Since the ban in the European Union (EU) of RT and Sputnik, two of the main outlets spreading disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sites under other names that publish the same content have been on the rise, experts who track fake news on the internet said.
NewsGuard, a journalism and technology firm that rates the credibility of news on the internet, reported that its Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center identified hundreds of websites spreading misleading or false information about the war, as well as some 50 plus myths about the conflict.
“Disturbingly, RT content is still finding audiences. NewsGuard has identified more than 260 sites that publish falsehoods also peddled by the Kremlin,” Madeline Roache, NewsGuard Technologies managing editor in England, told Diálogo on September 8. “This far exceeds the few identified for sanctioning by digital platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok since the start of the invasion.”
NewsGuard warns that Russia employs a multi-layered strategy to introduce, amplify, and spread false and distorted narratives, exploiting a combination of sources — official state media, websites, and anonymous accounts — for distribution.
“[…] Russia continues its relentless disinformation campaign. In addition to falsehoods that try to justify Russia’s invasion, NewsGuard has identified myths that seek to discredit Ukraine’s ally Poland and international organizations working in Ukraine,” Steven Brill, co-CEO of NewsGuard, said according to an August 9 release. “The Putin government relies on a mix of official state media sources, anonymous websites and accounts, and other methods, to distribute myths designed to advance Russian interests and undermine its adversaries.”
Dozens of such sites have sprung up in recent months, and some present themselves as think tanks or independent media outlets. According to the report, the majority of the sites are in English, followed by French, German, and some in Italian, among others.
In that ocean of disinformation there are also news sites that openly republish Russian content. The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), linked to the Syrian Ministry of Information, republishes Russian news with some slight word changes.
“In Russian disinformation there is an art and a science: the art is the manipulation and the science is the technical part that is related to the nodes, Netcenters [data centers] and how the algorithms are manipulated,” Joseph Humire, an expert on transnational threats in the Western Hemisphere, and director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a Free and Secure Society, told Diálogo. “Sometimes they do it directly through accounts or centers that they build or support with their state media.”
Despite the blockade imposed by the EU, the Kremlin found other mechanisms to continue filtering its narratives. For example, faced with the closure of its YouTube channel, RT migrated its content to “independent” channels, where it carries out live broadcasts.
“The mere penetration of the public is not the most important thing, but rather that its narratives become references and its contents can be transferred to other more reliable platforms,” Johanna Cilano, Mexican lawyer and political scientist and María Isabel Puerta, PhD in Social Sciences, wrote for the Uruguayan platform Diálogo Político. It’s through these media that the republished information becomes “palatable” and does not allow those it reaches to pinpoint that it is information in Russia’s interests.
“In these media that pretend to be neutral and are not, a laundering of information takes place. These formal media have alliances with others that are not so prominent, but which serve them to recycle information so that it does not appear to come from the Kremlin,” Dr. Puerta told Diálogo. “In this laundering, the information goes through various media and the original media, affiliated with the Kremlin, is forgotten. When it reaches the last recipient, this one doesn’t know where the information comes from.”
Evasion through social networks
Russian propaganda that RT and Sputnik publish continues to be disseminated in other languages through social networks, despite the ban by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine.
According to Humire, Russian disinformation in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Arabic, is intended for the Kremlin to gain legitimacy in southern America, Africa, and Asia.
“Russian disinformation is not focused on the United States or Europe, it is no more intense than what they do in Spanish focused on Latin America, in French in Africa or in Arabic in the Middle East,” Humire added. “Their foreign policy […] is focused on communicating with the South-South world: South America, Africa, Middle East, South Asia; that’s where they want to gain legitimacy.”
As long as this disinformation persists, gaining more information about websites, their origin, and the type of data they share is important to reduce the disinformation digital divide. “The platforms should roll out source ratings from independent services, such as NewsGuard, so that readers can judge which sites can be trusted,” Roache concluded.