One of the most frequently asked questions about Kremlin broadcasters RT and Sputnik concerns their audience: how big is it, and who is it?
With attention focusing on the impending French presidential elections, amid allegations of Russian interference and “fake news,” the @DFRLab has taken a closer look at the Twitter followings of the two outlets’ French editions, @sputnik_fr and @RTenfrancais.
The analysis shows that their most active followers can be broken down into four main categories (some of which overlap): supporters of nationalist and isolationist parties, especially French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s Front National; supporters of Russia and its international allies, notably Syria; opponents of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron; and automated “bots.”
“Fr” as in “fringe”
In purely numerical terms, RT France and Sputik France are fringe outlets in the French Twittersphere. As of April 7, RT’s French service had 63,000 followers, while Sputnik France had 38,000. This is orders of magnitude below established French media such as Agence France-Presse (2.56 million followers) or BFMTV (2.1 million).
Both Kremlin outlets are active on Twitter, but not abnormally so. A scan of the twittersphere conducted from February 28 to March 30 revealed that @RTenfrancais posted 3,637 tweets over the course of the month, at an average rate of 121 a day. @Sputnik_fr posted 2,067, at a rate of 69 a day. This is somewhat below the average rate of posting of AFP (157 a day) and BFMTV (195 a day).
While the outlets themselves are less active than their rivals, the same cannot be said of the accounts which follow them. A machine scan of all posts retweeting or mentioning @RTenfrancais between February 28 and March 30 collected a total of 74,000 tweets, posted by 15,335 users. This equates to an average of 4.8 tweets per user.
A similar scan made of @sputnik_fr over the same dates returned just over 36,000 tweets from 7,703 users, for an average of 4.7 tweets per user.
By comparison, a 30-day machine scan of French regional newspaper Midi Libre (@midilibre, 124,000 followers) returned 6,000 tweets from 3,393 accounts, at a rate of 1.8 tweets per user. A scan of 30,000 tweets mentioning BBC World (@BBCWorld) returned 20,222 users, at a rate of 1.5 tweets per user.
These figures suggest that the Twitter following of RTenfrancais and Sputnik_fr is unusually dedicated, and unusually active.
That high level of activity is matched by a high degree of political engagement. An analysis of the fifty most active tweeters to mention each account showed that most had a strong political bias. The main trends were support for Russia, support for nationalist and isolationist positions, and opposition to centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Some accounts largely concentrated on one of these trends; others combined them.
Top amplifiers of @sputnik_fr with a primarily Russian focus include, for example, @Ollissya, which claims to be a multilingual Russian journalist, and @Orthodoxe, which claims to be a Russian Orthodox monk who is on Twitter “to get information and defend Russia.”
In the month from February 28 to March 30, @Ollissya shared 171 Sputnik French articles and retweeted four. @Orthodoxe shared 281 articles and retweeted four.
Significantly more of the top amplifiers of RT and Sputnik in French have a focus on French politics, and support Le Pen. These include the account @languillem, which claims to be “very proud to support Marine.” This was the top amplifier of both accounts in March, posting 985 tweets mentioning @RTenfrancais and 1,588 tweets mentioning @sputnik_fr.
They also include @aforefreer, another amplifier of both outlets, which features a photo of Le Pen with Russian President Vladimir Putin as its background, and has Le Pen’s election logo as its avatar image. Others which are similarly focused on Le Pen are @hugoengel4, @generalklaus1, @Buscatier84 and @impertinent78.
Other top amplifiers are nationalist and anti-Islam, but appeared either uninterested in Le Pen, or hostile to her. These include @encore_fred, which joined a thread accusing her of “treason” for her stance on Israel; the account has called Islam “a satanic sect, a death-cult that only concern sub-humen!!” (sic). This account posted almost 700 retweets of @RTenfrancais in March.
They also include @jpapanissal, which is sceptical towards Le Pen (archive) and has compared Islam with Nazism (archive); and @edira2, which describes itself as a “Zionist who’s fed up with anti-Semitism” and has highlighted anti-Semitic comments from Le Pen’s Front National, but says that “Islam is incompatible with France, the United States and the whole of Western civilization.”
A further group among these top amplifiers expresses nationalist sentiment, but prefers another presidential candidate, François Asselineau, who is against French membership of both the European Union and NATO.
The most notable of these is @gg3428, which as well as amplifying @RTenfrancais and @Sputnik_fr (over 400 of each in the sample month), tweets systematically about Asselineau. In a separate one-week scan of tweets from key accounts posted between March 30 and April 5, this account retweeted Asselineau 54 times, and mentioned him almost 1,000 times.
A final trend among the key amplifiers of RT and Sputnik in French appears to be their opposition to centrist presidential candidate Emamnuel Macron, often in combination with support for another candidate.
The account @cyrilboji, for example, is a regular tweeter of anti-Macron memes. It describes itself as as fan of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, but as of April 10, had only mentioned him three times in 2017.
The account @neiluj0 is similarly hostile to Macron.
These accounts have been singled out because they are top amplifiers of @RTenfrancais or @sputnik_fr (or both). All were among the top 50 tweeters about each outlet between February 28 and March 30.
