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Weaponising news: RT, Sputnik and targeted disinformation

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Media outlets RT and Sputnik perform a "damage control" function for the Russian state during incidents such as the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and deploy a range of tactics to project Russian strength and construct news agendas.

This is the first comprehensive study of how RT and Sputnik sow confusion and division in the UK and beyond. It is based on an analysis of nearly 12,000 articles published in English by the two outlets and over 150,000 online articles by UK news outlets. The articles were collected between May and June 2017, and in March 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the Skripal poisoning.

The Skripal poisoning

  • RT and Sputnik published 138 separate and contradictory narratives about the Skripal poisoning across 735 articles in the four weeks following the incident, incorporating the views of a "parallel commentariat" and amplifying Russian government sources.

The range of competing narratives around the Skripal incident included:

  • 32 narratives relating to the response of the UK and its allies to the Salisbury poisoning, including that the response is driven by inherent "Russophobia", that the investigation was a "witch hunt" and that the UK’s response to the poisoning was illegal.
  • 20 narratives about Novichok – the substance identified as having been used in the poisoning – including that it could be from the UK, the US, Ukraine, Iran, or a number of other European or post-Soviet states.
  • 16 narratives about the Skripals themselves, ranging from the allegation that links to organized crime explain the poisoning, to claims that Yulia Skripal brought the nerve agent into the UK and that the Skripals were never, in fact, poisoned.
  • Seven narratives that constitute conspiracy theories, including that the poisoning was set up by the UK or by the intelligence agencies of a third country in order to harm Russia, and claims that the incident was a hoax, with the poisoning never having taken place.

Military issues

  • RT and Sputnik cover Russian military issues extensively, providing compelling detail and multimedia content on advanced weaponry. Significant amounts of this content was detected in UK news coverage, particularly that of four of the UK’s most-read tabloids – the Daily Mail, Express, Sun and Daily Star – including a small number of instances of Russian news content on military matters being directly reproduced without attribution.  

European and North American democracies

  • RT and Sputnik coverage of European and North American democracies – including the UK, US, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Ukraine – was overwhelmingly focused on issues of social and political dysfunction, including coverage of the negative effects of immigration largely extracted from local news sources, repackaged and translated for English-speaking audiences.