How Russian Propaganda Is Reaching Beyond English Speakers
The day after a missile struck a shopping mall in central Ukraine in June, killing at least 18 people, the Spanish-language arm of Russia’s global television network, RT en Español, took to Facebook to challenge the facts of the attack.
On its account, available across much of Central and South America and even in the United States, the network posted a video statement from 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 the accounts of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in the West. The effort, though, has been limited by geography and language, creating a patchwork of restrictions rather than a blanket ban.
In Spanish in Latin America or in Arabic across 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 Russian atrocities that have killed thousands of civilians.
The result has been a geographical and cultural asymmetry in the information war over Ukraine that has helped undercut American- and European-led efforts to put broad international pressure on Mr. Putin to call off his war.
“There is not an airtight, worldwide 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, deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, who recently wrote a study about the spread of harmful Russian propaganda on YouTube.
The failure of Facebook, Twitter and even TikTok, the Chinese-owned app, to impose stronger checks on Russian posts in non-English languages has begun to draw criticism as the war drags on.
Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of United States senators added to the criticism, accusing the platforms of allowing Russia to “amplify and export its 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 Russia’s 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 get fewer resources than those in the United States.
The impact of Russia’s wartime propaganda on public opinion overseas is difficult to measure precisely. Polls have shown that Mr. Putin remains a reviled world leader, suggesting that the Kremlin’s efforts have not yet translated into significant improvement in global support for the invasion.
At the same time, Russian disinformation is flowing freely in parts of the world where the war in Ukraine is viewed in less stark, good-versus-evil terms 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 propagate falsehoods about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, whether in Spanish or any other language,” the 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’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.
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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. (The European Union’s Court of Justice dismissed an appeal by RT France to overturn a ban on the network’s work in the bloc.)
Facebook has also said it blocked ads from all Russian state media and “demoted” posts from accounts linked to it. Accounts in other languages face the same rules aimed at stopping disinformation 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’s statement said.
Days after the war began, Twitter also shut down the 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 amplify such accounts, causing a drop in engagements, according to a written statement.
TikTok said recently that it had removed or labeled tens of thousands of posts as part of “ongoing actions we take to protect against fake engagement.” In May, it added labels to the accounts of the Ukrainian government, too.
The moves against the Kremlin have not stopped it from using Western social media to penetrate foreign audiences. Its propaganda network, which has for years sought to build audiences in many languages, went into overdrive as Russian troops massed around Ukraine last winter — and in the weeks that followed the invasion on Feb. 24.
RT en Español’s Facebook page has 18 million followers, more than its English site or CNN’s Spanish channels. The posts drive traffic to Actualidad RT, the network’s main news channel.
Russian posts experienced soaring engagement in the weeks after the start of the war, according to an analysis by Avaaz, a grass-roots good governance organization.
RT Online, the television network’s Arabic-language page on Facebook, also saw a 187 percent spike in engagements during the first month of the war, Avaaz found. Sputnik’s accounts in Brazil and Japan also experienced spikes, though smaller ones. A similar analysis by Zignal Labs, a firm that tracks social media activity, showed a surge in link shares of posts by RT and Sputnik news in Spanish.
On these sites, Russia’s war is falsely portrayed as a just cause against a fascist regime in Ukraine that sought nuclear weapons and connived with the United States to develop biological weapons on Russia’s doorstep. In this twisted view of the war, well-documented atrocities in cities like Bucha are exaggerations or even hoaxes, staged to demonize Russia.
Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press, an advocacy group for digital rights and accountability, said Facebook had long had an Anglo-centric approach to moderation policies that overlooked harmful disinformation on a variety of subjects in other languages and other parts of the world.
While many languages are used on Facebook, she said, more than 80 percent of its enforcement resources are in English.
“In a word, I think that is a form of bigotry that the rest of the world should not be protected from the worst, most dangerous content in the ways that English-speaking users should be,” she said.
Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said the Spanish and Arabic branches of Russian state media were the country’s most influential on Facebook and Twitter. RT en Español, Sputnik Mundo and RT Play en Español have been among the 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 created new accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube under the name Ahi Les Va, according to research by Mr. Schafer’s teams. Those accounts continue to post Russian disinformation to growing groups of new followers.
“If you speak to people in Latin America, RT is viewed as just another media outlet to be read and trusted,” he said. “It is hugely influential.”
The failure to go after Russian posts in Spanish, Arabic and other languages has left open the door 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 report by the Bertelsmann Foundation in June noted that 42 percent 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 probably is due not so much on promoting the Russian version of events, but rather on questioning the Western narrative,” said Philip Kitzberger, a political scientist at Torcuato di Tella University in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. “And that finds some resonance in certain groups, linked in Latin America to a left that is very critical of the U.S.”
Ana Lankes contributed reporting.