Twitter influencers and viral tweets
Pro-Kremlin influencers on the far-left, the far-right, and conspiracy theory personalities promoted the idea that the United States attacked Nord Stream. Blaming the US frequently went together, insisting it was outlandish to say that Russia was responsible.
Multiple accounts identified among the first to share an ABC video tweet had histories of past interaction with Russian, Chinese, or Iranian state affiliates. The video was the first of two key tweets, the second being a tweet from Radek Sikorski, whose comment was used to insist the US was responsible for the Nord Stream explosions.
In the video, US President Biden promises to stop Nord Stream 2. Less than a month later, with the cooperation of the German government, Biden did so by sanctioning the pipeline. Still, this did not stop influential accounts from amplifying the clip, which was misleading and without context in most of the influential tweets reviewed (The White House, 2022; DW, 2022; Polygraph, 2022).
Before the pipe burst: AfD, Russia, and Germany
The messaging and behavior of AfD, Russian state affiliates, media, and the context of the Nord Stream explosion are worth examining. The details and aspects highlighted do not demonstrate that anyone had foreknowledge or collaborated–though we do not exclude the possibility either–instead, they show the social and political climate wherein the explosion happened.
Russia's history of amplifying AfD's dissatisfaction with domestic politics includes AfD's protests against efforts to halt Nord Stream 2 (Tsukanov, 2021; German RT, 2021). AfD advocated ending sanctions against Russia before Russia renewed its invasion in February 2022 (DW, 2021).
Although AfD initially denied connections to Russia, AfD has cultivated relationships with powerful Putin allies like Vyacheslav Volodin, a former Putin aid on the "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list" of the US Treasury (Chazan and Hille, 2017; DER SPIEGEL Staff, 2019; US Department of the Treasury, 2022).
The Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote of a 2019 AfD scandal, saying, "AfD member Markus Frohnmaier came under scrutiny after leaked documents revealed that Russia planned to provide financial and public relations assistance to his campaign” (Mankoff, 2020; DER SPIEGEL Staff, 2019)center. The support does not seem one-sided. On September 16, 2022, the Robert Lansing Institute warned that Russia was preparing for a "fake news campaign involving (AfD)” (Robert Lansing Institute, 2022).
AfD had planned to visit Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine in late September 2022 but canceled after facing "widespread criticism” (Schuetze, 2022) Washington Post reported a growing concern among German politicians about the potential for AfD to cause trouble at home (Morris and Brady, 2022):
"In recent months, German politicians have become particularly concerned that the AfD will whip up fervor over the energy crisis in Europe, serving Putin's aims by stirring discontent and raising questions over whether Western backing of Ukraine's war is worth it."
Tweet minus context equals viral gold
Before September 26
- Iranian, Chinese, and Russian state-affiliated accounts boosted the protests in favor of Nord Stream 2 in the days before the Nord Stream attack. Elevating the topic just before the explosion is not necessarily significant, as amplifying any disagreement is standard for state-affiliated accounts from Russia, China, and Iran (Dugyala, 2020).
- A popular Russian "mil-blogger," AZMilitary1 (which became AZgeopolitics around October 5, 2022), used the ABC video in tweet threads on September 25, the day before the situation with Nord Stream. The share was in the context of protests, which Russian-affiliated influencers had previously amplified.
- AZMilitary1 mentioned Biden's statement from February 7, 2022, on September 25 and quoted the ABC tweet. This user also mentioned this quote on September 26, before the announcement of problems with Nord Stream. This was the same ABC video that would "go viral" the next day with the Nord Stream explosion.
After September 26, 2022
The most influential quote-tweet (judged by an account's followers and tweet engagement) was from Miryam "Partisangirl" Susli. Russian state affiliates like Garland Nixon, Helena Villar, and Afshin Rattansi shared Partisangirl's quote-tweet of the ABC video.
Examining accounts that shared the ABC video on September 26 and early on September 27, in the context of Nord Stream, we found many had interacted with state-affiliated accounts in the past. The past interactions do not necessarily indicate anything nefarious about these users, though they may indicate something about the practice of state-affiliated accounts and the spreading of dis- and malinformation (Li, 2022a).
- Chinese state-affiliated Chen Weihua had interacted with Bidetmarxman in the past.
- Multiple Russian and Iranian state-affiliated accounts retweeted Nord Stream-related tweets from Bidetmarxman.
A Japanese-language account we call "Sato" had a history of over a dozen retweets from Chinese state-affiliated accounts and an exchange with a Russian Embassy account. "Sato" was also one of the first accounts to share the ABC video in the context of Nord Stream.
- We also found "Sato" had previously asked how to watch a video about Ukraine after YouTube banned it from the platform. A Russian embassy account replied to the question from "Sato."
