Online ecosystem of pro-Kremlin sources amplified unsubstantiated rumors to undermine opposition
Commentators at Kremlin-owned outlets, including RT editor Margarita Simonyan and Sputnik writer Armen Gasparyan, propagated unfounded rumors about Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and NEXTA Telegram channel founder Stepan Putilo in an effort to discredit them. Simonyan cited leaks to anonymous Telegram channels alleging that Tsikhanouskaya’s IQ was only “a bit higher than an orangutan’s,” while Gasparyan claimed on multiple social media platforms that a relative of Putilo collaborated with Nazis during World War II.
The emergence and amplification of these unsubstantiated smears is another example of Kremlin-backed information warfare in Russian-language information spaces amid the political crisis in Belarus. The lopsided vote count, the Belarusian people’s distrust in its veracity, and allegations of electoral fraud have led to ongoing mass protests around the country. Multiple state enterprises have gone on strike, including state-owned media outlets. In response, Belarusian authorities reportedly hired journalists from RT to provide favorable coverage and bolster the Lukashenka regime.
Margarita Simonyan smears Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya
During the August 19, 2020 broadcast of the pro-Kremlin talk show “60 minut,” Simonyan said the following about Belarusian opposition candidate Tsikhanouskaya:
I don’t understand why the West needs to choose the biggest freaks possible. If Georgia, then Saakashvili, if Ukraine, then Yuschenko, if Belarus, then Tsikhanouskaya. Telegram channels wrote today and yesterday — Nazigar and some others — they received a leak, how it usually happens on Telegram, that her [Tsikhanouskaya’s] IQ was tested. Her IQ is 82. An IQ of 82 is a little bit higher than an orangutan’s. There were also some psychological problems that are evident even on her videos.
Nazigar, a popular pro-Kremlin Telegram channel in Russia with nearly 350,000 subscribers, had initially posted, “American actors and Polish management did psychological and cognitive tests on Svetlana Georgevna [Tsikhanouskaya] that showed results significantly below average.” The post mentioned that her IQ test was 82 and “the U.S. military psychiatrist” diagnosed “many side conditions.”
The post did not mention any verifiable sources or any other means to prove if such tests were carried out in the first place. The DFRLab did not find any other open-source mention about testing Tsikhanouskaya’s IQ in English, Lithuanian, or Polish. Russian independent investigative journalism outlet The Insider debunked the story refuting the allegations about the low IQ by pointing out Tsikhanouskaya’s successful career as an English teacher.
Nonetheless, the rumor spread across Russian-language spaces. On August 19, 2020, Vesti.ru, the online companion to the Rossiya 1 TV channel, wrote a news story based on Simonyan’s comments during the “60 minut” show. Kapital Strani, a fringe pro-Kremlin news site, used information shared on the Nazigar Telegram channel and ran a story, “Western intelligence services discovered dementia in Tikhanovskaya.” The article garnered more than 10,000 engagements on Facebook, according to the social media listening tool BuzzSumo. NOI.md, a fringe Moldovan website in Russian, also republished Kapital Strani’s article.
The claim about Tsikhanouskaya’s allegedly low IQ score continued to spread over the following days on pro-Kremlin outlets, including Rambler, News-Front, fringe outlets, including Rorummariupol.ru, Ruanalitik.ru, and Vtoraya Planeta, as well as several blogs, including Slavik Yablochny and Viktor Glagolev. The reach of the story was not particularly large for the Russian-language media landscape overall, however.
Simonyan’s comparison of Tsikhanouskaya’s IQ to an orangutan’s IQ backfired on social media. The most popular posts about the subject on Facebook according to social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle condemned Simonyan. For example, the popular independent Russian blogger Rustem Adagamov quoted Simonyan on his Facebook and Twitter account and added: “What scum she [Simonyan] is, I never cease to be surprised.”
Similarly, Lubov Sobol, a lawyer from Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, also quoted Simonyan on her Facebook and Twitter account and added, “And what is the IQ level of a person who spoofs view statistics and porn comments on RT channels? Certainly not too high.”
Each of these posts garnered more engagement on Facebook and Twitter than the Kapital Strani article. Nevertheless, the narrative suggesting that Tsikhanouskaya has low intellectual capacity keeps circulating among Kremlin propagandists. For instance, another Kremlin commentator, Vladimir Solovyev, hinted at it two times while introducing his show on August 31.
Armen Gasparyan smears Stepan Putilo
Like Simonyan, Sputnik commentator Armen Gasparyan also has a penchant for spreading disinformation and unfounded rumors using his Telegram and Twitter accounts. Gasparyan recently suggested, “the great-grandfather of Stepan Putilo, the founder of the NEXTA Telegram channel, served the occupying forces as the head of the Osipovichi chancellery,” implying that he was a Nazi collaborator.
Gasparyan did not share any evidence that would corroborate his allegation. The only evidence he presented was a black-and-white photo of a man apparently cut out of a larger group picture. The DFRLab did not find any information about a man from Osipovichi named A.G. Putilo, which was supposedly the name of Stepan Putiolo’s ancestor. A search of a World War II memorial site for Osipovichi did return the last name Putilo mentioned in several articles, but no mention contained the initials “A.G.” An image search on Yandex.com, a Russian search engine that uses face recognition, did not return any result for the man shown in the picture. The only matching image that appeared when searching for “A.G. Putilo Osipovichy” in Russian led to a tweet by an account with the suspicious handle @gWxszMcUOqJ5klY that had just republished Gasparyan’s text. The search results for “A.G. Putilo Osipovichy” in Belarusian did not return any results. Even if a connection is eventually found between Putilo’s great-grandfather and Nazi collaborators, Gasparyan’s comments are an attempt to undermine Putilo’s credibility via the sins of an ancestor rather than any conduct of Putilo himself.
The narrative about Putilo’s ancestor spread on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, VKontakte, and reddit. On Facebook, the narrative was amplified in 15 pro-Kremlin public groups and garnered 311 interactions, according to CrowdTangle. On Twitter, there were just 17 original tweets about Putilo’s grandparent. Only Gasparyan’s tweet garnered significant engagement — 954 retweets, 33 quote tweets, and over 1,300 likes. On Telegram, two anonymous channels — Vashi Slivi and Upiry Lytie — forwarded Gasparyan’s Telegram post. On VKontante, there were 30 posts about the topic. Most of them included the black-and-white image. Finally, on Reddit there was just one post that garnered a mere eight upvotes.
The lack of any independent open-source evidence to corroborate Simonyan’s and Gasparyan’s allegations suggests that the rumors about Tsikhanouskaya and Putilo were most likely invented to undermine their credibility. The online media ecosystem that served to amplify these claims is yet another avenue through which pro-Kremlin actors attempt to discredit the Belarus opposition in favor of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his regime.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Research Associate, Baltics, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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