Posts related to Kaliningrad sanctions targeted by social media bots and trolls

In a matter of weeks after sanctions were imposed on the transit of goods to Kaliningrad, Facebook posts published by Lithuanian broadcaster, LRT, experienced a surge in interactions with content about the issues related to the Russian semi-exclave. Analysis revealed that most interactions originated from suspected troll or bot accounts which engaged in inauthentic behaviour intended to artificially amplify certain news content while pushing harmful narratives in the comments sections. Further investigation uncovered links between the suspicious accounts and an organised operation to buy access to established social media profiles.


This analysis was carried out by DebunkEU.org analysts Aleksandra Michałowska-Kubś and Jakub Kubś.

 

Summary

  • ‘LRT English’ Facebook page posts published from June 1 to August 31, 2022, about Kaliningrad. Some of them received a very high interaction rate, on one occasion reaching up to 111 times more reactions than the average.

  • The distribution of interactions on the ‘LRT English’ Facebook posts was revealed to indicate unnatural behaviour, consistent with artificial amplification tactics.

  • Automated analysis of data revealed accounts interacting with the LRT English posts originated from 91 countries, with 57% of interactions from Africa and Asia.

  • Manual analysis of 848 accounts revealed more than half of them (56.9 %) to be suspicious, with most suspicious accounts originating from Nigeria, Kenya and the Philippines.

  • Research revealed two users promoting an opportunity to be paid as part of an social media ‘account renting’ scheme, that also interacted with LRT English posts, suggesting a modus operandi for the campaign. One of the users was Russia-linked.

  • Analysis of 8936 comments revealed significant clusters, including some groups promoting pro-Russia and other pro-Ukraine narratives, which were engaged with by audiences around the world.

 

In view of the increasingly discussed problem of inauthentic behaviour on social media and the widespread activity of bots and trolls on social media, DebunkEU.org investigated a selection of artificially amplified Facebook posts from a Lithuanian national broadcaster dedicated to sanctions imposed on the transit of certain goods to Kaliningrad and related issues that were published on ‘LRT English’ Facebook page. In our analysis, we leveraged technologies developed and provided by Graphika, a social networks analysis firm working to map and understand online communities.

In June 2022, Lithuania began implementing the EU sanctions package on certain Russian goods - including building materials - in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ban entered into force on June 18 at midnight. The EU sanctions package led to a Kremlin campaign against Lithuania. The situation has triggered a wave of comments from politicians in the Russian Federation. Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev, called the ban a hostile action, claiming that Russia's response "will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania.” Russia’s foreign ministry warned that Vilnius must stop the “openly hostile” activity: “If cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation via Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests,” while the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that "the situation is more than serious." Similar threats were a continuation of tense relations between Russia and Lithuania. In the weeks before sanctions were implemented, the deputy of the Russian Duma proposed to cancel the recognition of Lithuania's independence.


The situation has become a pretext for the dissemination of false or misleading information, e.g., that the transit ban was an exclusive decision of Lithuania, it would lead to a famine on Kaliningrad territory (although the transport of consumer goods was not subjected to sanctions), which will result in the outbreak of World War III.


The issue of transit sanctions was extensively discussed in Lithuanian media - Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) wrote about the situation, posting links to its articles on social media, including its own Facebook page ‘LRT English’.



LRT articles about Kaliningrad sanctions go viral


Although LRT is one of the largest media outlets in Lithuania, posts published on the ‘LRT English’ page typically elicited a moderate number of reactions. From September 2021 to early June 2022, there was an average of 42 reactions per post. However, in the second half of June, some posts about the Kaliningrad transit situation skyrocketed in terms of the number of reactions, triggering thousands of likes and comments.

Number of interactions on the Facebook page “LRT English” posts for the period of 2022
Number of interactions on the Facebook page “LRT English” posts for the period of 2022

Between June 1 and August 31, 2022, posts published by 'LRT English' and containing the keyword "Kaliningrad," generated 45,700 reactions. However, only the selection of 14 posts focusing mainly on sanctions imposed on Kaliningrad were characterised by the significant increase in the number of reactions, generating up to 111 times more reactions than the average. It is noteworthy that the posts which gained the highest number of responses occurred at consistent intervals of 10-14 days.

Screenshots of four 'LRT English' Facebook posts with tens of thousands of interactions
Screenshots of four 'LRT English' Facebook posts with tens of thousands of interactions

Some posts about Kaliningrad gathered hundreds or thousands of reactions, comments and shares. What's more, the number of interactions of some of the Lithuanian broadcaster's posts was much higher or comparable to the number of interactions of major global media outlets, such as Reuters, BBC News, and CNN.

