When Putin invaded Ukraine in February this year, major social media sites – like Facebook and Twitter – moved quickly to block or limit Kremlin propaganda pages. But observers are pointing out the lack of diligence and consistency in these moderation processes, especially in non-English speaking regions.
Just days after the war began, Twitter shut down major Russian news accounts RT and Sputnik in the EU. YouTube and Meta (Facebook’s parent company) both acted to block RT and Sputnik on their platforms too. Now – spearheaded by the New York Times – journalists, analysts and observers are calling for the same rigour to be applied in Latin American and Middle Eastern contexts.
RT’s Spanish-language branch, RT en Español, has a whopping 18 million followers, and remains accessible in almost every part of Central and South America, as well as in the US. It’s more popular than RT’s English-language arm, or CNN’s Spanish channels. RT en Español, its companion channel RT Play en Español, as well as Sputnik’s Spanish-language site, have all been among the top ten most-viewed Facebook pages in Latin America.
“If you speak to people in Latin America,” says Bret Schafer, senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, “RT is viewed as just another media outlet to be read and trusted. It is hugely influential.” It’s a similar story for RT Online – its Arabic-language Facebook page, which saw a 187% spike in engagement during the first month of the war.
While some efforts have been made across online platforms to restrict RT/Sputnik accounts in Latin America, analysts have found the propaganda pages could easily circumvent such measures – by simply posting from different accounts.
Pro-Russia mouthpieces have also moved misinformation operations to so-called “sleeper sites” – websites which previously demonstrated no overt affiliation with Russian propaganda sources. NewsGuard, a New York-based organisation that tracks online misinformation, found at least 250 websites actively spreading pro-Russian misinformation about the invasion. Many of these sites were set up long before the war, and had no obvious ties to the Kremlin up until recently.
The thing is, it is these very contexts where Russian propaganda is going unchecked that are often most ambivalent about the war. In much of Latin America and the Middle East, the US and other Western allies are not painted as unambiguous heroes, and Russia isn’t viewed as blatantly evil.
As Philip Kitzberger of Argentina’s Torcuato di Tella University told the NYT, “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.”
For Facebook in particular, it’s not the first time the platform has faced criticism for its asymmetrical moderation of content. Back in October of 2021, the Facebook Papers revealed the dangerous scope of Islamophobic misinformation running rampant in India. Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press, says Facebook’s slack monitoring outside the Anglophone world “is a form of bigotry”.
And of course, online disinformation campaigns are nothing new for Russia either. From cyber-attacks in Georgia in 2008 to ‘meddling’ in the 2016 US elections, Putin’s ‘information war’ is waged on all fronts, not just the Western ones.
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Cover image: “File:Vladimir Putin – Visit to Russia Today television channel 6.jpg” by Kremlin.ru is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
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