#PutinAtWar: Social Media Surge on Skripal

Two of three stories on the Skripal case shared on social media are from the Kremlin’s media outlets

(Source: @DFRLab)

As the investigation over the Skripal poisoning continues, the Kremlin is waging a full-scale information war to promote stories acquitting the Russian government of any involvement in the incident. The low-cost, high-impact nature of social media makes it a useful medium for the Kremlin’s war of narratives and as social media data suggests, Russia is winning.

A review of the most-shared articles on social media suggested that content from Kremlin-owned and pro-Kremlin media outlets far outranked mainstream and independent media on audience engagement statistics.

Of the six most popular articles on Twitter and Facebook on the topic of Skripal’s poisoning and the subsequent international response over the past week, four were published by the Kremlin-owned RT, generating 63,000 shares across Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, the two most popular articles from the British mainstream media outlets achieved only 25,400 shares.

(Source: Buzzsumo.com)

It is worth noting that the two stories from the Guardian and Sky News reported on the facts of the case, whereas three out of four RT’s stories accused the United Kingdom of staging the attack and acquitted Russia in their headlines.

A look at the most popular individual Facebook posts revealed a similar pattern. Out of 18 most popular Facebook posts containing keyword “Skripal” this week, 16 were posted by Kremlin-owned accounts or shared a pro-Kremlin narrative.

In this and the following graphics, the Russian flag emoji signifies that the Facebook account behind the post is owned by a Kremlin-funded media outlet or a Russian embassy. The image of the Kremlin signifies an account shared a pro-Kremlin narrative, denying Russia’s involvement. (Source: Buzzsumo.com / @DFRLab)

Among the six most significantly engaged posts, four were shared by RT’s English and Spanish versions. Kremlin-funded media outlets were not the only influencers acquitting the Russian government.

Matteo Salvini, Italian politician and member of the Italian senate, shared an article on his Facebook page, titled “The Skripal Case is a hoax, the war of the West against Russia is terribly true”. His post was liked 3,800 times and generated over 800 shares.

(Source: Buzzsumo.com)
(Source: Buzzsumo.com)

Apart from Italian politicians, the pro-Kremlin narratives were also spread and enthusiastically amplified by the Ron Paul Institute, a German right-wing magazine Compact Magazin, German left-wing party Die Linke, and a Marxist Italian philosopher Diego Fusaro.

Amplifiers across the political spectrum demonstrated Kremlin narratives’ appeal to a wide range of fringe entities — from Marxist philosophers in Italy to American libertarians to German fringe media on both sides.

The Kremlin media’s success on social networks, however, appears to be a recent phenomenon. Buzzsumo’s data from the past 30 days shows that RT and Sputnik’s share of social media engagement has drastically increased in the past week and currently stands at around 65 percent. This means that between March 28 and April 4, two out of three articles on the Skripal case shared on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Pinterest, came from Kremlin-funded media outlets.

(Source: Buzzsumo.com)

A more thorough examination of the most popular stories on social media revealed that the Kremlin’s recent success online can be attributed to the news that Porton Down scientists were not able to verify the source of the Novichok used to poison Yulia and Sergei Skripal. The Kremlin media interpreted the development as a vindication and social media statistics suggest thousands of users online agreed.

(Source: Buzzsumo.com)

Conclusion

The popularity of the pro-Kremlin narratives on social media suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy of dismiss, distract, distort, and dismay is succeeded in creating confusion and suspicion online. The recent news that Porton Down’s scientists were unable to verify the source of the nerve agent was hijacked by the Kremlin-funded media outlets to vindicate Russia, while the voice of the British government and independent media is getting drowned out.


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

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