How Russia’s propaganda is reaching beyond English speakers

The day after a missile hit a shopping mall in central Ukraine in June, killing at least 18 people, the Spanish-language branch of Russia’s global television network, RT en Español, took to Facebook to question the facts of the attack.

On its own, available throughout much of Central and South America and even the United States, the network aware a video statement by a military spokesman claiming that Russia’s air force had bombed a weapons cache supplied by Ukraine’s Western allies. A video released by the Ukrainian government and survivors of the attack. interviewed on the ground by The New York Times, showed otherwise.

When Russia’s war in Ukraine began, Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants moved to block or limit the reach of accounts from the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in the West. However, the effort has been limited by geography and language, creating a patchwork of restrictions rather than a blanket ban.

Whether in Spanish in Latin America or in Arabic throughout the Middle East, a steady stream of Russian propaganda and disinformation continues to try to justify President Vladimir V. Putin’s unprovoked invasion, demonizing Ukraine and obfuscating responsibility for the Russian atrocities that have killed thousands of civilians.

The result has been a geographic and cultural asymmetry in the information warfare over Ukraine that has helped undermine US- and European-led efforts to exert broad international pressure on Putin to call off his war.

“There is no airtight, worldwide stifling of Russia’s notorious ability to fight not only on the battlefield, the actual battlefield, but also to fight with information and information distortions,” said Paul M. Barrett, deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, who recently wrote a study on the spread of harmful Russian propaganda in Youtube.

The failure of Facebook, Twitter and even TikTok, the Chinese-owned app, to impose tighter controls on Russian posts in languages ​​other than English has begun to draw criticism as the war rages on.

Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of United States senators joined the criticism, accusing the platforms of allowing Russia to “amplify and export their lies abroad” in Spanish. While the targets of those efforts were in Central and South America, the disinformation also reached Spanish-speaking audiences in the United States, they said.

The lawmakers urged the companies to do more to block Russian Spanish outlets, including RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo, which have been spreading accusations that the United States, among other things, is manufacturing biological weapons in Ukraine. Disinformation experts say the oversights reveal flaws in the platforms’ international operations, which often draw fewer resources than those in the United States.

The impact of Russia’s war propaganda on public opinion abroad is difficult to measure precisely. The surveys have shown that Mr. Putin remains a reviled world leader, suggesting that the Kremlin’s efforts have yet to translate into a significant improvement in global support for the invasion.

At the same time, Russian disinformation flows freely in parts of the world where the war in Ukraine is seen in less harsh terms, of good versus evil, such as in the United States and Europe.

“In these extraordinary circumstances, we must remain vigilant about the ability of known Russian disinformation purveyors to spread falsehoods about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, whether in Spanish or any other language,” said Senators Robert Menendez of New York. Jersey and Tim Kaine of Virginia. , both Democrats, and Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook, in a written response to questions, said it had restricted access to RT and Sputnik accounts in the European Union, Britain and Ukraine after receiving requests from government officials. (Court of Justice of the European Union dismissed an appeal by RT France to override the ban on network work on the block).

Facebook has also said so. blocked ads from all Russian state media and “demoted” posts from accounts linked to him. Accounts in other languages ​​face the same rules meant to stop misinformation or harmful content, the company said.

“We have multiple teams working across the company to limit the spread of misinformation in dozens of languages,” the company statement says.

Days after the war began, Twitter also shut down Russian accounts in the European Union and added labels to accounts that retweeted links to them. In April, the company announced that it would not expand such accounts, leading to a drop in commitments, according to a written statement.

TikTok recently said it had removed or tagged tens of thousands of posts as part of “ongoing actions we’re taking to protect against false interactions.” In May, it also added labels to Ukrainian government accounts.

The moves against the Kremlin have not stopped him from using Western social media to penetrate foreign audiences. His propaganda network, which for years has sought to generate audiences in many languages, accelerated as Russian troops massed around Ukraine last winter, and in the weeks following the February 24 invasion.

RT en Español’s Facebook page has 18 million followers, more than its English site or CNN’s Spanish channels. Posts drive traffic to Actualidad RT, the network’s main news channel.

Russian publications saw increasing engagement in the weeks after the war began, according to analysis by Avaaz, a grassroots good governance organization.

RT Online, the television network’s Arabic-language Facebook page, also saw a 187 percent increase in interactions during the first month of the war, Avaaz found. Sputnik accounts in Brazil and Japan also experienced spikes, albeit minor ones. A similar analysis by Zignal Labs, a firm that tracks social media activity, showed an increase in shared links from RT and Sputnik News posts in Spanish.

In these places, the Russian war is falsely portrayed as a just cause against a fascist regime in Ukraine that sought nuclear weapons and colluded with the United States to develop biological weapons on Russia’s doorstep. In this twisted vision of war, well documented atrocities in cities like Bucha they are exaggerations or even hoaxes, staged to demonize Russia.

Nora Benavidez, Senior Attorney at Free Pressa digital rights and accountability advocacy group, said Facebook had long had an Anglocentric approach to moderation policies that glossed over harmful misinformation on a range of topics in other languages ​​and other parts of the world.

While many languages ​​are used on Facebook, he said, more than 80 percent of its compliance resources are in English.

“In a word, I think it’s a form of bigotry that the rest of the world shouldn’t be protected from the worst and most dangerous content in the way that English-speaking users should be,” he said.

Bret Schafer, a senior member of the Alliance to Secure Democracy, said the Spanish and Arabic branches of Russian state media were the most influential in the country on Facebook and Twitter. RT en Español, Sputnik Mundo and RT Play en Español have been among the 10 most viewed Facebook pages in Latin America, with tens of millions of viewers.

Even after the restrictions, Russia looked for alternative solutions. RT en Español created new accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube under the name Ahi Les Va, according to an investigation by Mr. Schafer’s teams. Those accounts continue to post Russian disinformation to growing groups of new followers.

“If you talk to people in Latin America, RT is seen as another means of communication to be read and trusted,” he said. “He’s hugely influential.”

The failure to pursue Russian publications in Spanish, Arabic and other languages ​​has left the door open for the Kremlin to win audiences in parts of the world where the United States, its main villain, is viewed with greater ambivalence.

A report from the Bertelsmann Foundation in June indicated that 42 percent of the traffic to the Spanish RT network was in three countries that had supported Russia or expressed neutrality in the war with Ukraine: Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico.

“Part of RT’s success is probably due not so much to promoting the Russian version of events, but more to questioning the Western narrative,” said Philip Kitzberger, a political scientist at Torcuato di Tella University in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. Aires. “And that finds certain resonance in certain groups, linked in Latin America to a left that is very critical of the United States.”

Anne Lankes contributed report.

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