Copyright © 2024 Euromaidanpress.com

The work of Euromaidan Press is supported by the International Renaissance Foundation

When referencing our materials, please include an active hyperlink to the Euromaidan Press material and a maximum 500-character extract of the story. To reprint anything longer, written permission must be acquired from [email protected].

Privacy and Cookie Policies.

Defensive disinformation: Moscow tries to frame the Salisbury attack as a comedy

One Year into Salisbury: Drowning an Assassination in Sarcasm
Screenshot from RT on YouTube.
Defensive disinformation: Moscow tries to frame the Salisbury attack as a comedy
Edited by: Yuri Zoria
On 4 March 2018, ex-spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury, UK. Already shortly after, it became clear that Moscow had a very bad case.

Read also: Five ways Russia is generating a conspiracy smokescreen around the Skripal poisoning

It seemed that everything that could go wrong for the Kremlin had gone wrong: British authorities identified the substance used in the attack as the Russia-developed “novichok.” CCTV recordings showing the two suspects were presented to the public, and their real names and identities as GRU agents were published in journalistic investigations by Bellingcat and The Insider. Later, on 30 June, the attempted assassination case became a murder case when a local woman from the Salisbury area died after having been exposed to the poison.

The world was witnessing mistakes on top of mistakes. A loss of face of drastic dimensions was building up for Russia’s authorities.

The first line of defensive disinformation: Distract

When the Russian system is put in this kind of defensive position, the traditional tactic is to try to confuse public perception with disinformation in the form of multiple alternative “truths” about what has really happened.

Already less than a month after the attack, at least 20 different narratives had been offered by Russian media and officials. A central leitmotif was to present the Kremlin as simply the victim of a “Russophobic” plot. A recent study from King’s College London found that the Russian state outlets RT and Sputnik had spread “138 separate and contradictory narratives” about the incident.

This distraction approach resembled the way Moscow had been disseminating numerous “theories” about the July 2014 downing of Flight MH17.

Decoy flare: When Russian authorities are put in a defensive position, pro-Kremlin media will try to distract public perception with multiple theories about what has happened.

However, the weakness of this kind of smokescreen is that it only buys time; as global awareness of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign increased, and especially as it became evident that the series of alternative “truths” from Moscow even contradicted each other, Russian authorities were forced to also operate with the second line of disinformation defense.

The second line of defensive disinformation: Ridicule

The attempt to ridicule the United Kingdom – i.e. the victim of the attack – took the form of an online and media campaign centered around one particular phrase, which was taken from prime minister Theresa May’s statement in the British parliament: That it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack.

Russian government communication channels began to spread the hashtags #HighlyLikely and #HighlyLikelyRussia (follow the links to see examples on Twitter), as well as on Facebook (#HighlyLikely and #HighlyLikelyRussia) and other social media.

https://twitter.com/mfa_russia/status/973337667705466883

Some sources, including Russia’s foreign ministry, used a hashtag with the English phrase in its Cyrillic transcription: #ХайлиЛайкли.

The Russian government-sponsored Russkiy Mir Foundation (“Russian World”) even launched a campaign to make Russian students return to Russia from abroad under the headline “Highly Likely Welcome Back, or Time to Go Home.”

Why #HighlyLikely?

The “Highly likely” phrase was obviously chosen as a hashtag due to its immediate catchiness and appeal of a nursery rhyme-like sound repetition.

At the same time, Moscow’s campaign sought to create the impression that the UK was unsure of its proof against Russia. It was clearly assumed that the target audience would not be acquainted enough with the language of intelligence reporting to appreciate the degree of certainty that is expressed in the “highly likely” phrase.

Finally, the campaign assumed that the target audience was not accustomed to the – typically British – rhetoric of understatement, in which something intended to be direct is expressed in a way a foreign ear can perceive as indirect.

Make all sides look foolish

Moscow’s sarcastic #HighlyLikely campaign should be understood also in the context of other important events in the wake of the Skripal attack.

Following media exposure of the suspects, the Kremlin tried to put itself in something resembling a proactive position when the two men were displayed on the state TV channel RT (Russia Today) – only to see both the suspects and their interviewer, RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan, mocked with memes by Russian audiences.

As a part of the campaign to frame the Salisbury attack as a comedy, RT presented a chocolate replica of the Salisbury Cathedral as a gift to the Kremlin-critical Russian TV channel TV Rain. (Image: TV Rain via BBC).
In this atmosphere of ridicule targeting Russian authorities – and also facing serious problems internationally with expulsions of Russian diplomats worldwide – the tactics of trying to let all sides– both the British and even the Russian – look foolish, making the whole affair look like one big comedy, was perhaps the only thing left in Moscow’s toolbox – short of admitting Russia’s guilt, that is.

Further reading:

 

Edited by: Yuri Zoria
You could close this page. Or you could join our community and help us produce more materials like this.  We keep our reporting open and accessible to everyone because we believe in the power of free information. This is why our small, cost-effective team depends on the support of readers like you to bring deliver timely news, quality analysis, and on-the-ground reports about Russia's war against Ukraine and Ukraine's struggle to build a democratic society. A little bit goes a long way: for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here

You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Please leave your suggestions or corrections here


    Euromaidan Press

    We are an independent media outlet that relies solely on advertising revenue to sustain itself. We do not endorse or promote any products or services for financial gain. Therefore, we kindly ask for your support by disabling your ad blocker. Your assistance helps us continue providing quality content. Thank you!

    Related Posts