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Ben Robinson

NATO in the Baltics: Kremlin media prominent in English-language coverage

Author(s):
Lukas Andriukaitis

The Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 served as a wake-up call for NATO countries. It not only helped understand the threat of hybrid warfare, but also rally public support for increased NATO defense measures. One of the most successful was the deployment of the Enhanced Forward Presence Battalions on NATO’s eastern flank. The Baltic states and Poland each received a multinational battalion of NATO troops, making this vulnerable front more tricky for the Kremlin. 

As a result, the Kremlin again turned to information warfare to try and turn local populations against the troops and make donor countries to lose faith in the idea. Using the social media listening tool BuzzSumo, we were able to investigate which articles and posts about NATO activity in the Baltic countries got the most attention, or in the jargon of the social analytics field, ‘engagement’. We were also able to see which domains and platforms dominated the public space.

Social listening tool and methodology

BuzzSumo is one of the top social media analytics tools. It comes with a powerful search engine that helps find and analyze the best-performing content related to specific topics and themes. Originally used in marketing, the tool is also useful in analyzing information warfare trends. In this case, we were interested in identifying the most engaged media content about NATO activity in the three Baltic states. We used the keywords ‘NATO Lithuania’, ‘NATO Latvia’, ‘NATO Estonia’ and ‘NATO Baltic States’. We were able to check two years worth of data from July 21 2016 to July 21 2018. We also took a deeper look at February 2017, when the first Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) troops entered the Baltic states. Sorting the media content by the “most engaged with”, we were able to see which media outlets were most influential in the English-language digital space.

Estonia

For the keywords ‘NATO Estonia’, Russian state-funded media outlet RT dominated the engagement stats, with almost 30,000 engagements. The second most popular outlet was US-based Associated Press with almost 4,000 engagements; and the third was Russian state-funded media outlet Sputnik News, with slightly over 3,000 engagements. As we can see from the graph, Russian state media outlets garnered over two-thirds of the total engagements in the past two years.

BuzzSumo pie chart showing RT dominated coverage of keywords 'NATO Estonia'  Image Source – Buzzsumo

Buzzsumo also provides timeline graphs that demonstrate the most active periods of engagement. In this case, the bars peaked at the period from February 2017 to April 2017.

BuzzSumo timeline showing February to April 2017 was the most active period for 'Nato Estonia'

  Image Source – Buzzsumo

We also took a closer look into the most engaged with articles in the period February 2017 to March 2017, right after the first EFP soldiers reached the Baltics. Buzzsumo suggested that amongst the three most popular articles in both months, two were from Russian state media outlets.

BuzzSumo table showing two of the three most popular articles on 'NATO Estonia' in February and March 2017 were from Russian state media

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Latvia

Meanwhile, with the keywords ‘NATO Latvia’, the engagement stats were less dominated by Kremlin media. The most popular and the third most popular outlets were Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with 6,500 engagements and CTV News outlet with 3,50 engagements. Russian state funded outlet RT came in second place with almost 6,000 engagements.

BuzzSumo pie chart showing Kremlin media not as dominant on 'NATO Latvia' although still prominent

Image Source – Buzzsumo

The timeline did not show any particularly high engagement during the first months of the EFP deployment. The overall number of published articles over the two year period also seemed to be smaller than in the case of Estonia or Lithuania.

BuzzSumo timeline showing Kremlin present but not dominant for 'NATO Latvia'   Image Source – Buzzsumo

Looking at the most engaged with articles from February 2017 and March 2017, similar patterns appeared. Russian state media had a highly engaged article in both February and March.

BuzzSumo table showing less Kremlin media dominance on 'NATO Latvia' although a highly engaged article in February and March 2017

  Image Source – Buzzsumo

Lithuania

With Lithuania, RT took the lead with approximately one-third of all engagements. The second most engaged platform was YouTube. Sputnik News was in fourth place among platforms.

