How influencers used decontextualized content to promote Nord Stream conspiracy theories
Hoaxlines Lab • Oct 2022
Given Russia's history of attempting to shape perceptions around events of strategic importance to the Kremlin, I examined the earliest messages about the Nord Stream pipeline attack. From the earliest moments of the Nord Stream event on September 26, 2022, pro-Kremlin and Russian state-affiliated accounts began shaping the narrative, promoting the idea that the US was responsible.
At least 39 Russian, 7 Iranian, and 2 Chinese state-affiliated accounts interacted with one of two key tweets, the Sikorski tweet, to promote the idea that the United States was responsible. Over 170 articles embedded or linked to the Sikorski tweet as evidence the US was to blame, with Russian-state media being among the first. At the same time, accounts began sharing the other key tweet, the ABC video, on September 26, before we knew the nature of the event. At least one "mil-blogger" shared the ABC video tweet on September 25 in the context of demonstrations demanding the German state open Nord Stream 2.
Whatever measures Twitter and other social media platforms have taken, platforms remain exceedingly easy to manipulate. Some of the most popular tweets came from accounts with a history of collaboration with the Russian state; however, the accounts remain unmarked by Twitter. This research suggests these unmarked "independent" accounts continue to play a role in spreading hostile disinformation narratives.
Other accounts sharing the ABC video tweet on September 26 and 27 had a history of interaction with Chinese or Russian state-affiliated accounts. Whether these accounts are authentic remains unknown, although many had traits associated with inauthenticity. Regardless, these findings demonstrate how hostile actors can use the appearance of popularity to promote counterfactual claims.
"Gaming" the algorithm and disseminating the same two or three claims across platforms and mediums means people may repeatedly encounter the same ideas from seemingly unrelated sources. State actors may have rapidly dominated the information space with a preferable view using a mixture of anonymous accounts, influential proxies, domestic voices, and rapid cross-platform pollution of the information space, with media echoing the claims that readers would also find on social media.
In the wake of the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, online accounts accused Ukrainians of having killed him (Who Killed Nemtsov? New evidence on Russia’s most shocking assassination, 2022; Michael Isikoff [@Isikoff], 2022):
The Russian government’s army of social media propagandists at the Internet Research Agency was immediately up and running, and a recently leaked document sheds light on how those propagandists were instructed to spin out stories of Nemtsov’s homicide…Nemtsov was murdered at 11:30 that night in February 2015, and the Kremlin’s social media strategy was immediately ready for action.
Philip N. Howard, Lie Machines (Howard, 2020, p. 31)
In 2014, when Russian proxy forces in Russian-occupied Ukraine shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Russia’s online propaganda operations and Kremlin representatives accused Ukraine and denied involvement (Who Killed Nemtsov? New evidence on Russia’s most shocking assassination, 2022; Pomerantsev, 2015; MFA of Russia, 2016; Luhn, n.d.). Evidence later demonstrated that Russia had been responsible for shooting down MH17 and killing the 298 people aboard (MH17: Russia “liable” for downing airliner over Ukraine, 2018, p. 17).
In 2012, after Russia’s Syrian allies used chemical weapons on civilians in Syria, Russia dispatched a flood of disinformation that denied the use of chemical weapons and maligned a humanitarian group known as the White Helmets that had documented and rescued victims of those chemical attacks (Bellingcat, 2018; Lamensch, 2022). Sources affiliated with the Russian state accused the White Helmets of using chemical weapons and being terrorists, false claims in both cases (Lamensch, 2022; ISD research et al., n.d.; The Syria Campaign, 2017; Solon, 2017; Schafer, 2018).
Given Russia’s history of attempting to shape perceptions around events strategically important to the Kremlin, I examined the earliest messages about the Nord Stream pipeline attack. This analysis should not be viewed as Evidence that Russia had foreknowledge of the event. However, it does show that Russian state actors and their fellow travelers began to shape the public discussion at the first sign of trouble.