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BuzzSumo graphic showing Kremlin outlets dominate content on 'Russophobia'
Image Source:
Lukas Andriukaitis

Russian Disinfo Patterns: The Best Defence Is a Good Offence

Author(s):
Lukas Andriukaitis

The infamous 4 D’s of disinformation are the foundation of the Kremlin’s campaign to impact the nature of information in the West. The use of ‘Distract’, by calling all criticism of Russia’s actions “Russophobia”, is particularly prominent, and we take a deeper look at it in this article.

The 4 D’s, as described by DFRLab’s Information Defense Fellow Ben Nimmo, are:

  • Dismiss – if you do not like what your critics say, insult them
  • Distort – if you do not like the facts, twist them
  • Distract – if you are accused of something, accuse someone else of the same thing
  • Dismay – if you don’t like what someone else is planning, try to scare them off. 

These disinfo methods have proven themselves to be very effective, and most of the messages the Kremlin pushes can be explained through the lens of the 4 D’s.

Using the social media listening tool Buzzsumo, we were able to investigate which media outlets were using such keywords as ‘Russophobic’, ‘Russophobia’, ‘Anti-Russian Hysteria’, ‘NATO Aggression’ in English and how effective they were. These terms are used to deflect criticism of the Russian regime and its aggression against neighbors. 

Russophobic

For the keyword ‘Russophobic‘, Russian state-funded media outlets RT (7,318 interactions on social media, known as “engagements”) and Sputnik News (4,192 engagements) dominated with over 75% of all interactions. Russia-Insider.com, which pushes Kremlin propaganda and anti-Semitism, state news agency TASS.com and well-known pro-Kremlin outlet Stalkerzone.org accounted for the remaining 25% of the engagements. The only non-pro-Russian outlet that had a significant share of engagements was YouTube. However, it is unclear which content got the engagements, as separate research is required to assess YouTube content. 

BuzzSumo graphic showing RT and Sputnik were the most engaged-with platforms using the term 'Russophobic'  

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Looking at the most engaged articles in the two-year period, we also see the dominance of the two Kremlin-funded media outlets. Out of the five most-engaged articles, three were written by RT and one by Sputnik News, all with loaded and subjective headlines, clearly aiming to accuse the West of Russophobic behavior rather than engage with the facts of the stories. It is important to note that the most engaged article was produced by Newsweek.com and it did not feature the keyword Russophobic in it. It most likely signifies an error by the search engine, as no other similar cases have been yet observed when using Buzzsumo in our research. This finding suggested that all of the most popular media content was published by the Kremlin-funded outlets, which tallies with human observation of the media landscape.

​​​​​​BuzzSumo graphic that shows RT and Sputnik published the most engaged with articles featuring the term 'Russophobic', apart from

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Russophobia

Meanwhile, the two most engaged-with media outlets with the keyword ‘Russophobia’ were also RT and Sputnik News, but these two outlets were less prominent than in the case of ‘Russophobic’. These two outlets garnered 11,702 and 9,387 engagements respectively, totaling over 55% of the total. Russia-Insider garnered not more than 5% of the engagement share, leaving the rest to more neutral sources (sott.net, consortiumnews.com) and social media platforms, which require a more in-depth investigation (Reddit, YouTube).

Buzzsumo pie chart showing RT and Sputnik accounted for 55% of the most engaged media content featuring the term 'Russophobia'

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Looking at the most engaged articles for ‘Russophobia’, similar patterns to the keyword ‘Russophobic’ appeared. Out of the five most popular articles, three were published by RT. Nonetheless, the most engaged article was the story by an American progressive outlet Rawstory.org, and the third most popular story was written by Politico. As in the previous case, the Politico article did not contain the word ‘Russophobia’, but was still picked up by Buzzsumo’s search engine.

BuzzSumo graphic showing most engaged articles for the term 'Russophobia' were published by RT and Sputnik

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Anti-Russian Hysteria

In the case of the keywords ‘Anti-Russian Hysteria’, the dominance of RT and Sputnik News was clearly visible. These two outlets garnered 5,240 and 2,567 engagements respectively, totaling over 70% of all engagements. The third most popular outlet appeared to be YouTube, which had close to 25% of the total engagements.

