The Kremlin’s troll network never sleeps
Literally, identical comments are popping up under a multitude of Facebook posts, channelling the Kremlin’s disinformation to users who would never consider to read anything about the war. This is the result of the copy-and-paste activity of trolls who work multiple shifts. Whereas Political Capital’s, and it’s partners’ first research revealed the existence of potentially coordinated “online troll networks” in V4 countries right after the start of the invasion, the new research on the pro-Russian online inauthentic behaviour presented here pinpointed the long-term narratives and coordination strategies used by trolls in the service of the war in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Romania.
The research identified so-called repetitive comments in Facebook comment sections. Inauthentic behaviour was defined as communication behaviour in which real users used online profiles to provoke and create confusion. Using the SentiOne online monitoring platform, our researchers collected databases of relevant comments posted on Facebook between 25 February and 31 July 2022 in the countries studied. Then, algorithm-based text mining tools were used to identify repetitive comments, i.e. text that is at least five words long and repeated at least 200 times. The repetitive comments were analysed both qualitatively and quantitatively to identify inauthentic user profiles, disinformation narratives, and strategies.
Main findings of the research
The research found traces of inauthentic pro-Kremlin activity on Facebook in all countries under review, which can be considered attempts to influence public opinion in the affected states and, in some cases, beyond them. Our main conclusions are:
- Crises help the Kremlin. Even if public opinion in the EU is currently unfavorable to the Kremlin, the onset of high, permanent inflation and potentially that of an EU-wide recession could create a more favorable environment for the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts.
- Importing disinformation narratives. Three out of the four narratives found in Hungary were imported into the country from abroad. One doubting Ukraine’s existence as a country started from an organization connected to Ukrainian pro-Putin oligarch Viktor Medvechuk, taken over by the so-called “news agency” of separatists. Another narrative detailing a new, dictatorial world order based on, among others, COVID-19 restrictions, and led by NATO was aimed at developing countries where Russia can hope to hold more sway. The third essentially took over a trend in the Russian media space: users tried to discredit anti-war voices by asking them “where they were in the past eight years” when Ukraine committed atrocities against minorities.
- Strategies in Germany: Divide and Rule. The six relevant narratives we found in Germany employed three different strategies. Some wanted to give a general interpretative framework to the war: anti-Westernism, where the US and NATO are to blame for Russia’s attack. One narrative aimed clearly at generating debates by spreading a Kremlin-critical narrative. Some profiles involved in this were caught disseminating both pro-Kremlin and anti-Kremlin narratives, which indicates it is not intended to counter the Kremlin’s information operation but to be a part of it. The third category of texts reflected to contemporary events, such as heightened discussions on sanctions.
- In Italy, the energy crisis emerged as a dominant theme in narratives. Two of the four narratives in Italy dealt with the energy crisis, arguing that gas trade with Russia must be maintained. This indicates that the harder the crisis will hit European households, the more likely it is that Russia will launch an information operation on the topic.
- Activity was the lowest in Romania. Only two repetitive narratives were spread in the research period in Romania, indicating that pro-Kremlin networks might consider that influencing public opinion in the country is rather challenging. The main effort of inauthentic efforts in the country focused on convincing locals that Ukraine is just as bad as other countries, particularly Russia.
- Similar narrative elements in all countries, but tailored to local needs. The elements used by the narratives are very similar across the four countries examined, they are using years-old Russian propaganda claims (e.g., Nazi Ukraine, genocide against Russians, illegal NATO expansion, US-backed Maidan coup), but they are also tailored to local specificities. For instance, the Hungarian genocide narrative employs grievances from the Hungarian-Ukrainian relationship, the Romanian ones focus on Bucharest-Kyiv relations.
- Pro-Kremlin trolls are part of an international network. The international network of pro-Kremlin trolls and their coordinated behaviour was identifiable through a specific pattern of behaviour, posting the same comments in different languages and locations. Primary examples include a Slovak Facebook user commenting on Czech Facebook pages in Hungarian or Italian profiles and commenting under Colombian Facebook pages the same comments.
- Trolls are becoming increasingly important in the Kremlin’s toolkit. The Kremlin is using well-established tactics to influence public opinion in the context of the war. The tensions between the West and Russia have been accompanied by hybrid warfare methods for more than a decade. Part of these methods were employing inauthentic online networks to influence public discussions, for instance by creating a “sense of majority” behind pro-Kremlin narratives. These inauthentic networks are taking on an even larger role in Russia’s information operations during the war, because the “official” disinformation infrastructure of the Kremlin was critically hit by EU Sanctions regarding the propaganda channels RT and Sputnik by removing them from the most important social media platforms. As an additional result, grassroots communication can provide politicians and other influencers with feedback that their disinformation narratives and propaganda enjoy widespread support most of the people.
- Mainstream support is vital for trolls. Our investigation has reinforced that mainstream media and politicians are essential for the success of trolls since trolls can boost the elites' pro-Kremlin communication, and vice versa – grassroots dialogue relies on mainstream messages.
The research was carried out in cooperation with the following partners: András Rácz, PhD (Germany), Arije Antinori, PhD (Italy), Global Focus (Romania), Political Capital (Hungary). We are grateful for the generous support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) throughout the course of the research project.
The full study is available here.