Many of them — including @languillem, @encore_fred, @gg3428 and @ymdpoo — were also among the top amplifiers of the two outlets in a separate scan conducted from October 25 to November 21. This shows that their role as amplifiers is not coincidental or the byproduct of a single month, but a consistent factor reaching back almost six months.
The presence of bots
At the same time, a significant number of the top accounts appear to be bots or cyborgs: automated, or partially automated, accounts run by algorithms, with little or no intervention from a human user.
Definitions of bots, and the ways of identifying them, vary. This study will assess them based on their anonymity, activity and role as amplifiers. If a given account provides no personal information about the user, tweets more than 100 times a day and posts more than 85 per cent of retweets, it will be considered automated, either a fully-automatic bot or a partly-automated cyborg.
Sputnik France, in particular, seems to benefit from amplification of this kind. According to the March scan, the top fifty accounts mentioning or retweeting @sputnik_fr posted 10,171 tweets, or 28 per cent of all mentions. The top ten alone mentioned it 5,271 times, or 14 per cent of the total.
By contrast, the top fifty tweeters on @midilibre accounted for 17 per cent of traffic. The top fifty tweeters on @RTenfrancais accounted for 16 per cent, and the top fifty users on @BBCWorld made up just 7 per cent.
The most active accounts to have amplified the Kremlin broadcasters reinforce this image of automated traffic. The most striking is @languillem, which was the most prolific tweeter of both channels in October-November, and in March, as mentioned above.
@Languillem is hyperactive. In a scan conducted in the week of March 30 to April 5, it posted 3,808 tweets, at an average of 544 per day. Of those, 88 per cent were retweets; 16 per cent were retweets of @RTenfrancais and @Sputnik_fr. The account is anonymous, with a username, screen name and avatar image (a koala) which reveals nothing about the user, or users, behind the account.
@Languillem has all the appearance of a largely automated account set up to amplify others, including the Kremlin’s.
The same applies to @encore_fred. It mentioned @RTenfrancais 594 times in October-November, and 705 times in March. Its pattern of activity suggests automation: 2,746 tweets in the sample week, or 392 a day, and a retweet rate of 92 per cent.
Curiously, @encore_fred also amplifies Sputnik’s German service, @de_sputnik. In October-November, the account posted 389 retweets of @de_sputnik; in the sample week in March, it posted 92.
The @encore_fred account is therefore a multilingual amplifier of the Kremlin’s outlets.
These are not, however, the most active accounts in this study. That honor goes to @heelleclech, which was the twelfth most prolific amplifier of @RTenfrancais in March, mentioning it 243 times.
In the week from March 30 to April 5, @heelleclech posted 5,443 tweets, or an average of 777 a day. Almost 98 per cent of its tweets in that period were retweets.
@Heelleclech appears to be a bot, but RT and Sputnik are only a small part of its activity. During the sample week, it retweeted @rtenfrancais 56 times, and @sputnik_fr twice; it also retweeted Sputnik’s German service 22 times. By contrast, it posted 615 retweets hostile to Macron, and 495 retweets praising Le Pen. It also mentioned wrestling franchise WWE 339 times.
Therefore, @heelleclech is an amplifier for RT and Sputnik, but that is not its primary activity.
Much the same can be said of @maralpoutine, which the DFRLab identified as a probable bot in December. This account mentioned @RTenfrancais and @sputnik_fr 436 times in October-November, and 550 times in March; in the first week of April, it posted a total of 1,560 tweets, at an average rate of 222 a day.
However, of the 1,560 tweets posted in the sample week, only 100 mentioned the Kremlin accounts. By comparison, it made 340 posts hostile to Macron.
RT France and Sputnik France are fringe players in the French Twittersphere. Their followings are relatively small, and are at least partially driven by automated accounts.
Their most active following is in specific audience segments, especially pro-Russian accounts and those on the extreme political right. The latter is not a uniform constituency: it is divided between supporters of Le Pen and Asselineau, opponents of Macron and accounts which do not endorse any candidate, but espouse nationalist or isolationist views. Some of the accounts are hostile to one another’s preferred candidates.
What explains this following? The pro-Russian accounts’ attachment to RT and Sputnik is easily explained: both outlets regularly validate and amplify the Kremlin’s chosen narratives (indeed Sputnik’s task, according to the presidential decree which created its parent agency, is to “report on the state policy of the Russian Federation abroad”).
The attachment of far-right and nationalist groups is more interesting. As the DFRLab has already reported, Sputnik France has a shown significant bias towards Le Pen and against Macron. RT France’s stance is more nuanced, but it shares the Kremlin’s skepticism towards the EU and NATO. Both are also anti-establishment, and position themselves as an alternative to the “mainstream media,” a stance favored by political fringe groups.
RT and Sputnik France therefore seem to have won a dedicated following on Twitter from accounts which identify with a particular anti-EU and anti-NATO stance which can shade into nationalism and isolationism. Those users are not homogeneous, and oppose one another’s candidates, but they are largely united in their opposition to the political center.