Information Warfare · Russia

The Kremlin’s Audience in France

Graph showing the Twitter followings and level of activity of @RTenfrancais and @sputnik_fr, compared with AFP French and BFMTV.

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One of the most frequently asked questions about Kremlin broadcasters RT and Sputnik concerns their audience: how big is it, and who is it?

With attention focusing on the impending French presidential elections, amid allegations of Russian interference and “fake news,” the @DFRLab has taken a closer look at the Twitter followings of the two outlets’ French editions, @sputnik_fr and @RTenfrancais.

The analysis shows that their most active followers can be broken down into four main categories (some of which overlap): supporters of nationalist and isolationist parties, especially French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s Front National; supporters of Russia and its international allies, notably Syria; opponents of centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron; and automated “bots.”

“Fr” as in “fringe”

In purely numerical terms, RT France and Sputik France are fringe outlets in the French Twittersphere. As of April 7, RT’s French service had 63,000 followers, while Sputnik France had 38,000. This is orders of magnitude below established French media such as Agence France-Presse (2.56 million followers) or BFMTV (2.1 million).

Graph showing the Twitter followings and level of activity of @RTenfrancais and @sputnik_fr, compared with AFP French and BFMTV.

Both Kremlin outlets are active on Twitter, but not abnormally so. A scan of the twittersphere conducted from February 28 to March 30 revealed that @RTenfrancais posted 3,637 tweets over the course of the month, at an average rate of 121 a day. @Sputnik_fr posted 2,067, at a rate of 69 a day. This is somewhat below the average rate of posting of AFP (157 a day) and BFMTV (195 a day).

While the outlets themselves are less active than their rivals, the same cannot be said of the accounts which follow them. A machine scan of all posts retweeting or mentioning @RTenfrancais between February 28 and March 30 collected a total of 74,000 tweets, posted by 15,335 users. This equates to an average of 4.8 tweets per user.

Chart showing the total number of tweets collected in the scan, the number of unique users posting, and the rate of tweets per user, for @midilibre, @BBCWorld, @RTenfrancais and @sputnik_fr.

A similar scan made of @sputnik_fr over the same dates returned just over 36,000 tweets from 7,703 users, for an average of 4.7 tweets per user.

By comparison, a 30-day machine scan of French regional newspaper Midi Libre (@midilibre, 124,000 followers) returned 6,000 tweets from 3,393 accounts, at a rate of 1.8 tweets per user. A scan of 30,000 tweets mentioning BBC World (@BBCWorld) returned 20,222 users, at a rate of 1.5 tweets per user.

These figures suggest that the Twitter following of RTenfrancais and Sputnik_fr is unusually dedicated, and unusually active.

Political stances

That high level of activity is matched by a high degree of political engagement. An analysis of the fifty most active tweeters to mention each account showed that most had a strong political bias. The main trends were support for Russia, support for nationalist and isolationist positions, and opposition to centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Some accounts largely concentrated on one of these trends; others combined them.

Top amplifiers of @sputnik_fr with a primarily Russian focus include, for example, @Ollissya, which claims to be a multilingual Russian journalist, and @Orthodoxe, which claims to be a Russian Orthodox monk who is on Twitter “to get information and defend Russia.”

In the month from February 28 to March 30, @Ollissya shared 171 Sputnik French articles and retweeted four. @Orthodoxe shared 281 articles and retweeted four.

Source: @Orthodoxe / Twitter. The bio reads, “Monk of the Orthodox church. On Twitter to get information and defend Russia” in French and Russian.

Significantly more of the top amplifiers of RT and Sputnik in French have a focus on French politics, and support Le Pen. These include the account @languillem, which claims to be “very proud to support Marine.” This was the top amplifier of both accounts in March, posting 985 tweets mentioning @RTenfrancais and 1,588 tweets mentioning @sputnik_fr.

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