BuzzSumo graphic showing the most engaged platforms for the terms 'anti-Russian hysteria' were overwhelmingly RT and Sputnik

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Only two out of the five most popular pieces of content were published by pro-Kremlin media. Two of the most popular articles were RT’s and the other three were published by Washington Post, Fox News and Yahoo, which reposted Fox news’ article. Obviously the WP article was more balanced than Kremlin outlets’ content, so it’s not clear if engagements were pro or anti Kremlin.

 BuzzSumo graphic showing that two of the five most engaged articles with 'anti-Russian hysteria' were published by RT and Sputnik

Image Source – Buzzsumo

NATO Aggression

Lastly, we analyzed the keywords ‘NATO Aggression’. The results turned out to be rather different from other cases, as the German-language RT and Sputnik News appeared in the domain mix. All of the Russian outlets that appeared in the search were pro-Kremlin outlets and all together accounted for more than 70% of the total engagements.

BuzzSumo graphic showing most engaged platforms for the terms 'NATO aggression' were Kremlin outlets, this time including the German-language versions of RT and Sputnik

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Analysis of the most engaged with media content presented no pro-Kremlin media outlets’ entries. Nonetheless, a closer look revealed that the Buzzsumo search engine did not pick up articles about ‘NATO Aggression’, but rather found separate keywords ‘NATO’ and ‘Aggression’ in the articles. In this case, these articles did not represented themes we were interested as in some cases the word aggression was used when talking about Russia, rather than NATO.

BuzzSumo graphic showing articles featuring 'NATO' and 'aggression' as separate terms rather than 'NATO aggression' as used by Kremlin platforms

Image Source – Buzzsumo

Findings

The analysis shows pro-Kremlin outlets dominated in the use of keywords most often found in Russia’s ‘Distract’ narratives. This is especially so for the keywords ‘Russophobia’ and ‘Russophobic’, which were used almost exclusively by pro-Kremlin outlets. 

Pro-Kremlin media dominated the use of all of the investigated keywords, but not all of the most engaged articles were from these outlets. This finding suggests that even if not all of the RT and Sputnik articles garner most engagements, the outlets themselves are producing the highest volumes of content using these keywords. This serves as evidence that these outlets are systematically pushing content in English with wording that tries to defend the Kremlin’s actions by claiming any criticism is xenophobic, rather than based on facts.

As in our previous investigation, YouTube was one of the most popular domains. VIPA plans to investigate the scope of Russian propaganda on YouTube in the near future.

Our research did indicate some possible shortcomings of the Buzzsumo search engine in some cases. Our search for the two-word phrase ‘NATO Aggression’ brought back results featuring the words but not as a single phrase. For example, The Sun headline “US sends special forces to Russian border as NATO is poised to strike back against Vladimir Putin’s ‘aggression’” does not tell us anything about the Kremlin’s use of the phrase ‘NATO aggression”.

However, we are keen to encourage the use of analytical platforms and other software to provide evidence when researching disinformation. We see the anomalies as a learning opportunity to help us refine future queries. Platforms such as BuzzSumo are only to be used in conjunction with human insight and assessment. It has been widely observed that the Kremlin uses accusations of ‘Russophobia’ to distract from its hostile actions, and the data analysis allows us to put some figures to that observation.

Conclusion

Buzzsumo allowed us to take a deeper look into the Kremlin’s information warfare method ‘Distract’. 

The domination of Kremlin platforms and narratives would not be surprising in the Russian-language space. However, it is alarming that it is happening in the English-language space. Some of the keywords, such as ‘Russophobic’ or ‘Russophobia’ appear to be used by the Russian outlets almost exclusively without quotations, ie, as a fact. It does not appear to be used organically in the Western media. 

These findings should encourage us to think about how we can win back some of the information space with accurate messaging about the West and its approach to Russian aggression.

Social Listening Tool and Methodology

BuzzSumo is one of the top social media analytics tools, which comes with a powerful search engine that helps find and analyze the best performing content related to a specific niche, including social media. Originally created for marketing specialists, this tool is being increasingly used by researchers analyzing information warfare trends. This tool allows us to analyze the most engaged (engagements on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit and generated original links leading to the content) online content which has concrete keywords in it. Buzzsumo defines an engagement as a reaction, comments or a share. By using keywords, certain narratives that are formed by the Kremlin can be identified on a broader, strategic level. 

We were able to check two-years’ worth of data from August 22, 2016 to August 22, 2018.

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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