University of Washington professor Kate Starbird has decided to investigate which were the most shared English media domains on Twitter about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There were hardly any surprises: YouTube and large media such as Reuters, New York Times or Guardian. But then he looked in his database to see what happened when the tweets were in Spanish. A surprise came out: the Russian state channel RT en Español was the first, above YouTube, the Argentine page Infobae, EL PAÍS and CNN en Español.
The number of tweets in Spanish in the Starbird database was small. So Esteban Ponce de León, a researcher at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, went to look more specifically at what was happening in Spanish with a larger sample. RT en Español’s position fell somewhat, but not substantially: between February 24 and March 11 it was among the top six. Ponce de León distinguished RT’s place by counting only original tweets (sixth place), only retweets (first) and a mixture of both (third). Sputnik in Spanish also sneaked into the top 15.
But when we look at tweets where the language is Spanish, we get a very different media ecosystem. Here’s are the most cited domains in Spanish language tweets in our collection: pic.twitter.com/Fe9Vcud2mz
— Kate Starbird (@katestarbird) March 10, 2022
Ponce de León discovered, as he explained by videoconference to EL PAÍS, that a substantial number of the accounts that retweeted the most to both channels could be false. He chose the 100 accounts that retweeted the channels the most and, after eliminating those that overlapped, he was left with 171. DFRLab transferred that database to Twitter, which has admitted to this newspaper that “they are looking” if they belong to some network of false influence. Be that as it may, says Ponce de León, “although the impact of inauthentic accounts is great, there is a very strong organic audience,” he says.
In addition to the media accounts themselves, Russia has a handful of embassy and administration accounts that receive the most interactions when they tweet links to the channels. In order, according to Ponce de León, they are the account of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Spanish, the Russian embassies in Mexico and Spain, and the Russian ambassador in Venezuela. Most of these embassy accounts are not designated by the Twitter label “government organization.” According to a spokesperson for the platform, they are on it: “We are in the process of expanding our government account labels to additional Russian embassies to add context to the people who interact with these accounts on Twitter,” he says.
Meanwhile, although the content of the main RT Twitter account is not accessible from Spain, the embassy in Mexico tweets links that do work.
— Embassy of Russia in Mexico (@EmbRusiaMexico) March 19, 2022
There are also alleged secondary accounts that were on hold that have been reactivated following the suspension of the main account in the European Union. After this newspaper warned Twitter about the @Actualidad RT1 account, the company has suspended it “permanently for violating our misleading identity policy,” according to a spokesperson.
The BBC found this week that the Russian government has “a huge network of official Twitter accounts: more than 100”, explains the English public medium. “They range from accounts representing foreign missions or embassies, with a few thousand followers, to accounts with more than a million followers,” he says.
The BBC refers to English. But in Spanish, perhaps because it is a different media ecosystem and a more captive audience, its effectiveness is greater.
Twitter is not the only success story of RT en Español. On Facebook it has more than 18 million followers, while the main channel has 7. Before the YouTube blockade, the Spanish channel had 5.9 million and the English channel 4.65. Despite the official limitations in Europe or the suspension of its YouTube channels, the Russian voice continues to sneak in as best it can through the cracks left by the platforms.
A secondary Facebook channel, RT Play en Español, published a video on the first day of the invasion that has more than 2 million views. RT en Español maintains its channel on Telegram, which has increased from more than 70,000 users since the beginning of the conflict to 190,000, and has begun to grow on Odysee, an alternative platform to YouTube promoted after the attack on the Capitol in January 2021. Although its channels there have only a few thousand followers, from DFRLab they are already analyzing their growth rate.
what about spanish
Why are they more successful in Spanish? Professor Starbird, asked by mail by EL PAÍS, has two hypotheses: “One, Russian influence operations in Spanish (on Ukraine) in social networks are more effective than in English, or two, social networks are better at take action against operations in English than in Spanish,” he says. “My feeling is that the answer is a combination of both, but it’s hard to know how much is one or the other,” she adds.
The next question that Starbird asks is whether this phenomenon depends mainly on the social networks of the internet or has deeper roots: “It is important to understand that disinformation often flows over pre-existing networks and is built on the foundations of past campaigns. “, it says. “Although we tend to associate recent Russian disinformation campaigns with right-wing populist politics (for example, in the US and UK in 2016), Kremlin propaganda touches all sides of the political spectrum, and if we look back 20 or For 40 years, the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns have often targeted left-wing movements around the world, including in Central and South America.”
Starbird’s opinion is better understood if we look at the role that some Latin American governments have had in recent years, according to Iria Puyosa, a researcher at the DFRLab: “The Russian media, especially RT en Español, have had official support from governments of Latin America to penetrate the information market of our countries. The promotion from the governments is fundamental to understand how RT becomes established as an option in several countries of the continent”, she says. “In 2005, Russia Today is founded [actual RT] and Telesur (in a consortium between the governments of Argentina, Ecuador, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela) and from the beginning they had coincidences in their informative line, especially in their questions to the governments of the United States and Europe. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner herself participated together with Vladimir Putin in a live videoconference to start the RT broadcasts for Argentina”, she adds.
From there the combination of material between the Russian and Latin American public media grew. The Kremlin’s intention in focusing on Latin America must also be taken into account: “Russia has invested in its presence in the Latin American information market. RT has a staff of more than 30 journalists in Latin America, while CNN has less than 20 correspondents”, says Puyosa.
There is one thing about the whole landscape of nurturing the Russian worldview in the digital landscape that escapes any geography: it’s cheap. “Regardless of whether these accounts are effective at spreading pro-Kremlin narratives or changing opinions abroad, they are almost always worth a try because digital disinformation is relatively cheap to make and spread,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, by mail to EL PAÍS. “Specifically in English on Twitter, pro-Kremlin disinformation on selected topics has been relatively limited based on my own research, but this doesn’t mean that’s the case in other languages,” he adds.
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