How Russian Propaganda Reaches Beyond English Speakers

The day after a missile struck a shopping mall in central Ukraine in June, killing at least 18 people, the Spanish branch of Russian global television channel RT en Español took to Facebook to dispute the facts of the attack.

For its part, available in much of Central and South America and even in the United States, the network job a video statement from a military spokesperson claiming that the Russian Air Force bombed a weapons cache provided by Ukraine’s Western allies. 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 Kremlin propaganda machine accounts in the West. The effort, however, was limited by geography and language, creating a patchwork of restrictions rather than a general ban.

In Spanish in Latin America or Arabic in 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 covering up responsibility for atrocities. Russians who killed thousands of civilians.

The result has been a geographic and cultural asymmetry in the information war against Ukraine that has helped undermine American and European-led efforts to exert broad international pressure on Mr Putin to reverse his war.

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

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

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

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

The impact of Russian wartime propaganda on public opinion abroad is difficult to measure with precision. The polls have show 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 is circulating freely in parts of the world where the war in Ukraine is viewed in less stark terms, between good and evil, such as in the United States and Europe.

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

Facebook, in a written response to questions, said it 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 rejected an appeal by RT France to overturn a network work ban in the block.)

Facebook said it too ads blocked from all Russian state media and “downgraded” posts from accounts linked to it. Accounts in other languages ​​are subject to the same rules aimed at stopping 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 read.

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

TikTok recently said it had removed or labeled tens of thousands of posts as part of “ongoing actions we are taking to protect against false engagements”. In May, it also added tags to Ukrainian government accounts.

The movements against the Kremlin did not prevent him from using Western social media to penetrate foreign audiences. His propaganda network, which for years has sought to attract audiences in many languages, swelled when Russian troops massed around Ukraine last winter – and in the weeks following the invasion. of February 24.

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

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

RT Online, the TV channel’s Arabic-language Facebook page, also saw an 187% increase in engagements in the first month of the war, Avaaz found. Sputnik’s counts in Brazil and Japan also saw spikes, albeit smaller ones. A similar analysis from Zignal Labs, a company that tracks social media activity, showed an increase in link shares of RT and Sputnik News posts in Spanish.

On these sites, Russia’s war is falsely presented 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 view of the war, the well-documented atrocities in towns like Bucha are exaggerations or even hoaxes, staged to demonize Russia.

Nora Benavidez, Senior Counsel at Free pressa digital rights and accountability group, said Facebook has long had an Anglo-centric approach to moderation policies that overlooks harmful misinformation on a variety of topics in other languages ​​and other parts of the world. .

While many languages ​​are used on Facebook, she said, more than 80% of its app resources are in English.

“In a nutshell, 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 the way English-speaking users should be,” he said. she stated.

Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing 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 are among the top 10 most viewed pages on Facebook in Latin America, with tens of millions of viewers.

Even after the restrictions, Russia sought workarounds. RT en Español has created new accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube under the name Ahi Les Va, according to research by Mr Schafer’s teams. These accounts continue to post Russian disinformation to growing groups of new followers.

“If you talk to people in Latin America, RT is considered another medium to read and trust,” he said. “It’s hugely influential.”

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

A Bertelsmann Foundation report in June Noted that 42% of traffic to RT’s Spanish 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 not so much about promoting the Russian version of events, but more about challenging the Western narrative,” said Philip Kitzberger, a political scientist at Torcuato di Tella University in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. “And that finds resonance in certain groups, linked in Latin America to a left that is very critical of the United States”

Ana Lankes contributed report.

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