WASHINGTON (AP) – After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the European Union blocked RT and Sputnik, two of the Kremlin’s main channels for spreading propaganda and misinformation about the war.
Almost six months later, the number of websites distributing the same content has exploded as Russia finds ways to circumvent the ban. They renamed their work to obfuscate it. They have shifted some propaganda tasks to diplomats. And they have cut and pasted much of the content on new sites – sites that previously had no obvious ties to Russia.
NewsGuard, a New York-based firm that investigates and tracks online misinformation, has now identified 250 websites actively spreading Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens of new sites joining in recent months.
Allegations on these sites include allegations that the Ukrainian army staged some deadly Russian attacks to gain worldwide support, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is faking public appearances, or that Ukrainian refugees are committing crimes in Germany and Poland.
Some of the sites masquerade as independent think tanks or news agencies. About half are in English, others in French, German or Italian. Many were formed well before the war and had no obvious connection to the Russian government until they suddenly began parroting Kremlin talks.
“They may be setting up roosts,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. Sleeper sites are websites created for a disinformation campaign that largely went dormant, slowly building an audience through innocuous or unrelated posts, and then at some point switched to propaganda or disinformation.
While NewsGuard’s analysis found that much of the disinformation about the war in Ukraine originated in Russia, it found instances of false claims with a pro-Ukrainian bias. They included claims about a hot fighter jet called the Ghost of Kyiv, which officials later admitted was a myth.
YouTube, TikTok and Meta, which own Facebook and Instagram, have all pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their platforms within the European Union. But researchers have found that in some cases, Russia had to do everything it could to circumvent the ban on posting it from another account.
The Disinformation Situation Center, a Europe-based coalition of disinformation researchers, noticed that some RT video content was appearing on social media under a new brand name and logo. For some video footage, the RT brand was simply removed from the video and reposted on a new YouTube channel not covered by the EU ban.
More aggressive moderation of social media content could make it harder for Russia to circumvent the ban, according to Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at Reset, a UK-based nonprofit that funded the work of the Disinformation Situation Center and criticizes the role of social media democratic discourse.
“Instead of putting in place effective content moderation systems, they are playing around with the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus,” Kartte said.
YouTube’s parent company did not immediately respond to questions asking for comment on the ban.
Officials in the EU are trying to strengthen their defences. This spring, the EU passed legislation that would require tech companies to do more to root out disinformation. Businesses that fail could face heavy penalties.
European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova last month called disinformation “a growing problem in the EU and we really need to take stronger action”.
The proliferation of websites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine shows that Russia had a plan should governments or tech companies try to restrict RT and Sputnik. That means Western leaders and tech companies must do more than shut down a website or two if they hope to stem the flow of Kremlin disinformation.
“The Russians are a lot smarter,” said Steven Brill, NewsGuard’s other co-CEO.