- Ukrainian sources regard the video as Kremlin disinformation. The video would not be the first time the film's producer incorporated disinformation that overlapped with the preferred narrative of the Soviet Union or Russia (Zelikow, 2002; Andrew and Mitrokhin, 2000; RT News, 2015; Shekhtman, 2016).
The first English-language tweet containing the ABC video to gain traction came from a finance-themed account, "WallStreetSilv." The tweets came before any credible sources had ascertained what had happened to the pipeline (Jorsal, 2022). George Galloway retweeted WallStreetSilv's post about protests in the Czech Republic demanding government officials resign by September 25, 2022 (Stephens, 2022; Hern, 2022). Galloway also retweeted WallStreetSilv's ABC video tweet.
- WallStreetSilv has appeared on Russian state-funded media, endorsed conspiracy theories, and played up unrest related to the "energy crisis." Content pitting the US against Europe appears across platforms from this user.
- On September 27, a Russian state-affiliated author replied to "WallStreetSilv" with an article published the same morning (Korybko, 2022b). The author responding to WallStreetSilv writes for a range of Russian state-controlled outlets like the GRU-linked One World Press and overt propaganda outlets like RT (Tucker and Litvinova, 2020; Korybko, 2022a, 2022c; Alliance for Securing Democracy, 2020).
- A search showed that "WallStreetSilv" had received no fewer than 97 engagements from Russian and Chinese state-affiliated accounts.
"Dragon" also recently posted an unfounded claim about Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on September 26 (Nguyen, 2022). The user "Dragon" quote tweeted "WallStreetSilv" on September 27. A Russian state-affiliated account retweeted that. "Dragon" also quote-tweeted WallStreetSilv on September 28, endorsing the idea that the West was responsible for the Nord Stream explosions.
- On September 19, Dragon shared an idyllic depiction of a Uighur woman dancing, seemingly contradicting the recent report documenting human rights violations against Uighur by the Chinese government. A Chinese state-affiliated account retweeted that (OHCHR, 2022).
Another account among the earliest sharers of the ABC video was "Mariko," a Japanese-language account. "Mariko" retweeted the ABC video and then quote-tweeted it on September 26 and 27. A Chinese state-affiliated account retweeted "Mariko" in May 2022. The Chinese state-affiliated account
Some accounts, like "DWX," created in September 2022, distributed the video by replying to influential accounts, perhaps hoping to help spread the narrative further by leveraging the influencers' audiences. We found multiple accounts using an almost exclusively reply or retweet strategy examples here).
In the case of replying to legitimate news sites, the aim may be simply to cast doubt on credible reporting (Kelly et al., 2017). Studies have shown that bots are likelier to engage hyper-partisan news sites, while trolls are likelier to engage neutral or balanced media (Uyheng et al., 2022). Both types of accounts appeared in the Nord Stream discussion.
Accounts that retweeted the ABC video often fell into one of two categories: influential hyper-partisan pundits and outlets (which may be more likely to be or to have an audience receptive to disinformation) and pro-regime influencers and outlets (Nikolov et al., 2021; Ecker et al., 2022; Li, 2022a).
The uptake of unsubstantiated claims by domestic voices launders the information source. The source concealment means people who would reject the claim from a foreign source but who would accept it from a local influencer, may accept the claim. Hyperpartisan and conspiracy theory influencers were a common vector for spreading claims about the US and Nord Stream.
Hyperpartisan influencers and outlets
Pro-Kremlin influencers and outlets
- Mainstream News, like Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Guardian.
- Popular sources of information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- Influential hyper-partisan accounts, which may be more likely to have an audience receptive to disinformation (Roozenbeek et al., 2022; Rao et al., 2022; Osmundsen et al., 2021; Halttu and Oinas-Kukkonen, 2021; Garrett and Bond, 2021; Ciampaglia et al., 2018).
Seemingly independent sources repeating claims can create the impression that these ideas are far more popular than reality and increase the likelihood that target audiences will believe them. The replies, in some cases, were directed toward influencers with audiences that may be more receptive to disinformation (Nikolov et al., 2021). The influencers themselves might also be more vulnerable to disinformation. Targeting similar influential accounts may ensure that a susceptible audience is repeatedly exposed to the same ideas.
Repetition, hearing or reading something repeatedly, increases how truthful or accurate we perceive something to be. It’s also a way that information can travel from the anonymous web to social media to credible reporting sources (Ecker et al., 2022; Hassan and Barber, 2021; van der Linden, 2022).
The replies, in some cases, were directed toward influencers with audiences that may be more receptive to disinformation (Nikolov et al., 2021). Targeting similar influential accounts may ensure that a susceptible audience is repeatedly exposed to the same ideas. Repetition increases how truthful or accurate we perceive something to be. It's also a way that information can travel from the anonymous web to social media to credible reporting sources (De Keersmaecker et al., 2020; Henderson et al., 2021; Hassan and Barber, 2021).