#PutinAtWar: Kremlin Narratives on Skripal Continue to Grow Online

Pro-Kremlin narratives on the Skripal case dominate YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Jul 5, 2018 · 5 min read
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(Source: @DFRLab)

It has now been nearly four months since March 4, when Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a bench in the British town of Salisbury. The investigation to determine the culprits of the attempted murder remains ongoing, as is the disinformation campaign led by Russia’s state-funded news outlets RT and Sputnik and the Kremlin itself.

@DFRLab took a look at the popular search engines and social media networks to understand the spread of pro-Kremlin narratives and analyze how visible they are in the digital information environment.

Google

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Two Google searches for “Skripal”. (Source: Google)

On the first page of the “past week” Google search, results featured three articles from Sputnik News and RT. The two stories from RT and Sputnik near the top of the search results accused the United Kingdom of failing to provide evidence “against Russia” by quoting a German radio station “InfoRadio.de”. The URL that both RT and Sputnik used, however, leads nowhere and returns a 404 error, “page not found”.

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A source cited in RT and Sputnik’s top story covering Skripal on Google for a “past week” search yielded the above result. (Source: inforadio.de)

A search for the word “Skripal” on the radio station’s site returned no results, which suggests the site never published any stories on the Skripal case or deleted the story RT and Sputnik may have referenced.

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Translation from German: “Did you mean “scruples”. (Source: inforadio.de)

The third article from Sputnik, quoted a representative from the Russian Embassy in London, who said that a communique from the G7 — an international body Russia was dismissed from after it illegally annexed Crimea — proved the UK has “only groundless accusations” against Russia in the Skripal case. The article does not clarify on how a communique, which expressed support to the UK’s accusations against Moscow shows it is a groundless accusation.

The aforementioned two articles that cited InfoRadio also ranked high in the Google search with the time-frame set to “past month”. This indicates that the most resonant pro-Kremlin narrative in regards to the Skripal case is that the lack of information from British authorities indicates the Kremlin’s innocence.

YouTube

The second most-watched video was published by RT and featured Yulia Skripal’s first media appearance since the poisoning. It is important to note that this particular video was not overly biased, nor misinforming. The second most popular RT video, however, was not as objective. It was a German translation of a clip from RT’s English language service, in which the anchor suggested that a BBC documentary on the Skripal case points to several inconsistencies. It went on to suggest the Skripals could have overdosed on opioids, which is a popular “theory” among Kremlin-funded media outlets.

Three out of four videos that came from non-RT channels, were all published by talkRADIO, a British radio station that frequently hosts George Galloway, an RT contributor and op-ed writer. This shows how RT’s mouthpieces can launder pro-Kremlin narratives into the British mainstream media. Among the theories peddled by Galloway were suggestions that the British government used the royal wedding to cover Skripal’s hospital release.

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Search results on “Skripal” from YouTube. (Source: YouTube.com)

Content Engaged on Social Media

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(Source: Buzzsumo)

Last week, four out of six most shared articles on social networks about the Skripal case came from RT.

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Search results for engagements based on articles covering Skripal. (Source: Buzzsumo)

Two were in German, titled “Skripal affair: has the Federal Government lied to the public for months?” and “Bundestag report on Skripal: Moscow has behaved correctly under international law”. The popularity of the two articles indicated that Skripal investigation-related disinformation might be gaining ground in Germany.

The key pro-Kremlin narratives that appear to be resonating on social networks are that the lack of information coming from the British authorities means they have misled the public and that Russia has responded appropriately.

Twitter

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(Source: Sysomos)

Of those, one was posted by the Russian Embassy in the UK, suggesting Yulia Skripal might be held against her will.

(Source: Twitter / @RussianEmbassy / Archived version)

Another tweet that received significant traction online came from RT journalist Helena Villar, who posted a tweet comparing the Skripal case and the violence in Gaza, in an attempt to expose the West’s hypocrisy. A disinformation tactic commonly known as “whataboutism”. Within the model of 4D’s of disinformation (dismiss, deny, distort, and distract), frequently employed by the @DFRLab, this tactic falls firmly in the “distract” category.

(Source: Twitter / @Helena_VillarRT / Archived version)

Conclusion

The popularity of the pro-Kremlin narratives on social media and search engines reveals Kremlin’s ability to embed its narratives into the mainstream discourse and suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy of dismiss, distract, distort, and dismay is succeeded in creating confusion and suspicion online.


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

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

@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.

@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.

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