The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison on February 16th sent shockwaves around the world. Navalny was a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin and made uncovering corruption within Russia's political system his life's work. His death raises many questions about the future of democracy and dissent within Russia. 

In the aftermath of Navalny's death, pro-Putin online communities have been hard at work distorting narratives about Navalny to discredit him. On Telegram channels and even increasingly on Western social media sites, propaganda is being carefully crafted and circulated to paint Navalny as a “corrupted neo-Nazi’ who has no lasting legacy. It’s important to contextualize these claims when assessing Navalny's impact.

With our two flagship platforms – the Constellation Platform and Compass by Blackbird.AI – the RAV3N Narrative Intelligence and Research Team identified and assessed seven prominent narratives surrounding Alexei Navalny. Russian information operations often follow a set playbook – testing a broad set of narratives in dedicated pro-Russian communities, eventually diffusing them into front-facing platforms and groups with the assistance of curated bot networks and influencers. In this article, the RAV3N team will dissect how this strategy was successfully employed to discredit Navalny and abdicate responsibility for his death.

The Blackbird.AI Constellation network graph pictured at the top right shows Russian state supporter activity, the bottom right shows bot-like activity, and the left shows partisan activity in the false narrative “Navalny is a Nazi.”

Narrative #1 - Discrediting Navalny's Legacy

The three network graph visualizations in the above image encapsulate the communities, methods, and tactics employed by users online seeking to propagate the idea that “Navalny was a Nazi” and discredit his activism and the broader anti-corruption movement in Russia. The RAV3N team analyzed nearly 24,000 posts espousing this narrative, which emerged among concentrated communities of pro-Russian users. It spread into a wider network of partisan users online via visibility afforded through bot-like inauthentic amplification – nearly 15% of users engaging with this conversation were detected as bot-like. This common tactic employed by Russian-aligned threat actors is especially effective through mobilizing networks of bot-like users that fit pre-established personas and have been integrated into ideologically driven online communities. Our metrics revealed that bot-like users were 44% more likely to express pro-Russian sentiment than the general pool of users engaging with this narrative. 

Furthermore, over 28% of posts expressing this narrative were flagged as anomalous by Blackbird.AI’s Constellation dashboard, indicating a high level of coordinated inauthentic activity. Bad actors often use this tactic to surface narratives that wouldn’t have otherwise spread.

Many pro-Putin communities are propagating the notion that Navalny has no real legacy and will soon be forgotten. Some are surfacing old videos showing Navalny at nationalist rallies years ago, aiming to categorize him as a “neo-Nazi” and render his more recent political activism moot. This characterization feeds into Russia's broader messaging about the need to "denazify" Ukraine and attempts to malign Russian opposition by associating them with “Nazism.” 

While Navalny expressed nationalist views and participated in rallies with partisan groups, his views evolved significantly over the years. Russian propaganda is often successful because narratives rely on authenticated information, making them harder to debunk. Compass by Blackbird.AI is important because it provides essential context and clarity to these misleading narratives. 

Navalny, who emerged as a Russian opposition leader in the 2010s, focused on uncovering corruption within Putin's inner circle. Through his Anti-Corruption Foundation, he produced viral investigative reports revealing the ill-gotten gains of top Putin allies. 

As a political candidate, Navalny championed traditional liberal democratic values like fair elections, freedom of speech, anti-corruption, and an end to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. His policies stand in stark contrast to the “neo-Nazi” label propagandists attempt to affix to him.

The claim ‘Nalvany is a nazi’ was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI for context.

Narrative #2 - Discrediting Navalny's Wife

Pro-Kremlin figures are also aiming to discredit Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya. One prominent propagandist has been at the forefront of this effort, portraying Navalnaya as a "political escort" to undermine her credibility. The goal is to dampen her ability to carry on her husband's work and prevent a swell of domestic opposition after Navalny's death. Many pro-Russian corners of the internet focused on Navalnaya’s February 2024 Munich Security Conference speech, accusing her of smirking and calling attention to her quick public return following the death of her husband to argue that she didn’t truly care for him. This fits in with a long-standing narrative that Navalnaya has been engaging in extramarital affairs during her husband's imprisonment.

