Report: Russian-language Twitter conversation about NATO is dirty, dynamic and deceptive

New study by NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence concludes that Russian-language bots create roughly 70% of all Russian messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland. Overall, 60% of active Russian-language accounts seem to be automated. In comparison, 39% of accounts tweeting in English are bots, and they created 52% of all English-language messages in the period that we analysed.

Robotrolling is a quarterly product that focuses on automation on Social Media. This issue and analyses how automation on Twitter interferes with the conversation about the NATO presence in the Baltics and Poland. The latest issue considers August – October 2017. This study is based on a sample of Twitter-data about military activity in the Baltics and Poland and will not be representative for Twitter or other social media platforms as a whole.

The study observes consistently higher proportions of Russian-language bot activity about Estonia and Latvia than for Poland and Lithuania. Political actors use bot accounts in the social media space to manipulate public opinion about regional geopolitics. According to our estimate, such accounts produced 5-15% of the activity about the NATO presence in Latvia and Estonia.

In mid-September the Russian military conducted its ‘Zapad’ exercises in Western Russia and Belarus. English-language content about NATO in the Baltics and Poland was heavily promoted by RT and Sputnik during this time. Such articles were promoted on social media by a combination of bots, trolls, and sympathisers. English-language content from the pro-Kremlin outlets RT and Sputnik continuously referenced ‘Western hysteria over Zapad’ in articles shifting attention to NATO exercises, primarily in Poland. RT and Sputnik were the only sources of note to link Zapad 2017 with the NATO presence.

It is striking how little mention there was of Zapad in the Russian-language space. Of the hundreds of Russian articles about NATO mentioned on Twitter, only a single report from the news agency TASS mentions Zapad in conjunction with the NATO presence.

Russian-language Twitter space is thoroughly polluted by various types of spam and automated activity outweighs human activity. The proportion of bot activity for Russian-language content about Estonia and Latvia is consistently higher than it is for Poland. The profile of discussion about Lithuania was closer to Poland than the other Baltic States.

Our data suggest Twitter is more effective at removing automatically generated content in English language, than it is in Russian. Nonetheless, we have seen improvement in social media policing by the platform. A ‘cleaner’ social media is good not only for individual users, but also for businesses. Pressure should continue in order to ensure further improvements.

You can download the report here.