Russia targets Ukrainian disinformation against Spanish speakers

“Never forget who the real threat to the world is,” reads one headline, translated here from Spanish. The article, originally posted in late February on Twitter by RT en Español, is aimed at an audience halfway around the world from the fighting in Kyiv and Mariupol.

As this war rages on, Russia is launching lies into the feeds of Spanish-speaking social media users in countries that already have a long history of distrust of the United States. The goal is to gain the support of these countries for the Kremlin war and to stir up opposition to the American response.

Although many of the claims have been discredited, they are spreading widely in Latin America and helping to make the Kremlin-controlled media one of the main sources of information in Spanish about the war. Russian news outlet RT en Español is now the third most shared site on Twitter for Spanish-language news about the Russian invasion.

“The success of RT should worry anyone who cares about the success of democracy,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas who studies disinformation. “RT is oriented towards authoritarian control and, depending on the context, nationalism and xenophobia. What we risk is Russia taking control of a growing market share of eyeballs.

US-based tech companies attempted to curb Russian media’s ability to spread propaganda after the invasion, banning point-of-sale-related apps, downgrading content and labeling state-run media. State. The European Union has banned RT and the Russian state company Sputnik,

Yet content thrives on Spanish-language websites, message boards, and social media pages. While Russia also creates propaganda in languages ​​such as English, Arabic, French and German, it is particularly successful with Spanish-speaking users, according to a recent study by Esteban Ponce de Leon, an analyst based in Bogota, Colombia with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research. Lab, a Washington think tank that receives funding from the United States and other governments.

Russia’s discredited claims about Ukraine and the United States include claims that the invasion was necessary to confront neo-Nazis, or that the United States secretly supported biological warfare research in Ukraine. In fact, the United States has long publicly funded biological labs in Ukraine that search for pathogens in hopes of curbing outbreaks of dangerous diseases.

This type of misinformation can easily flow from Latin America to other countries, including the United States, which has large Spanish-speaking communities. Sometimes it is passed between relatives who might share claims across continents with each other. This is another potential entry point for Russia and a reminder of the sophistication of Russian efforts.

“There are different avenues where RT is actively engaging communities across Latin America and the United States,” said Jacobo Licona, a researcher at Democrat society Equis Labs. “That’s part of the reason RT has been so good, they’ve built that network or that community ahead of time.”

As one of the most widely spoken languages ​​in the world, Spanish is of obvious interest to any government or organization wishing to shape global public opinion. But Russia’s emphasis on the Spanish language goes further, reflecting the historical and strategic importance of Central and South America during the Cold War, said Atlantic Council analyst Ponce de Leon. .

For decades, the Soviet Union sought to exploit historical tensions between the United States and Latin America by backing communist factions and larger allies, including Cuba. Russia has sought to present the United States as a colonizing empire, even as the Kremlin has worked to strengthen its own ties with the hemisphere.

RT’s Spanish-language service debuted in 2009, four years after its English version. It quickly gained traction and is now much more popular than its English counterpart. RT en Español has more than 16 million followers on its Facebook page, almost triple the number on its English site.

High-profile figures in Latin America have, in some cases, given RT a helping hand. Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa began hosting a weekly political talk show for RT in 2018, less than a year after leaving office. He has since been convicted of corruption charges that forced him to flee Ecuador for Europe. Ecuadorian authorities have also accused him of trying to destabilize his successor’s government.

In March, RT en Español’s Facebook page saw an increase in interactions, generating around 75,000 likes, reactions and comments on its pages daily, according to analysis by the Equis Institute, a Democratic research and polling firm. The increase in engagement continued even after tech company Meta announced it was downgrading Russian state media pages on its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

On Twitter, RT and Sputnik are getting help from Russian diplomats and a network of other accounts that researchers say artificially boost the posts’ popularity. This helped RT become the third most shared Spanish-language news site about the war in Ukraine on Twitter, surpassing local news sources as well as international outlets like the BBC and CNN.

Ponce de Leon tracked thousands of accounts that posted or reposted RT and Sputnik content on Twitter and found that 171 accounts were responsible for 11% of overall engagement with the posts. During an eight-day period in March, these accounts posted more than 200,000 times, an average of 155 tweets per day for each account, far more than a normal user.

The suspicious accounts helped push the content to genuine users, Ponce de Leon said, in a bid to grow RT’s already impressive audience in Latin America.

“Russia seeks to maintain its popularity in Latin America,” he said. “RT and Sputnik already have large audiences in the region. Should we be worried? The answer would be yes.

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Associated Press writer Abril Mulato contributed to this report from Mexico City.

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