Buzzsumo pie chart showing RT had one third of most-engaged content for 'NATO Lithuania'

  Image Source – Buzzsumo

The timeline for ‘NATO Lithuania’ showed most articles published in February 2017. Large spikes of engagement stats were also visible around the same period of time. 

BuzzSumo timeline showing large spike in February 2017 for 'NATO Lithuania'

Image Source – Buzzsumo

In February 2017, the two most engaged with articles were written by RT and Sputnik news. Bloomberg could only provide the third most popular item, and it garnered roughly half the number of engagements as the RT article. In March, the most popular article only had 64 engagements, compared to 1,500 in February. None of the most popular articles in March were of Russian origin.

BuzzSumo table showing RT and Sputnik had the most engaged articles in February 2017 for 'NATO Lithuania'

  Image Source – Buzzsumo

Baltic States

Finally, we analyzed media content about the three Baltic countries taken together, using the keywords ‘Baltic states’. The situation was mostly similar to Estonia, where one outlet dominated over two-thirds of all the engagements. In this case, the dominant outlet was the Sputnik News. It had five times more engagements than the runner-up, Baltics.livuamap.com. 

 

BuzzSumo table showing Kremlin platform Sputnik dominated coverage of 'NATO Baltic states' Image Source – Buzzsumo

Analysis of the timeline revealed a similar pattern to Lithuania and Estonia: a gradual build-up to February 2017 and a slow decline with occasional peaks. February 2017 again had the most articles published and one of the highest number of engagements.

 

BuzzSumo timeline showing that coverage of 'NATO Baltic states' gradually built up to a peak in February 2017 Image Source – Buzzsumo

February 2017 had the most popular Russian media article, written by RT. This article was more than five times more popular than the next-placed CBS News one. As with Lithuania, March had no highly-engaged articles and none of them were of Russian origin.

 

BuzzSumo table showing RT had the most engaged article in February 2017 for 'NATO Baltic states' Image Source – Buzzsumo

Findings

As we can see from the analysis, all the keywords related to NATO in the Baltic countries had exceptionally high Russian media influence. Not only was the engagement unnaturally high, but also the content was critical of NATO. We can also observe a gradual build-up, reaching a peak in February 2017, when the first EFP soldiers were deployed in the Baltics, followed by a slow decline in reporting and engagement. This pattern also suggests a well-planned and executed information operation. 

Out of the four different keyword searches, Latvia stood out as the least dominated by Russian media articles. Reasons for this could include higher efforts to work in Russian to influence the local Russian-speaking community, or even outreach and comms efforts by the EFP troops. As we can see, a number of most engaged with articles in Latvia were from Canadian media outlets. We didn’t see the same effect in other keyword searches.

Another important observation is that none of the most engaged with outlets were of from the Baltic countries. This shows that the countries hosting the EFP troops are not involved in forming public opinion in the most-used NATO language. A potential future topic of analysis is information and reporting in the three Baltic languages and in Russian. It would also be interesting to see the patterns in the languages of the hosted EFP troops, as RT and Sputnik News have popular media outlets in French and German.

Conclusion

Buzzsumo has allowed us to take a closer look at the information warfare trends and see who is setting the broader narratives. As we can see from the timelines, Russian state media outlets played an exceptionally large role in forming public opinion in the English-language digital space. The vast majority of articles written by these outlets on NATO topics are usually highly negative. Bearing in mind that this analysis concerns the English-speaking environment, we can suspect a Kremlin effort to manipulate Western countries’ public opinion about NATO in the Baltic region. If public opinion changed drastically because of this, it could affect the future deployment of NATO EFP troops in the Baltics. This is especially worrisome as in some cases (‘NATO Estonia’ and ‘NATO Baltic States’), Russian media outlets garnered over two-thirds of the total engagements over two years. 

It is no surprise that information narratives about NATO are dominated by Kremlin outlets in Russian, but it is disturbing to learn that in some cases its narratives also dominate in English. 

Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a Digital Forensic Research Associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.  

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