This characterization of Navalnaya is inaccurate. She is a strong political figure in her own right who vocally supported her husband's work. Since his imprisonment in early 2021, Navalnaya has advocated for fair treatment and medical care for Navalny. She was by his side through his 2020 poisoning and recovery. Her commitment to Navalny's cause is clear.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI for context.

Narrative #3 - The Anti-Corruption Movement is Over

Some pundits argued that Navalny's death signals the end of Russia's anti-corruption movement. Russian propagandists claim the movement will "go out with a whimper" and lacks the momentum to continue without its leader. This assertion does not consider how Navalny galvanized Russian youth and built a durable opposition structure during his lifetime. 

Through online investigative reports that spread like wildfire among young Russians fed up with endemic corruption, Navalny made opposing Putin's regime trendy. The Anti-Corruption Foundation he started trained activists in over 40 regions of Russia and coordinated national protests. 

These foundation blocks do not crumble overnight with the death of a leader. Navalnaya and other top aides have already vowed to continue the work Navalny started. The opposition also has momentum: protests erupted immediately after Navalny's death, demonstrating that outrage over his treatment remains strong.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI for context.

Narrative #4 - Blaming the West

Seeking to muddy the waters around Navalny's passing, some Russian politicians blame the West for his death. Propagandists even assert that Navalny's 2020 poisoning was fabricated. By implying foul play and Western intelligence conspiracies, the Kremlin diverts attention from the obvious: the deteriorating conditions and denial of proper medical care to Navalny while imprisoned.

The current strategy in deflecting blame among pro-Putin and state-aligned actors alike lies in dismissing any charges against Russian responsibility as a ‘blame Russia’ mentality.

Following his 2020 poisoning, labs in Germany, France, and Sweden independently verified Navalny had been exposed to the Novichok nerve agent, confirming foul play. Yet he was denied healthcare in prison after complaining of back pain and paralysis in his limbs. There is a clear paper trail around the denial of care that led to Navalny's death. Blaming shadowy Western forces lacks any concrete evidence.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI for context.

Narrative #5 - Redirection towards Gonzalo Lira 

Another common technique in information warfare is distraction - directing an audience's attention towards an issue that supports the threat actor and away from the often damaging issue. This technique is again observable in the aftermath of Navalny’s death, where a narrative demanded increased attention surrounding the death of U.S. citizen Gonzalo Lira in Ukrainian custody amid outrage over Navalny’s death under similar circumstances. This conversation was seeded among prominent pro-Russian corners of the internet and successfully percolated into mainstream Western social media services. Gonzalo Lira has been an effective tool in Russian propaganda, representing a foil to Russian and Western criticism - his works and status as an ideological Western defector are commonly trotted out amid controversial moments during the Russia-Ukraine war. This strategy undermines confidence in the defense of Ukraine and supports Russia as a moral authority.

This Blackbird.AI Constellation Platform network graph shows Russian state supporter activity in conversation in the top right, partisan activity in the bottom right, and bot-like activity on the left redirecting attention to Gonzalo Lira. Users tagged as Russian state supporters are highlighted in red. The two most influential users in this network graph were tagged as Russian state supporters.

This dynamic in this narrative is similar to the conversation calling “Navalny a Nazi” – posts first emerged among users expressing pro-Russian sentiment online. From there, partisan networks of bot-like users amplified these users, further diffusing the narrative into new communities. Bot-like accounts comprised 14% of all users detected in conversation seeking to redirect attention towards Lira. In this narrative, bot-like users were 51% more likely to express partisan views consistently and 28% more likely to be tagged as Russian state supporters. This again reflects the technique of immersing and personifying bot-like accounts into ideologically driven communities to diffuse narratives targeting those groups semi-organically.

