WASHINGTON (AP) – After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the European Union blocked two of the Kremlin’s top channels, RT and Sputnik, for spreading propaganda and disinformation about the war.
Nearly six months later, the number of sites pushing similar content has grown as Russia finds ways to circumvent the ban. They have rebranded to showcase their work. They have shifted some campaign duties to diplomats. And they’ve cut and pasted a lot of content onto new websites – which until now have had no apparent ties to Russia.
NewsGuard, a New York-based firm that studies and tracks disinformation online, has now identified 250 websites actively spreading Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens of new ones added in recent months.
Claims on these sites include allegations that Ukraine’s military has carried out some of the deadliest Russian attacks to gain global support, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is faking public appearances, or that Ukrainian refugees are committing crimes in Germany and Poland.
Some sites present themselves as independent think tanks or news outlets. About half are in English, while others are in French, German or Italian. Many were founded long before the war and were not connected to the Russian government until the Kremlin’s sudden parroting of talking points.
“They may be setting up sleeper sites,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. Sleeper sites are websites that are largely dormant, build an audience with innocuous or unrelated posts, and then switch to propaganda or misinformation at designated times.
A Newsguard analysis found that most of the disinformation about the war in Ukraine comes from Russia, but found examples of false claims with a pro-Ukrainian slant. It included claims about a hotshot fighter ace known as the Ghost of Kyiv, which officials later admitted was a myth..
Facebook and Instagram-owned YouTube, TikTok and Meta have all pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their platforms in the European Union. But researchers have found that in some cases Russia wanted to post from a different account to avoid the ban.
The Disinformation Situation Center, a Europe-based coalition of disinformation researchers, found that some RT video content was being shown on social media under a new brand name and logo. In the case of some video footage, the RT brand was simply removed from the video and reposted on a new YouTube channel not covered by the EU’s ban.
More aggressive content control of social media could make it harder for Russia to avoid bans, according to Felix Carte, senior adviser at Reset, a UK-based nonprofit that has funded the work of the Disinformation Situation Center and criticized the role of social media. Democratic discourse.
“Instead of having an effective content control system, they are playing a mole with the Kremlin’s disinformation machine,” Carte said.
YouTube’s parent company did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment about the ban.
In the European Union, authorities are trying to increase their protection. Legislation approved by the EU this spring will require tech companies to do more To eradicate misinformation. Companies that fail can face hefty fines.
European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova last month called disinformation “a growing problem in the EU and we need to take really tough measures”.
The proliferation of sites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine suggests Russia had a plan if the government or tech companies tried to block RT and Sputnik. That means Western leaders and tech companies will have to do more than shutter a website or two if they hope to stem the flow of Kremlin disinformation.
“The Russians are very smart,” said Steven Brill, NewsGuard’s other co-CEO.