Russian trolls attempted to manipulate view of Salisbury poisoning

Hayley Dixon
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in a critical condition  - East 2 West

Russian Twitter trolls have been attempting to show that the British public do not believe Vladimir Putin is behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, it has been claimed. 

The potentially fake accounts, which experts say could be linked to the bot factory in St Petersburg, retweeted a poll by a British user which ended with more than 15,700 votes. 

Less that two weeks after the former double agent and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury city centre, Twitter user Rachael Swindon asked if people thought Theresa May "has supplied enough evidence for us to be able to confidently point the finger of blame towards Russia?"

77 per cent voted no, leading the blogger, who is a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has more than 57,000 followers, to conclude that "the mood of the British public is starting to shift".

However, an analysis by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, showed that some of the most influential retweets originated from pro-Kremlin accounts which seemed to be organised. 

It comes amid outrage over the Russian Government's use of troll or bot factories, which are organised groups of anonymous political commentators which use trolling and disinformation campaigns to promote pro-Putin and pro-Russian propaganda.


https://twitter.com/Rachael_Swindon/status/975053363065835521?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedium.com%2Fmedia%2Fea0bd160fc9e6b44e57b1b58fb41cc4f%3FpostId%3D5d0bb3dc30ae

Ben Nimmo, a senior research fellow at the lab, concluded that the retweets of the poll appeared to be an "attempt by pro-Russian users to influence the online poll, and thus to create the appearance of greater hostility towards the UK government than UK users themselves showed".

One of the users who tweeted the poll,  @malinka1102 normally focuses on Russian politics and  Kremlin disinformation operations, such as the annexation of Crimea and the shooting down of the MH17, whilst another @znaetymka is a Russian language account said to interact at a bot-like rate of 285 times a day. 

Researchers also suspect that one of the most retweeted accounts mentioning the poisoning of Mr Skripal could be linked to the troll factory, which "shows the power which anonymous trolls with demonstrably falsified profiles continue to wield online". 

Mr Nimmo added: "The large-scale amplification by Russian accounts of a UK Twitter poll demonstrated the ease with which connected accounts can amplify and, most probably, manipulate online debate, even from far away...

"Together, they show the aggression, coordination and impact with which pro-Kremlin accounts, often anonymous and polemic, continue to operate."

Researchers have estimated that there are up to 150,000 accounts operated by Russians that meddle in British political and cultural life.

Police in protective suits and gas masks work to remove the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned  Credit: London News Pictures 

Twitter, which did not respond to a request for comment, has faced increasing pressure to deal with trolls and bots and say that they suspend accounts which are found not to be genuine. 

Russian trolls have previously been accused of meddling in both the US Election and the Brexit campaign.

It comes as Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter, 33, remain in a critical condition in hospital. 

Questions have been raised about whether he was still working alongside the British intelligence services as a member of the community told Channel 4 that in recent years he had visited Poole to give a lecture to the UK Special Forces, at Special Boat Service headquarters. 

Mr Skripal was know to regularly dine with a well dressed man believed to be his MI6 handler in the Côte Brasserie in Salisbury and gave lectures at military academies on the GRU, Russia's foreign military intelligence agency. 

Sir Andrew Wood, former British Ambassador to Russia, told Russian Spy Assassins: The Salisbury Attack, which will air tonight (MONDAY) at 10pm on Channel 4, that it would be "unusual" for a handler and a spy to stay in touch. 

He said: "It's essential to the person who has taken refuge with us that he is not seen to be acting against his former service on a continuing basis. I suppose its conceivable a deep friendship would have sprung up between them but you're also exposing the handler and you don’t really want to do that."

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