Russian disinformation spreads in new ways despite bans

WASHINGTON (AP) — After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the European Union moved to block RT and Sputnik, two of the Kremlin’s main channels for spreading propaganda and misinformation about the war.

Nearly six months later, the number of sites promoting the same content skyrocketed as Russia found ways around the ban. They have changed the name of their work to disguise it. They have transferred some propaganda duties to diplomats.. And they have cut and pasted much of the content on new websites, which until now had no obvious links to Russia.

NewsGuard, a New York-based firm that studies and tracks disinformation online, has now identified 250 websites actively spreading Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens of new sites added in recent months.

Claims on these sites include accusations that Ukraine’s military has carried out some deadly Russian attacks to gain global support, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is faking public appearances, or that Ukrainian refugees are committing crimes in Germany and Poland.

Some of the sites pose as independent think tanks or media outlets. About half are in English, while others are in French, German, or Italian. Many were created long before the war and were obviously not linked to the Russian government until they suddenly started repeating Kremlin talking points.

“They may be setting up sleeper sites,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. Sleeper sites are websites created for a disinformation campaign that remained largely dormant, slowly building an audience through innocuous or unrelated posts, then switching to propaganda or disinformation at a point in time.

While NewsGuard’s analysis found that much of the disinformation about the war in Ukraine comes from Russia, it did find cases of false claims with a pro-Ukrainian slant. They included claims about a fighter ace known as the Ghost of Kyiv that officials later admitted was a myth..

YouTube, TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their platforms within the European Union. But the researchers found that in some cases, all Russia had to do to get around the ban was post from a different account.

The Disinformation Situation Center, a Europe-based coalition of disinformation researchers, discovered that some RT videos were appearing on social media under a new brand and logo. In the case of some video images, the RT mark was simply removed from the video and reposted on a new YouTube channel that is not covered by the EU ban.

More aggressive moderation of social media content could make it harder for Russia to get around the ban, according to Felix Kartte, senior adviser to Reset, a UK-based nonprofit organization that funded the work of the Disinformation Situation Center and criticizes the role of social networks in democratic discourse.

“Instead of implementing effective content moderation systems, they are playing mole with the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus,” Kartte said.

YouTube’s parent company did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment on the ban.

In the EU, officials are trying to beef up their defenses. This spring, the EU passed legislation that would force tech companies to do more to eradicate misinformation. Companies that fail could face large fines.

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova last month called disinformation “a growing problem in the EU, and we really need to take stronger action.”

The proliferation of sites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine shows that Russia had a plan in case governments or tech companies tried to restrict RT and Sputnik. That means Western leaders and tech companies will have to do more than shut down a website or two if they hope to stem the flow of disinformation from the Kremlin.

“The Russians are much smarter,” said NewsGuard’s other co-CEO, Steven Brill.

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