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.
@DFRLab ran two neutral Google search queries to assess the spread of pro-Kremlin narratives on the search engine, one with a time-frame set to “past week” and another with a time frame set to “past month”. The location of our two queries was set to London, United Kingdom.
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”.
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.
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.
On YouTube, out of 12 most-watched videos on the Skripal case from the past month, nine spread pro-Kremlin narratives and five came directly from RT.
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.
Content Engaged on Social Media
On social networks articles on the Skripal case generated 90,706 social media engagements (likes and shares/retweets) over the past 30 days. Of those, 40,478 engagements were on content or articles generated by Kremlin-funded media.
Last week, four out of six most shared articles on social networks about the Skripal case came from RT.
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.
On Twitter, out of the 10 most popular tweets in the past month, five spread pro-Kremlin narratives.
Of those, one was posted by the Russian Embassy in the UK, suggesting Yulia Skripal might be held against her will.
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.
It appears the British government and the media have underestimated the tenacity of pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign and left a vaccuum in the information space that was quickly filled by the pro-Kremlin disinformation. This was especially visible on YouTube and Twitter. Google, on the other hand, featured two independent media outlets did out-number RT and Sputnik’s articles. On Facebook, the engagements were split evenly between Kremlin-funded and independent media outlets.
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).
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