A fierce information war is being fought in Caribbean nations with Russian state media trying to peddle one narrative about the Ukraine war while a fact-checking site from Kyiv battles to rebut the stories.
In Cuba, Kremlin-controlled media outlets such as Russia Today, Sputnik, and RIA-Novosti have been the main providers of news content on the war in Ukraine for the country’s official press.
Prensa Latina, Granma, Trabajadores, Cubadebate, and the digital sites of provincial newspapers take reports from Moscow and reproduce the official line.
Beyond the Caribbean island, the Russian versions of events in Ukraine are being picked up by media across Latin America.
Radio Marti, the independent radio and television channels which is a sister media organization to VOA, picks up these stories and attempts to offer Cubans a different version of the conflict.
The media organization is overseen by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) at its headquarters in Miami, Florida. This is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which also runs VOA.
OCB joined forces with StopFake.org, a Ukrainian fact-checking outlet to counter Spanish language Russian propaganda in Cuba, Latin America, and Spain.
The initiative started on February 24, 2023, exactly one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Since then, it has published stories challenging what it claims are false Russian propaganda published by Cuban media or in other publications in the region.
One example is “Ukrainian soldiers beat up a Brazilian legionnaire.” This story appeared in Ecovision Digital, an online media source in Ecuador last month.
The same news outlet reported that Latvian cars donated to Kyiv have ended up for sale.
An apparently harmless story, but Radio Marti said this is part of a slow drip of disinformation designed to change the public’s opinion of the Ukraine conflict.
The Russian embassy in Madrid did not reply to attempts from VOA for a comment.
Publishing in Spanish
Alvaro Alba, deputy director of OCB, worked as a journalist for the Spanish newspaper ABC in Russia during the Soviet era until the early 1990s.
He said Radio Marti published stories about Ukraine that were correct, as well as other reports that stated clearly that the Russian versions were not true.
One example was: “Fake: Ukraine actively recruits women using chemical or biological weapons,” which was published on April 26.
Another headline ran: “False: In the United States, Ukraine recruits homeless people to fight in the Legion International.”
“When the Russian invasion happened last year, we started ‘Witnesses to the war’ to interview people in Ukraine to hear their narrative. Cuban state media has deals with Russian state media and published their version,” Alba told VOA in an interview from Miami.
“We presented the idea to StopFake.org to have something published in Spanish. Through affiliates in Latin America, we can publish stories there.”
Every week Radio Marti receives reports from StopFake.org about what it claims is Kremlin disinformation.
How successful Radio Marti and StopFake.org are in getting their message through to Cubans is difficult to know.
“It is very difficult to access our website in Cuba, but it is very popular on Facebook,” said Alba.
Data collected by OCB gives an idea of the impressions and reach of each story on Facebook.
Impressions are the number of defined accounts that saw a post at least once. Reach may include multiple views of posts by the same defined accounts.
A story published on April 26 entitled “Fake: U.S., the Ukraine recruits homeless people for the Legion International,” received 1,646 impressions and its people reach was the same number.
Another story by Radio Marti published on April 25, which found that the public perception of Russia had declined in the world in 2022, received 8,373 impressions and its people reach was 8,054.
Alba says the initiative with StopFake.org is not just centered on Cuba but could be broadened to the rest of Latin America.
Challenging Russian narrative
Yevhen Fedchenko, chief editor of StopFake.org and director of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Ukraine, said journalists in Ukraine started the initiative to challenge the Russian narrative about Kyiv in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution in which then-President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.
“We introduced Spanish language services but the recent link up with Radio Marti has been very important for us. We produce text stories and explainers,” he told VOA.
“In the global south we see an increase in Russian disinformation where there are no limits, unlike in the global north, where there are some sanctions.”
Fedchenko said on social media like Twitter StopFake.org noted an increase in activity from Russian state media, with blue ticks being returned to Russia Today, a pro-Russian media organization.
He said Russian attempts to influence governments were not confined only to Latin America, but also to Spain, which in July will take over the European Union Council Presidency and will represent the bloc of 27 states around the world.
“Part of what we are trying to do is to ensure that Ukraine is present in the media. Russia is traditionally dominant,” he noted.
StopFake.org is part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and verifies information for the Meta platform (Facebook) as a third partner.
Russia has increased the effectiveness of its disinformation campaigning on social media and claims only a small fraction is detected by the West, according to leaked U.S. intelligence documents seen by The Washington Post.
The claim was part of a detailed analysis of Russian propaganda on social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, Telegram, and YouTube.
The document, which was not dated, appeared to have been prepared by the U.S. chief of staff, U.S. Cyber Command, and Europe Command, The Post reported.