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How badly did Russia’s interview with the Skripal poisoning suspects backfire?

- September 15, 2018

RT, Russia’s state-backed international broadcaster, aired an exclusive interview with the two Russian men accused of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the English town of Salisbury. The two suspects denied all involvement, claiming to be tourists interested in Salisbury Cathedral.

This interview could have been simply one more episode in the fierce narrative battle between British and Russian authorities. However, this does not appear to have been the case, according to the latest research from the “Reframing Russia” project, which looks at the state broadcaster’s efforts to reshape Russia’s external image. The data suggest that — for RT, at least — this broadcast backfired.

RT has tried to discredit the British case

In its earliest reporting on the Salisbury poisoning, RT sought to draw into question key elements of the official British case. RT headlines focused not on the case itself, but on how the British media was reporting it. One headline, for instance, read “Blame precedes evidence.”

RT’s reporting was factually accurate, based on statements from the police or headlines generated in mainstream media outlets. However, the network told the story from the Russian point of view, with Russia merely responding to other states’ actions.

RT relied heavily on a particular selection of guests who highlighted inconsistencies in official United Kingdom accounts. Russia’s ambassador to Britain gave his thoughts in op-eds and interviews. “Putin’s former spin doctor,” Alexander Nekrassov, was another repeat commentator.

Likewise, former British intelligence officials Charles Shoebridge and Annie Machon contributed to several talk shows. Machon and Nekrassov also provided commentary for the BBC, but other regularly featured experts gave conspiratorial contributions unlikely to be hosted on other networks.

The tone of RT’s programming tended to vary dramatically, depending on the program and the journalist hosting it. One consistent theme throughout the Skripal coverage was the network’s critiques of Western political institutions and Western media. RT coverage also employed dismissive irony, humor and informality — and used social media responses to show there was wider skepticism about British claims.

Did this strategy work? Yes — but only initially.

Our social media research suggests that, initially, English-speaking RT audiences accepted RT’s skepticism about official British accounts of the poisoning. RT’s YouTube “Skripal” playlist of 60 videos has more than 1.6 million combined views and more than 32,000 comments. These videos were upvoted a total of 32,000 times, compared with only 4,200 downvotes, which suggests viewers largely agree with their content.

To understand how audiences were reacting to RT’s reporting, we analyzed the top 100 most-liked comments on two specific videos discussing the Skripal case. On one video, 73 percent of the comments suggested there was a conspiracy at work, with claims such as “it is more likely the CIA poisoned them to place blame on Russia.” Some 44 percent of comments were critical of Britain and its allies, and 27 percent noted inconsistencies in British claims. Only four of the comments were critical of Russia, Putin or RT’s claims.

In response to another video, 35 percent of commentators suggested conspiracy theories, 95 percent of the comments were critical of Britain, and 26 percent suggested inconsistencies in the British narrative. Only one of the top 100 comments was critical of Russia — but it also stated that the British government was similarly untrustworthy.

And then the interview landed

The previous data show that RT viewers were generally skeptical of the official British account of the Skripal poisoning. But this week’s interview with the suspects marked a dramatic change — the top 100 most-liked comments included many from viewers who felt the interview was ridiculous and that the suspects’ stories were implausible. Fully 74 percent were critical of the claims presented by the suspects.

Some viewers even noted that the interview itself had changed their opinion of the whole affair: “Not a very convincing interview at all … I wasn’t doubting the Russian government until I saw this interview,” was one comment. Others saw it as reason to doubt the RT network, calling it “fake news.” In comparison, only 16 percent of the comments were critical of Britain, while 4 percent suggested the interview was an example of Russian trolling.

In the past, RT generally relied on humor to neutralize negative reactions. This time, the editor in chief who interviewed the two suspects struggled to deflect the criticism and dramatically hung up during a telephone interview with the BBC.

Perhaps the response of English-speaking audiences is no real concern, if the main purpose of the interview was designed more for domestic audiences. But if that was the intent, the interview also appears to have failed. Russia’s state-controlled domestic TV ignored the video’s critical reception, but newspapers have not been so forgiving. And the YouTube comments on RT’s Russian version of the interview have been just as negative as those in English. One viewer said: “Until today I perceived this Skripal story as Britain’s provocation. But once I saw these two idiots, my view has been shaken.”

To date, RT has pitched itself as a network at ease with the new digital world, prepared to tell uncomfortable truths in a media environment dominated by the institutions and power structures of the “West.” Criticism of the network, RT suggests, is fueled by Russophobes frightened at its challenge to those in power.

The poor reception to the Skripal suspects’ interview shows the fragility of RT’s position — and its ability to act as a soft-power instrument of the Russian state — along with its failure to judge online audiences. As one comment on RT’s interview put it: “by posting this video and also not disabling comments you’ve totally screwed yourselves.”

Precious N. Chatterje-Doody is a research associate at the University of Manchester working on the British Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: From Cold War to “Information War”? She tweets at @PreciousChatD.

Rhys Crilley is a research associate at the Open University working on Reframing Russia. He tweets at @RhysCrilley.