While the local audience remained modest, Sputnik still managed to engage a small segment of Baltic users via Facebook
Two to three years after their creation, the Facebook pages for Sputnik’s Baltic services — Sputnik Estonia, Sputnik Latvia, and Sputnik Lithuania— have achieved varying degrees of success in growing and maintaining their online audience. In particular, while the Facebook pages of Sputnik Estonia and Sputnik Latvia currently maintain more followers than Sputnik Lithuania’s page, the latter’s engage with the content more frequently than the followers of the Estonia and Latvia pages.
Sputnik International is an online and radio outlet that operates under the umbrella of the Kremlin-owned Rossiya Segodnya (“Russia Today”). Established by the executive order of Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 9, 2013, Rossiya Segodnya’s stated mission is, among other goals, “Securing the national interests of the Russian Federation in the information sphere.” Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, many in the region fear that Russia would annex the Baltic states next, and manipulating the information sphere would be a first step toward dividing the country, splitting ethnic Russian communities away from the other communities. In this way, Sputnik’s presence in the Baltic states and on Facebook demonstrates the Kremlin’s ongoing desire for increased influence in the region.
Among the main social media platforms, Facebook acts the primary driver of traffic to the each of the three Sputnik Baltic websites, according to SimilarWeb, a website analytics tool.
At the time of analysis, Sputnik Estonia had the highest follower count, followed by Sputnik Latvia. Sputnik Lithuania’s page had roughly two to three times fewer followers than the other two pages.
Performance over time
Of the three Baltic pages, Sputnik Estonia’s Facebook page experienced the fastest follower growth since CrowdTangle, a Facebook analysis tool, began tracking it. It grew from 5,101 followers in June 2017 to 12,620 followers in September 2019, a magnitude of 1.5.
Sputnik Latvia’s Facebook page initially had 6,441 followers in June 2017, roughly 25 percent more than Sputnik Estonia’s Facebook page had at that same point in time. In December 2018, however, the latter overtook the Latvian page in terms of followers. Sputnik Lithuania’s Facebook page maintained the fewest followers over the same time period overall, growing from approximately 1,000 to 4,600 followers.
All the pages posted quite frequently, around a thousand posts per month. Sputnik Lithuania was the least active, but only by a slight margin.
Data exported from CrowdTangle showed that all three pages posted slightly less during first 11 months of 2019 than in all months in 2018, but they still posted more than they did in 2017. The DFRLab did not analyze activity for 2016, as each page started operating at a different point in time that year.
While the Sputnik Lithuania page seemed to be the least popular in terms of follower count and post count, its interaction rate was the highest of the three pages. CrowdTangle’s page interaction rate is a division of total post interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) by page follower count.
While Sputnik Estonia’s page follower count was growing, its content interaction rate with its existing audience declined. Sputnik Latvia’s page interaction rate over time was more variable than that of the other two pages.
Location of the most engaged audience
Most of the traffic to the Baltic Sputnik websites came from Russia.
The three bureaus’ respective Facebook pages, however, appeared to engage a significant local audience, as indicated by the proportion of “top fans” — the people who most engage with the content of a given page — by location.
The Sputnik Estonia page had 226 top fans (1.5 percent of its total follower count), while Sputnik Latvia had 198 top fans (1.5 percent of its total follower count), and Sputnik Lithuania had 113 (2.2 percent of its total follower count).
Sputnik Lithuania had the smallest ratio of top fans from an ostensible home country and the largest ratio of top fans from Russia.
The DFRLab has previously covered Sputnik’s strategies for increasing audience growth, retention, and interaction in the Baltic states. These strategies have included promoting short lifestyle and entertainment multimedia video content as well as creating inauthentic pages to act as amplifiers for Sputnik material.
While Sputnik’s reach in the local language space in the Baltics remains modest, the outlet’s presence is greater in the Russian-language space. In spite of the outlet’s limited readership overall, however, that a significant portion of the top fans for each of the Baltic Facebook pages identify themselves as either from or based in the local target country suggests that the Kremlin is still able to use Sputnik to engage a small, but active, segment of the local Baltic audience.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Latvia.
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