Moscow's Twitter information war goes on despite ban in Russia

Diplomatic accounts spread pro-Kremlin messaging during war with Ukraine

Signs are displayed in support of Ukraine outside Russia's embassy in Berlin. EPA

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Russian diplomats are keeping up their information war from their notoriously provocative Twitter accounts despite the website being banned by Moscow during the war in Ukraine.

The account of the Russian embassy in Britain has continued to post frequently even after it had a tweet removed for making what the UK said were false claims about an attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol.

In recent days it has shared pro-Kremlin messages about alleged Ukrainian atrocities and neo-Nazi influence in the country to its 156,000 Twitter followers.

Other Russian accounts have ridiculed western politicians for mispronouncing Slavic names and promoted Moscow’s messaging that Ukraine was developing chemical weapons, a claim rejected as absurd by Nato countries.

It follows a long line of eyebrow-raising posts over the years which have widely been described as trolling the West over incidents such as the 2018 Salisbury poison attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.

While that information war continues abroad, Russia has blocked access to Twitter and Facebook at home as it tries to control the narrative about the invasion of Ukraine, which it describes as a special military operation.

Screengrab from the Twitter feed of Nadine Dorries showing a tweet by the Russian embassy in the UK, which was branded 'fake news' by the culture secretary and which has been removed by Twitter.

Major European broadcasters pulled staff out of Russia after a law was passed envisaging 15-year prison terms for people who publish what Moscow deems to be disinformation about the armed forces.

The European Union, in turn, has banned Kremlin-owned media channels Russia Today and Sputnik from its airwaves and sanctioned some of Moscow’s most visible representatives.

In Britain, broadcast regulator Ofcom has opened 15 investigations into Russian state-controlled international television network RT after observing a “significant increase” in questionable programming following the invasion of Ukraine.

Twitter has not gone as far as banning RT and news agency Sputnik’s accounts, but stopped advertising from them in 2017 and has acted since the war in Ukraine broke out to reduce their visibility and label them as state-affiliated.

Engagement with tweets labelled in this way — which also include some posts from state-linked outlets in Belarus — has fallen 30 per cent since the new policy was implemented, said Twitter’s head of site integrity Yoel Roth.

The post by the Russian embassy in London was removed for claiming that the maternity hospital attacked in Ukraine was no longer operational and home to Ukrainian neo-Nazis.

Twitter removed the post for violating its rules, while the UK’s Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, whose portfolio includes media regulation, said the post from Russia was “fake news”.

The UK and US have condemned the Russian attack on the maternity hospital, with a top American diplomat describing it as an act of “vile wickedness”.

Twitter said the Russian embassy’s post specifically breached its policies on hateful conduct and abusive behaviour relating to the denial of violent events.

Updated: March 16, 2022, 12:50 PM
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