Disinformation Detection & Analysis
Graphika supports human rights groups like the White Helmets and The Syria Campaign in the fight against coordinated disinformation campaigns.
The Syria Campaign needed to classify and analyze online disinformation targeting the efforts of the White Helmets humanitarian group.
Graphika sifted through over 12 million tweets by 2.65 million accounts, examining 10 chronological periods when Twitter chatter about the White Helmets peaked.
Graphika created 3 maps based on significant events in which conversation around the White Helmets spiked:
- A Killing the Truth map, which revealed that the US Left are likely to be reached by content from the Russia Support group, and vice versa.
- A map of the chemical attack in Douma on April 7th, which revealed that the disinformation campaign against the White Helmets included new communities.
- A map of the poisoning of Skripal in Amesbury, UK, which revealed a huge volume of content that attempted to tie the White Helmets to the Novichok exposure incidents in the UK.
Studying disinformation campaigns across multiple chronological periods allowed our analysis team to understand the network of users who act as producers and amplifiers of this content, and how that network changes over time.
These ‘snapshots’ of the network at different intervals also provide insights into how the narrative arc of disinformation shifts depending on who is producing the content.
In collaboration with the Syria Campaign, Graphika’s analysis, published in our 2017 report, Killing the Truth, revealed:
Disinformation content originating primarily with Kremlin-funded or owned media is likely to have reached around 56 million people during the 10 periods in our study.
Disinformation efforts against the White Helmets ramped up when Russia entered the conflict in Syria in 2015 coinciding with the White Helmets documenting war crimes against civilians using their helmet cameras.
By studying disinformation levelled against one group across multiple events rather than on an electoral cycle basis, we were able to uncover a different set of tactics for spreading state-sponsored disinformation.
The mainstreaming of conspiratorial and false content by Kremlin-affiliated media and state apparatus has drastic on-the-ground consequences for the work of organizations like the White Helmets, both in their ability to carry out rescue missions and their ability to document horrific war crimes perpetrated by authoritarian regimes.
The objective of this type of coordinated and sustained disinformation campaign is not interference in a singular democratic process but the undermining of concepts that are fundamental to the protection of civilian populations.Download the Full Document Here
Killing The Truth Map
The map we produced showed a significant overlap in followership and interaction between a community we’d labelled ‘US Left & Truthers‘ (who you can see here in red) and accounts who were either affiliated with the Assad regime or the Kremlin, or strongly push those viewpoints (in green).
In terms of the potential spread of disinformation, this means that the US Left are likely to be reached by content from the Russia Support group, and vice versa.
We also found that the accounts that talked about the White Helmets the most frequently were also the most influential in the map, and that their content benefitted from inorganic amplification.
Content analysis showed that unsurprisingly, information spread by the Russian support group was not only focused on smearing the White Helmets but also sowing wider discontent with the perceived ‘world order’ and encouraging support for Russian military action in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Douma Chemical Attack
Following the chemical attack in Douma on April 7th we conducted a similar network mapping exercise and found that the disinformation campaign against the White Helmets included new communities.
Comparative analysis of the Douma map and the Killing the Truth map revealed the emergence of the UK Left and established European media outlets; illustrating the progress made by the Kremlin and affiliated actors to ‘mainstream’ the smear campaign.
For example, while the sources/producers of disinformation were familiar (again Kremlin affiliates and the group of independent bloggers), the communities amplifying and being reached by this content included a cluster of Pink Floyd fans - as a direct result of an anti-White Helmets tirade delivered by Roger Waters.
This ability to ‘game’ disinformation through pop culture and influential figures allows for the surfacing of new conspiracies that aim to link events across geographies – Douma and the Skripal poisoning, for example. We also began to see concerted efforts made by Russian diplomats to distort the narrative.
Skripal Poisoning, Amesbury, UK
Another chapter of this campaign emerged around the poisoning of two British citizens in Amesbury at the end of June, where we found a huge volume of content that attempted to tie the White Helmets to Novichok exposure incidents in the UK.
The most popular hashtag among the pro-Russia support group in this map was #WhiteHelmets.
The narrative here is that the UK government has been successful in funding and training the White Helmets to stage chemical attacks, and it therefore it stands to reason that the UK government’s own faked chemical attacks are convincing enough to fool mainstream media.
The map also revealed the fracturing of the UK Left around this issue, the map showing us the Pro-Assad accounts being bridged with Corbyn supporters through a cluster of alternative media and conspiracy sources as you can see in this close-up on the right.
Comparative analysis revealed that over 40% of the accounts in our map of the Skripal poisoning also engaged with disinformation around Amesbury and that 92.6% of these were from the Anti-West|Pro-Russia group, showing a consistent network of disinformation actors.
Efforts to distort information around Amesbury saw the Russian embassy in South Africa suggesting that the contamination came from a nearby British government facility, a blatant misquote of the Minister of State for Security on Ria Novosti, and claims that the British government staged the attack to use it as a distraction from ongoing Brexit negotiations.