Narrative #6 - Leveraging Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories

Prominent pro-Russian influencers have also asserted that Navalny died of a blood clot in his heart after receiving several doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, citing alleged official autopsy results. This rhetoric sought to achieve two objectives. The first was to absolve Putin of any responsibility for the Russian opposition figure’s death by suggesting that Navalny put himself in danger of his own accord by taking the vaccine. The second was to undermine confidence in the American vaccine and public health system by claiming that Navalny had received Pfizer’s vaccine specifically, ironically pointing out that he should have trusted Russia’s Sputnik V instead. 

This conspiratorial narrative is yet another attempt to reach and engage other types of audiences with a common pro-Russian/anti-Navalny rhetoric, in this case resonating with the anti-vaccine community, to increase online visibility on traditional and alternative platforms. 

Although presented as a fact by Russian state supporters, this claim is erroneous due to a lack of crucial context. Official autopsy results performed by Russian authorities remain unknown, and Navalny’s imprisonment precedes the global COVID-19 vaccination campaign. 

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI for context.

Narrative #7 - Navalny’s life, funeral, and resultant demonstrations are inconsequential and unpopular among Russians

This narrative emerged following Navalny’s funeral on Friday, March 1. Russian public opinion entities raced to publish findings on public interest in Navalny’s death - finding that just 5% of the public considered it the biggest news of the week, with the shelling of Belgorod taking precedence in the minds of the Russian public. This message directly opposes the evidence - over 250,000 live viewers tuned into online broadcasts of the funeral. At the same time, thousands of Russians attended the funeral in person despite heavy police presence and barricades.

Despite this, the idea that Navalny was entirely inconsequential was immediately and strongly broadcasted by Russian state-affiliated propagandists, using the statistics to argue directly that the Russian people overwhelmingly felt Navalny played ‘no role in the history of Russia.’

Other pro-Russian corners of the internet labeled the funeral and subsequent demonstrations around the country as ‘provocations’, or called those who visited Navalny’s grave opportunistic, intending to sell coverage of the funeral and resting place to the West for a high price.

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI for context.

Lastly, others continued the campaign to discredit Navalny following the funeral by emphasizing the presence of foreign citizens & representatives at the proceedings, implying that his work was largely orchestrated and supported by outside powers.

The Way Forward

The battle over online narratives remains fierce, impacting governments and organizations of every size. Narrative attacks caused by misinformation and disinformation will proliferate rapidly as generative AI tools become less expensive and easier to use. Online communities are vulnerable to exploitation through inauthentic manipulation and bot-like activity. This results in the perception that a narrative is more widely adopted than it truly is, or worse - wholesale organic adoption of inorganically sown disinformation.

So why does this all matter? In the current information environment, we’re moving towards a point where information can be fabricated - a lie can now be bolstered with a wave of misinformation and disinformation created by generative AI. Threat actors can create reality-altering content around a single event and generate text, online profiles, images, video, and audio that offer supporting context to create an engineered reality. Losing the ability to trust that political opposition is operating in good faith opens the door to stagnation and corruption.

That's why distorted narratives about Navalny proliferated rapidly – Russian state-affiliated actors likely recognize how damaging his legacy would be if democratic activists continued his work. When social media platforms briefly suspended Navalnaya's account after Navalny's death, propagandists immediately used this to spread disinformation. 

Tools like Compass by Blackbird.AI and our Constellation Platform can provide crucial context before sharing or spreading claims further. Navalny understood the power of spreading his message online to counter propaganda. Free-flowing authentic information is vital in countering corruption and ensuring democratic stability. Threat actors can freely exploit and manipulate the information environment without proper public context to stoke harmful narratives.

‍To learn more about how Blackbird.AI can help you in these situations, contact us here.

Rennie Westcott, Sarah Boutboul, Jess Terry, and Blackbird.AI’s RAV3N Narrative Intelligence and Research Team
BLACKBIRD.AI protects organizations from narrative attacks created by misinformation and disinformation that cause financial and reputational harm. Powered by our AI-driven proprietary technology, including the Constellation narrative intelligence platform, RAV3N Risk LMM, Narrative Feed, and our RAV3N Narrative Intelligence and Research Team, Blackbird.AI provides a disruptive shift in how organizations can protect themselves from what the World Economic Forum called the #1 global risk in 2024.