Number of interactions on Facebook posts with the keyword "Kaliningrad"  published between June 1 and August 31, 2022
Number of interactions on Facebook posts with the keyword "Kaliningrad" published between June 1 and August 31, 2022

On July 7, the Facebook page 'LRT English' announced that it had recorded a suspicious increase in activity towards posts about Russia, Kaliningrad and some other topics. The inauthentic behavior, journalists noted, came "often from what appears to be fake accounts and includes hate speech and disinformation." As a result, the site's administrators decided to restrict the ability to comment on certain posts. However, the ban did not significantly reduce the number of reactions on subsequent posts related to the Kaliningrad transit situation.

Screenshots of two 'LRT English' Facebook posts on July 11, 2022, with a high number of reactions
Screenshots of two 'LRT English' Facebook posts on July 11, 2022, with a high number of reactions

Analyzed data


In this analysis, we limited the topic range for articles connected to the sanctions imposed on Kaliningrad transit (13 articles) or banned Russian goods in general (1 article) published in the period from June 1 to August 31, 2022. In total 14 posts were analysed. These posts published by ‘LRT English’ FB page were characterised by the highest total number of interactions, for this analysis, which ranged from 982 to 8389 (reactions, comments and shares combined). It should be stressed, however, that only 6 posts triggered increased number of comments. The reason for was that at some point ‘LRT English’ FB page restricted possibility to comment posts about sanctions imposed on Kaliningrad, as administrators stated, that these content pieces have inauthentically high interaction rate.

Data gathered for 14 problematic Facebook posts with the keyword "Kaliningrad" published on ‘LRT English’ Facebook page between June 1 and August 31, 2022
Data gathered for 14 problematic Facebook posts with the keyword "Kaliningrad" published on ‘LRT English’ Facebook page between June 1 and August 31, 2022

Automated analysis of accounts' country of origin


An analysis of accounts which have interacted with 'LRT English' Facebook posts has highlighted the wide variety of countries of origin. In some cases of manual review, it appeared that there was a mismatch between the username and account URL, generic account profile images, lots of locked accounts and the area from which the account was managed. This was mainly the case with fake accounts whose creators wanted to hide their identities. Nevertheless, in our opinion, in most cases the usernames corresponded to their geographic-cultural background.


The Namsor application was used to automatically check the country of origin of the analysed accounts. For the purposes of the study, we narrowed down the number of accounts to those for which the program specified an 80% accuracy. This criterion allowed us to select 2712 unique accounts which left 3514 interactions. Based on the data that we observed, the analysed posts about Kaliningrad gained responses from 91 countries. The results are presented on the map below.

World map highlighting the countries of origin of analyzed Facebook accounts
World map highlighting the countries of origin of analyzed Facebook accounts

The highest activity in relation to posts about Kaliningrad came from, respectively, Poland, Lithuania, Nigeria, Kenya and Bangladesh. While in the case of Lithuania and its immediate neighbour, Poland, the increased interest in the topic can be easily explained, the high number of interactions from African and South Asian countries is potentially more unnatural. Accounts from these countries are typically rarely engaged with content published on 'LRT English'.


Using the same data sample, we conducted a test of the distribution of regions. It turned out that more than half of the accounts interacting with the posts were from Africa or Asia, which means that these accounts were mostly involved in amplifying 'LRT English' Facebook posts.

Distribution of interactions to the LRT English posts by continent
Distribution of interactions to the LRT English posts by continent

Since we identified a large amount of traffic from countries that do not typically interact with "LRT English" posts, we decided to conduct an in-depth analysis of a large sample of accounts. As a result, we identified signs of inauthentic behaviour among many of these accounts.



Manual review of sample dataset


We were able to check 848 accounts of which more than half (56.9%) were found to have a high probability of being social media trolls or bots. Those accounts originated from 91 countries, mainly African and Asian states (77%). In total, manually checked suspicious accounts left 947 reactions, which means that some of them engaged with 'LRT English' Facebook posts more than once.


Data gathered for 848 manually verified Facebook accounts which interacted with ‘LRT English’ Facebook posts
Data gathered for 848 manually verified Facebook accounts which interacted with ‘LRT English’ Facebook posts

The top three countries of origin of suspicious accounts are Nigeria, Kenya and the Philippines. With documented instances of social media bot and troll farms being used in these areas before, it was another clue pointing to the fact that the amplification of ‘LRT English’ posts was part of the artificial amplification campaign.