Kremlin's Sputnik 'news' sites fail to interest Baltic audiences
Since their launch in the Baltic states in 2016, the Sputnik News outlets for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been unable to gain large audiences. Most of the articles on their websites garner only a few likes and around a couple of hundred views. As part of a large Kremlin-funded propaganda operation, there are over 30 different Sputnik language services, penetrating not only post-Soviet countries, but also Western Europe. The effectiveness of Sputnik News and its Kremlin stablemate RT have long been debated amongst experts.
We investigated the scope and variety of so-called ‘backlinks’ leading to these Sputnik sites. Backlinks are links that are placed on one website and lead to another website – like the ones in this article. The number of backlinks is an indication of the popularity or importance of that website. Backlinks are important for Search Engine Optimization because some search engines, especially Google, give higher rankings to websites that have a good number of quality backlinks and give them more prominence in search results.
Using the Buzzsumo social media listening tool, we were able to investigate the Sputnik Baltic services’ backlinks. Interesting patterns were revealed: most of the links leading to the Baltic Sputnik News websites were from other Sputnik News websites. It appeared to be part of a self-promoting cycle, likely created to artificially boost rankings.
This analysis is important, as Sputnik News websites have been caught red-handed many times spreading misinformation, disinformation and blatant fake-news about the West and particularly about NATO.
See the end of this article for more on methodology.
Sputnik News Latvia
Buzzsumo backlinks metrics suggested that Sputnik News Latvia (https://sputniknewslv.com/) garnered 1,964 domain links (links from articles on its own website to its own website, ie, a link in one of its stories to one of its other stories) and 3,956,486 total external backlinks since it was launched. Over the period of one month (August 23 – September 23, 2018), it received 8,239 original external backlinks (from other sites); of those, 8,189 were from other Sputnik News domains, accounting for 99.39% of all backlinks in that month.
Backlink Analysis of Latvian Sputnik News 23 August – 23 September, 2018). Image Source – Buzzsumo
Sputnik News Lithuania
Meanwhile, Sputnik News Lithuania (https://sputniknews.lt/) garnered 1,231 domain links (from its own site) and a total of 5,312,592 external links since it was launched. Over the period of one month (23 August – 23 September, 2018), it gathered 8,239 original backlinks; of which 8,101 were from other Sputnik News domains, making up 99.65% of all backlinks that month.
Backlink Analysis of Lithuanian Sputnik News 23 August – 23 September, 2018). Image Source – Buzzsumo
Sputnik News Estonia
Analysis revealed that Sputnik News Estonia (https://sputnik-news.ee/) garnered 3,047 domain links and 3,857,696 external links since it was launched. Over the period of one month (23 August – 23 September, 2018), it gained 8,239 original backlinks; of which 8,180 were from other Sputnik News domains, or 99.75% of all backlinks for the month.
Backlink Analysis of Estonian Sputnik News 23 August – 23 September, 2018). Image Source – Buzzsumo
Sputnik was founded in 2014 after the Kremlin closed the independent RIA Novosti news agency, and it launched services for each of the three Baltic countries in 2016. According to the Buzzsumo analysis, the vast majority (99.39% – 99.75%) of backlinks to the Baltic Sputnik services were from other Sputnik News domains. This is a highly unusual result for a news website, suggesting that the traffic to these websites is being simulated by the organization itself. These websites are not only failing to attract readers, but also the attention of other websites and outlets.
Furthermore, the very limited readership and even the absence of advertising on these websites suggest that they have a different operating model from traditional news media outlets. Most of news outlets are funded from ads or paid subscriptions. The absence of both in the case of Sputnik News clearly show that they get their funding elsewhere. It is well known that Sputnik News is funded from the Kremlin and this shows that the Baltic services are fully dependent on these resources, as the limited reader interest would force them to close very quickly if they competing with real news outlets.
It would be interesting to apply this analysis to more of the over 30 Sputnik News language services. Due to limitations of the platform, only a snap analysis of the previous month was made. However, checks from other randomly selected months provided very similar results, with over 99% of links being from other Sputnik News domains.
For comparison, we checked a small number of more popular mainstream media websites in the Baltics: www.15min.lt, www.postimees.ee, https://apollo.tvnet.lv/. All of these websites had few or no backlinks from the same domains: only a few from the English versions, constituting up to 5% of the total engagement numbers. There is scope for more wide-ranging analysis of mainstream media websites, but these preliminary findings show that having large numbers of backlinks from domains run by the same outlet is unusual for other Baltic news websites.
This research provides a good glimpse behind the scenes of Kremlin-funded Sputnik News: its Baltic services are essentially Potemkin news outlets. Although the number of backlinks are not the only factor in Search Engine Optimization, it is arguably one of the most important. It appears the Kremlin desperate to boost its largely unpopular media coverage. It would be interesting to investigate whether there are rules against this kind of aggressive cross promotion.
According to its founder Dmitry Kiselyov, Sputnik News’ mission is to “speak about what others keep quiet about”. However, it seems that the disinformation they provide does not really interest Baltic audiences or other websites.
Social Listening Tool, Methodology and Relevance
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. In the past, we used this platform to analyze the most engaged with online content which had concrete keywords in it. In this article, we analyzed the backlinks related with three Sputnik News domains operating in the Baltic States: https://sputniknewslv.com/, https://sputniknews.lt/, https://sputnik-news.ee/. We were able to see data related with the backlinks of these websites from the very start they started operating, but Buzzsumo platform does not allow to download more than 10,000 units of information. In order to have a better understanding of the layout of the backlinks, we chose a time period that is closest in having 10,000 backlinks. In this case, it was a month’s worth of data, with slightly over 8,000 units of data.
Backlinks are not the only factor for the websites to get high on the search query. A search engine considers the content of the sites to determine the quality of a link as well. When backlinks to your site come from other sites, and those sites have content related to your site, these backlinks are considered more relevant to your site. If backlinks are found on sites with unrelated content, they are considered less relevant. The higher the relevance of backlinks, the greater their quality.
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.