Back from a War in Afghanistan after 30 Years. (Source)

TOK covered other domestically significant events like the Russian Presidential elections and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

The channel also produced videos that supported Kremlin narratives. One example of this was TOK’s coverage of the Skripal case, which @DFRLab previously reported on. Others bolstering Kremlin narratives included a video about a chemical attack in Syria that Russia denied having occurred, and a video suggesting what could have happened if Russia did not intervene in Syria.

TOK published some stories that criticized Putin moderately. For example, the channel published a video that showed Putin admitting he could not read his own handwriting, and a video message from a guy in Ruza city (Moscow Oblast) inviting Putin to the city to drive his attention toward how polluted the city was with garbage.

All the videos were produced in Russian and covered mostly domestic affairs. It signals that the video channel is targeting domestic audience in Russia.

TOK on Sputnik

Social media analysis tool Socialbalers.com suggested that videos were the most engaging post format on all three of Sputnik’s Baltic pages in 2018.

The most popular content shared on Sputnik's Facebook pages in the Baltic states. (Source: Socialbakers.com)

Sputnik’s Facebook pages in the Baltic states reposted TOK’s videos that were mostly entertaining and designed to drive engagement. These were videos like an African boy who found his mother, an underwater forest, and similar content. Analysis of the most recent videos on Sputnik in the Baltic states showed that TOK videos gained significantly more views compared to other videos Sputnik posted on Facebook in all three Baltic states. Videos with Sputnik’s logo would typically gain thousands of views, while TOK’s videos garnered at least tens of thousands of views.

TOK's videos on Sputnik's Facebook pages in the Baltic states. Top (Source: Facebook / Sputnik Эстония: новости Балтии); Middle (Source: Facebook / Sputnik Латвия: новости Балтии); Bottom (Source: Facebook / Sputnik Литва: новости Балтии).

Sputnik Latvia used TOK’s videos more often than Sputnik Estonia and Sputnik Lithuania.

All three Sputnik pages in the Baltic states started posting TOK’s videos in late January 2018.

The first TOK videos on Sputnik's Facebook pages in the Baltic states. Translated from Russian: Sputnik Lithuania: “Girls from this Village have the Longest Hair in the World” (Source); Sputnik Latvia: “Where are my Seventeen Years? Before Vladimir Vysotsky’s Birthday” (Source); Sputnik Estonia: “Girls from this Village have the Longest Hair in the World” (Source)

Since then, all three pages posted different TOK videos at different times. This suggested that there was no automated coordination between the platforms, but rather similar social media content strategies.

TOK’s Success on Facebook and Sputnik’s Performance

At the time of this report, the largest audience TOK had was on Facebook.

The comparison of TOK's audiences across various social media platforms. (Source: @DFRLab via Facebook, VK, Instagram, YouTube and OK)

It was almost three times more than it was on VK, the most popular social media site in Russia, and more than 12 times than on YouTube, which is the largest video hosting platform on the web.

Analysis by Socialbakers.com showed that TOK tripled its audience on Facebook in 2018. It experienced its largest audience growth in April 2018.

TOK's audience growth on Facebook. (Source: Socialbakers.com)

Despite reposting TOK’s videos, Sputnik’s Baltic Facebook pages did not experience as significant growth this year. Data provided by Socialbakers.com showed that the only page that garnered more fans in 2018 was Sputnik Estonia. Sputnik’s Facebook audience in Lithuania did not grow at all.

Sputnik's Facebook audience growth in the Baltic states. (Source: Socialbakers.com)

TOK’s rapid audience growth on Facebook could explain why Sputnik used its videos on its Facebook pages. Sputnik did not manage to grow its audience on Facebook, but could have increased the reach of its posts that target Russian-speaking audiences in the three Baltic states.

Conclusion

Since January 2018, the Facebook pages of Sputnik Estonia, Sputnik Latvia and Sputnik Lithuania started using short, entertaining video-stories by TOK, a Kremlin-owned video news outlet for social media. The videos were in Russian and covered fun, engaging, and domestically significant topics for Russian audiences. Facebook was the platform where TOK managed to grow the largest audience since July 2017. The frequency with which Sputnik reposted TOK’s videos signals a strategic attempt to grow organic reach on Facebook. The strategy did not drive significant growth of their follower base.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.