Putin and Pro-Kremlin Outlets Distract from Moscow Protests

When confronted about pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow, the Russian president highlighted domestic unrest in France

(Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DRFLab via @AlexKokcharov)

Using a mixture of distraction and whataboutism, Russian President Vladimir Putin used his recent meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron as an opportunity to deflect attention away from the ongoing protests in Moscow and to justify the city’s police in using force against the protesters.

During an August 19 meeting with Macron, Putin criticized his counterpart’s handling of recent protests in France, saying that he did not want a “yellow vests” situation to develop in Russia. Putin’s comments came after Macron confronted him on the Russian government’s brutal crackdown on ongoing pro-democracy protests in Moscow. In what was his first public comment on the Moscow protests, Putin stated that his government would ensure the Moscow demonstrations would evolve “strictly in the framework of the law,” a likely attempt to criticize the French government’s handling of the yellow vest movement.

The comment adhered to a cardinal Kremlin disinformation tactic, which the DFRLab identified before: the appeal to hypocrisy, or “whataboutism.” When faced with criticism in its handling of domestic as well as foreign affairs, the Kremlin employs this logical fallacy to divert attention to wrongdoing by the accusing party, in an effort to highlight the latter’s alleged hypocrisy.

Similarly, by drawing attention to the unrest in France, Putin diverted attention from both the Russian governments violent crackdown and the legitimate grievances expressed by Moscow’s pro-democracy protesters. In doing so, he was deploying one of the pillars of the DFRLab’s “4 Ds of Disinformation” framework: distraction.

Pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-owned outlets subsequently took Putin’s retort and ran with it, devoting an increased amount of attention to the yellow vest movement gripping France.

A Tale of Two Protests

The DFRLab has been covering the Moscow protests since they began in July 2019, when tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of the Russian capital after officials disqualified opposition candidates from Moscow’s September municipal elections. The Kremlin media has mobilized disinformation narratives regarding the protests, such as downplaying their size, diverting attention from them, and justifying the brutality of Russian police against the demonstrators.

The French “yellow vest” protests are older, having begun in Fall 2018, and have primarily attracted France’s white working and middle-class. The immediate catalyst was the French government’s decision to institute a green tax on fuel, but the underlying cause was a brewing frustration in living standards and dwindling economic opportunity across France.

While most of the protests were peaceful, some turned violent, as a minority of protesters looted shops, vandalized buildings and historical sites, and violently clashed with police. The French government’s uneven response to the protests, from harsh crackdowns to over-correcting to a too lax approach, engendered criticism from both the media and the public.

But in his comparison of the two governments’ responses to domestic unrest, Putin omits a critical distinction between the Moscow and Paris protests: the latter attracted a small, but vocal, contingent of more radical activists who engaged in property destruction, looting, and violence. Those rogue elements were largely absent from the Moscow protests, but the Russian government nonetheless responded with brutal force.

Pro-Kremlin Outlets Spread Putin’s Narrative

Putin’s use of whataboutism and distraction enabled his allies in pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-owned media to pick up his narrative and disseminate it. When a sympathetic media entity wishes to protect a political leader, official statements that are already distorted in some form enables the outlet to claim impartiality, that it is merely conveying what the official said. These claims of unbiased reporting are not normally accompanied by fact-checking of the official statements and often distort the narrative further.

Such was the case for many in the Kremlin’s media ecosystem following the meeting between the presidents, as Putin-friendly outlets ran headlines, among other things, reading “Macron was not happy about the comparison of the Moscow protests with the ‘yellow vests’” and “Macron argued with Putin about the protests in France and Russia.”

The Kremlin outlets amplified Putin’s narrative comparing government responses to the protests in Moscow and those in Paris. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Gazeta.ru/archive; Ntv.ru/archive; Lenta.ru/archive; Ria.ru/archive, from top to bottom)

In addition to these outlets’ efforts, the Kremlin’s website posted an official translated transcript of the meeting between the two presidents that contained several errors concerning Macron’s statements on the need for free and fair elections. In some cases, the transcript excluded the word “elections” entirely. Most of these mistakes had been corrected as of August 22 after Kremlin spokesman saying “interpreters have a challenging job”, but some remained.

According to the BBC Russian Service, Macron’s statement about European Union countries respecting the rights of expression, free assembly, and participation in elections were not present in the Russian translation on the Kremlin’s website. Instead, the Kremlin’s official site claims that in this part of the dialogue it was allegedly said, “Russia ratified a number of international treaties, conventions, under which the country should provide its citizens with fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and so on.” The part about freedom of participation in elections was not included in translation.

The official site of the Kremlin excluded the part about freedom of participation in elections from Macron’s transcripts. (Source: Kremlin.ru/archive)

These omissions may have been a possible attempt to further distract from the grievances at the heart of the pro-democracy protests in the Russian capital.

The Narrative’s Spread

The DFRLab looked into a three-day period from August 19–22, 2019, the days following Putin and Macron’s meeting, to analyze social media engagement with the narrative comparing the yellow vest movement to the Moscow protests.

Social media analysis tool Sysomos showed an increase in the mentions of the Russian phrase “Желтые жилеты” (“yellow vests”) after Putin drew attention to the yellow vest protests. The mentions fluctuated throughout the three-day period and decreased from August 21 onward.

Sysomos scan of mentions of the phrase “Желтые жилеты” (“yellow vests”) in Russian in the three-day period after Putin’s meeting with Macron. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Sysomos showed an increased in mentions of the same phrase in a different grammatical conjugation of the same term, “Желтых жилетов” (“yellow vests”), on August 19 and 20.

Sysomos scan of mentions of a second conjugation in Russian, “Желтых жилетов,” of the same words (“yellow vests”) in the three-day period after Putin’s meeting with Macron. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Sysomos)

The two variations of the term “yellow vests” in Russian showed substantially different use patterns on Sysomos. The sustained and higher use of the second variation, “Желтых жилетов”, indicates that it was the more popular of the two terms.

The Russian articles furthering the narrative garnered close to zero engagements on social media, while the YouTube video titled “Why the two protests are incompatible” garnered 30total social media engagements, according to social media analysis tool BuzzSumo.

Engagement with articles comparing Moscow and Paris protests was low. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via Buzzsumo)

Although pro-Kremlin outlets attempted to further Putin’s narrative that Russia is doing a better job than France in containing domestic unrest, these attempts failed to achieve significant engagement on social media.


Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.

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