Russia spread ‘disinformation’ on Skripal attack

King’s College claims RT and news agency Sputnik distorted nerve agent attack reports

Russian state media published 138 contradictory accounts of the nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal last year, a new report has found, lending fresh weight to UK claims of a Moscow-backed propaganda campaign.

According to the report by King's College, London, the Russian state broadcaster RT and the news agency Sputnik were used as a "vehicle of disinformation" through the "publication and repetition of a long list of often contradictory narratives" which painted "a confusing picture of events" in Salisbury last March.

The report comes almost exactly one year since Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia fell critically ill after being exposed to a nerve agent from a family of nerve agents known as novichocks. The Skripals are in hiding after being discharged from hospital last year.

British police have charged two senior intelligence officers from Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, with the attempted murder of the Skripals as well as the murder of Dawn Sturgess, who died months later after inadvertently coming into contact with a small bottle containing the agent, which had been discarded by the attackers.


Chemical weapons

In the weeks after the attack, as police raced to investigate what had happened to the Skripals, Britain accused Russia of spreading false conspiracy theories to hinder the investigation and deflect responsibility for the bodged chemical weapons attack.

In response, the UK's foreign office stepped up its own social media campaign to counter the reports and claims. "We know the tactics they use. But they don't change the facts," the FCO said in a Facebook video at the time.

In December the UK media regulator, Ofcom, found RT guilty of "a serious failure" of impartiality for its coverage following the Salisbury nerve gas attack.

The report by King's College, which was funded by Open Society Foundations, an organisation founded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, said that RT and Sputnik used their English language platforms to spread seven different conspiracy theories about the attack.

These included claims that the poisoning was staged by the UK, the US or western intelligence agencies to hurt Russia, that it was a hoax and that there was no trace of novichok found in Salisbury.

Fiction plot

One of the more outlandish theories included an article that claimed the UK government’s explanation of the attack had been inspired by a Sky TV drama which featured a plot involving a Russian scientist who had developed a deadly chemical weapon called novichok.

"Understanding the extent to which these techniques can exist within state-linked outlets like RT is an important step towards preventing the spread of disinformation and its damaging effect on journalism and public discourse," said Gordon Ramsay, one of the authors of the report.

Moscow's use of state media in the Skripal case echoes similar efforts to stall international action over other examples of Russian aggression, including military action in Syria and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

RT said: “We are amazed that it took some in the UK this long to jump on the tried-and-true bandwagon: blame RT for journalistic audacity to demand facts and ask questions.”

Sputnik did not respond to a request for comment. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019