#PutinAtWar: Russian Diplomacy Mixed with Conspiracy on Skripal

Russia’s official diplomatic social media accounts attack evidence in Skripal case

@DFRLab
@DFRLab in DFRLab
Sep 14, 2018 · 5 min read
(Source: @DFRLab)

Russian diplomatic missions and the Kremlin-controlled media launched a new campaign against the evidence in the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning case, creating and amplifying conspiracy theories.

Russia’s diplomatic missions have long been noted for content that goes beyond promoting Russian policy to outright falsification. Past behavior, including sourcing arguments to known conspiracy theorists, illustrates how thoroughly they have adapted their messaging to the standards of online debate.

On September 5, the British authorities released photos and the names of the two suspects in the attempted murder of Sergei and Julia Skripal, the collateral poisoning of Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and Charlie Rowley, and the death of British civilian Dawn Sturgess. The government stated that the two men were Russian nationals, thought to be working for Russia’s military intelligence.

In all, the Metropolitan Police released 15 photos taken from CCTV and airport cameras, together with a detailed timeline of the men’s movements, providing the most comprehensive body of evidence to date on the route and methods used by the accused.

In the light of these revelations, Russia’s diplomatic social media accounts and media outlets launched a full-spectrum campaign aimed to discredit the evidence provided by the British authorities, relying on social-media sourced conspiracies to seed confusion about the culprits of the Skripal poisoning.

Conspiracy Number One: Timestamps

A day after Scotland Yard released the names of the two suspects along with the CCTV footage, the Russian Embassy in South Africa posted a tweet questioning the authenticity of the CCTV images.

(Source: @EmbassyofRussia / Twitter / Archived version)

The tweet amplified a conspiracy theory, which was originally posted on Twitter by a conspiracy theorist and the former British diplomat Craig Murray.

(Source: @CraigMurrayOrg / Twitter / Archived version)

In the tweet and the article it linked to, Murray alleged that the CCTV footage was fabricated because the images of the two suspects at the Gatwick airport’s non-return gates had the same time-stamp, which Murray claimed was impossible because the two suspects were “both occupying exactly the same space at the Gatwick airport”. This is false because Gatwick airport has three side-by-side non-return gates, meaning that the two suspects were passing through the different gates at the same time.

Despite the widely available debunk to this conspiracy, the Russian Embassy in South Africa shared it with their Twitter followers.

The conspiracy theory was amplified further by pro-Kremlin media outlets, including ZeroHedge, NYE Bevan News, and the AntiMedia. The conspiracy went viral, garnering 36,000 shares across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit and becoming the second most-shared story on social networks containing the word “Skripal” between September 3 and September 10.

Murray himself walked back from his own claim, admitting in an update to his post that it “may be a red herring.” AntiMedia also posted an update stating:

“Given the airport design, it’s possible that they could have passed through different gates in exact synchronicity.”

On the other hand, NYE Bevan News, doubled down on the conspiracy, arguing that even if they were passing through different no-return gates, the extreme synchronicity is “problematic.” Zero Hedge failed to issue a correction.

Conspiracy Number Two: Clothing

Another conspiracy amplified by Russian diplomatic social media accounts attempted to expose the “inconsistencies” in the UK evidence by focusing on the suspects’ clothing.

For example, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted two side-by-side images — one of the two suspects wearing every-day clothing and another of two men wearing hazmat suits in Salisbury, suggesting the two suspects could not have handled Novichok without the protective gear.

(Source: @RussianEmbassy / Twitter / Archived version)

In contrary to the tweet, the police reported that the two suspects were carrying the Novichok in a sealed perfume bottle, whereas the early responders in the image were dealing with a unknown chemical agent that was already released, of which the extent, nature, and concentration they did not know.

Conspiracy Number Three: Rogue agents, falsified evidence

RT contributor and former politician George Galloway posed a number of theories challenging the UK evidence in an opinion piece for RT, ranging from suggestions that the two Russian agents had a meeting with the Skripals when “something went wrong” to implying that the amount of time it took the British authorities to release the images suggests they were doctored.

Considering that there is no evidence to suggest the Skripals knew their attackers or that the CCTV footage was altered in any way, Galloway’s accusations were demonstrably unfounded.

(Source: @GeorgeGalloway / Twitter)

Galloway’s skepticism was amplified by the Russian Embassy in South Africa, which tweeted the following.

(Source: @EmbassyofRussia / Twitter / Archived version)

The Russian Embassy in the UK echoed a similar sentiment, sharing two tweets implying the evidence provided by the British authorities was doctored, because as in 2003, it is making accusations of about chemical weapons “citing intelligence information as proof.”

(Source: @RussianEmbassy / Twitter / Archived version)
(Source: @RussianEmbassy / Twitter / Archived version)

Brazen distraction

Instead of attacking the evidence published by the British authorities, Kremlin-funded Sputnik attempted to shift the conversation from Russia using chemical weapons on British territory to gun and knife violence in Britain.

In an article titled “Anarchy in UK,” Sputnik contributor Jon Gaunt, known for his defense of the far-right activist Tommy Robinson, argued that “more people are concerned about their safety from gun wielding, knife slashing, and acid throwing yobs than from this pantomime of the danger of so-called Novichok.”

Popular on social media

According to data between September 4 and 11, articles from Kremlin-controlled media outlets pertaining to the Skripal investigation were shared online extensively, accounting for 37 percent of all traffic on the subject across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Pinterest.

(Source: Buzzsumo)

Conclusion

Official Russian attempts to attack the evidence provided by the British government by creating and amplifying conspiracy theories provides significant insight into Russia’s information operations. First, it showed that its diplomatic social media accounts can and have been used as information weapons. Second, it revealed the Kremlin’s reliance on domestic fringe actors for narratives and talking points. Third, it confirmed that Kremlin narratives are still highly potent across social networks and reveals that some British citizens believe these disinformation campaigns over their own democratically-elected leaders and free and independent media.


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

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

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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

DFRLab

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