#TrollTracker: Pro-Kremlin Trolls Deployed Ahead of Syria Strikes
How pro-Kremlin accounts amplified #NotInMyNameTheresaMay ahead of strikes in Syria
In the aftermath of the chemical attack in a Syrian city of Douma, British media reported on April 11 that British Prime Minister Theresa May was considering a coordinated military intervention in Syria. The following day, May summoned her cabinet for an emergency meeting to discuss the UK’s response to the Douma attack and announced that the cabinet would support military action by the United States.
In response to the news, British social media users launched a campaign under hashtag #NotInMyNameTheresaMay, which implored PM May to not get involved in the Syrian conflict.
While we know that the United States, United Kingdom, and France took military action against sites associated with use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the effort to influence PM May’s decision to do so was subject to a coordinated — and perhaps manipulated — information campaign.
The hashtag has to date been used over 96,200 times, reaching more than 92,600,000 Twitter users.
The campaign was driven by real hyperactive Twitter users, most of whom described themselves as Labour party supporters in their Twitter bios.
The campaign was started by @Rachael_Swindon, a prominent Labour party campaigner, when she tweeted out a poll asking if Twitter users support PM May’s plans to “bomb Syria” using the hashtag #NotInMyNameTheresaMay.
The poll generated over 10,000 retweets and garnered more than 51,000 votes, 84 percent of which said they did not support Britain’s military action in Syria.
As @DFRLab’s senior fellow Ben Nimmo observed in a Twitter thread on April 12, the poll was amplified by several pro-Kremlin users. Nimmo identified accounts like Russia-backed separatist supporter in Ukraine @Silver_Stacker, pro-Kremlin accounts @RussiaConnects, @TeamTrumpRussia, @GrahamWP_UK, and several others that amplified the poll on the social media platform.
According to Nimmo, “pro-Kremlin accounts were a minority of the retweeters, but their shares did boost traffic” to the poll and the hashtag itself.
The poll was not the only piece of content promoted by pro-Kremlin activists. Such accounts were similarly engaged in amplifying other tweets with the hashtag and some pro-Kremlin accounts went as far as tweeting out original content of their own with the hashtag #NotInMyNameTheresaMay.
@Ian56789 went as far as asking his followers to email PM May to stop her from “bombing Assad”.
Pro-Kremlin troll @Malinka1102 also promoted the hashtag by posting two original tweets.
The amplification of Malinka’s tweet offers some insight into how the network of pro-Kremlin information operations works on Twitter.
As a machine scan of accounts that retweeted Malinka’s tweets showed, the first tweet was amplified by some of the better-known pro-Kremlin trolls, including the self-declared “Pro-Russian media-sniper” @Marcelsardo and and Sweden-based pro-Kremlin activist @Maria_engstrom1. Apart from them, Malinka’s tweet was also shared by @Buckwheat_lover, another pro-Kremlin account that has an image of St. George’s ribbon, which is seen as a symbol of Russian aggression in Ukraine, on its profile picture.
Malinka’s second tweet was amplified by several other pro-Kremlin accounts, including @ExplosivePulse, whose bio states: “Pro-Russia. Atheist. #IStandWithRussia. #StopNATO”. @Olik_turk, whose location is set at “USSR 2.0” and whose screen name has six hammer and sickle communist symbols, also amplified.
Even Kremlin-funded media outlets, RT and Sputnik, used the hashtag. RT used it when promoting an article about a YouGov poll that found 43 percent of Brits do not support military action in Syria, and Sputnik used it when promoting its coverage of the hashtag campaign itself.
Apart from Twitter, RT used the hashtag #NotInMyNameTheresaMay in the description of a video, titled “43% of Britons lack appetite for war in Syria” and was published on YouTube.
Sputnik News published an article on the hashtag campaign titled: “Not in my name, Theresa May: Social Media users oppose UK strikes in Syria”. The article appeared on Sputnik English and Spanish versions.
Kremlin-funded media and Pro-Kremlin trolls supported the Labour activist-led #NotInMyNameTheresaMay hashtag campaign by promoting influencers’ tweets as well as putting out their own content — memes, videos and articles. The hashtag showed that pro-Kremlin trolls and Kremlin-funded media is eager to support any domestic social media activity that falls in line with Kremlin’s strategic objectives.
The pro-Kremlin troll involvement in the hashtag campaign is not significant enough to doubt the general authenticity of it. In this case, the amplification doesn’t necessarily indicate direct command or coordination between the groups; however, @DFRLab would be remiss to not to point out the enthusiastic amplification between those engaging on the message. The case, should serve as an example of how pro-Kremlin trolls can take advantage of domestic debates to promote a narrative that best suits the Kremlin’s strategy.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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