WASHINGTON (AP) — Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the European Union moved to block RT and Sputnik, two of the Kremlin’s main channels for spreading war propaganda and misinformation.
Nearly six months later, as Russia finds a way to evade the ban, the number of sites pushing the same content has exploded. They renamed their work to disguise it.they have Shift some propaganda duties to diplomats. They’ve cut and pasted most of the content on the new sites – which so far have no apparent ties to Russia.
NewsGuard, a New York-based company that researches and tracks online misinformation, has found 250 websites actively spreading Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens more added in recent months.
Statements on the sites included allegations that Ukrainian forces carried out some deadly Russian attacks to gain global support, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pretended to be in public, or Ukrainian refugees committed crimes in Germany and Poland.
Some sites masquerade as independent think tanks or news outlets. About half are in English, while the rest are in French, German or Italian. Many were established long before the war and had no apparent ties to the Russian government until they suddenly started parodying Kremlin talking points.
“They’re probably building sleeper sites,” said Gordon Crovitz, co-CEO of NewsGuard. Sleeper sites are sites created for disinformation campaigns that are largely dormant, slowly building an audience through innocuous or irrelevant posts, then turning to propaganda or disinformation at designated times.
While NewsGuard’s analysis found that most of the disinformation about the Ukraine war came from Russia, it did find some instances of false claims with pro-Ukrainian leanings.These included claims about the popular fighter ace that officials later dubbed the Ghost of Kyiv Admit is a myth.
YouTube, TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have all pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their platforms in the EU. But the researchers found that in some cases, all Russia had to do to evade the ban was post from another account.
The Disinformation Situation Centre, a European-based consortium of disinformation researchers, found that some RT video content appeared on social media with new brand names and logos. In the case of some clips, RT branding was simply removed from the video and reposted on a new YouTube channel not covered by the EU ban.
More aggressive content moderation on social media could make it harder for Russia to circumvent the ban, said Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at the UK-based nonprofit Reset, which works for the Center for Disinformation Situations Fund and criticize social media in democratic discourse.
“Instead of putting in place an effective content moderation system, they’re whack-a-mole with the Kremlin’s disinformation device,” Carter said.
YouTube’s parent company did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment on the ban.
In the EU, officials are trying to bolster their defenses.This spring, the European Union passed legislation that would Ask tech companies to do more Root out false information. Failing companies could face hefty fines.
European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova last month called disinformation a “growing problem in the EU, and we really have to take stronger measures.”
The proliferation of websites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine suggests Russia has a plan in case the government or tech companies try to restrict RT and Sputnik. That means Western leaders and tech companies will have to do more than shut down a website or two if they want to stem the flow of disinformation from the Kremlin.
“The Russians are much smarter,” said Steven Brill, another NewsGuard co-CEO.