Facebook, YouTube ban RT and Sputnik stifle Russian propaganda

Two dozen Russian government-backed media channels on Facebook saw similar spikes in traffic, according to an analysis of Washington Post data, then fell when the company instituted a ban in Europe.

The muffling of Russian state media’s megaphone, which falsely portrayed the country’s invasion of Ukraine as a ‘special operation’ to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the Nazis, marks an unprecedented move by media giants social media to stop the spread of misinformation. And the first signs show that it can work.

Traffic on YouTube and Facebook began to increase on Feb. 22, two days before the invasion, according to The Post’s analysis of data provided by Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool and the Center for Social Media and Politics. New York University. Russian channels, including RT and Sputnik, and dozens of channels in other languages ​​broadcast false stories claiming Ukrainians had attacked Russians or describing a “genocide” against Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the separatist region of Donbass.

The regional Facebook ban appears to have been less effective than the global YouTube ban. Since February 28, when Facebook announced it was blocking Russian state media in Europe, interactions – defined as likes, reactions, comments and shares – with the two dozen Russian-controlled Facebook pages returned to roughly pre-war levels.

Early data shows that actions by US tech giants have had some impact on Russia’s ability to spread its invasion narrative to the world, after years of concern from US politicians and disinformation experts about the might of the Russian propaganda machine. The situation underscores how powerful companies like YouTube, Facebook and TikTok have the ability to turn the dials of their content recommendation algorithms to affect the kind of information millions of people consume about a global war.

Facebook declined to comment beyond its public statements, which referenced its decisions to take action against state media in Europe due to the “exceptional nature of the current situation”. YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.

The data supporting the companies initial success is not definitive, and this is just the beginning. Most news outlets experienced spikes and then dips in traffic early in the war, according to the Post’s analysis.

Russian propaganda spreads in many ways outside of official state media channels. And even with the tech company bans, these channels have been scrambling to regain a foothold in the global information war. They have had success with content, especially with channels that broadcast to audiences in developing countries.

RT Online, an Arabic-language Facebook page, saw a 161.2% increase in interactions since Feb. 28, encompassing the period after tech companies announced the restrictions, according to an analysis of the data by left-wing human rights groups Avaaz. RT Play in Spanish saw a 22.5% increase. RT’s official Arabic and Spanish YouTube channels were more popular than its English channel before it was blocked.

“Apart from what’s happening on the ground, there’s a global conversation going on about how the world is positioning itself in the face of this war,” said Fadi Quran, director of campaigns for Avaaz. “When Russian propaganda can continue to spread, it can skew the conversation in a way that is not conducive to finding a solution to this conflict.”

RT was launched in 2005 as the Russia Today television channel, as part of an effort to improve Russia’s image abroad. Today, it has nine television channels and an extensive network of digital properties that operate in six languages ​​and more than 100 countries, according to its website. (RT America, headquartered in Washington, announced it was shutting down operations this month.)

For years, Russian state media channels have grown steadily on US-based social media networks, gaining massive followers and reaching audiences outside Russia’s borders. Organizations like RT covered a wide range of topics in a handful of the world’s languages, and their digital-first approach helped them outpace more traditional outlets that still focused on radio and television.

In South America and the Middle East, its television channels and online properties attract more traffic and viewership than major regional news outlets, as well as Spanish and Arabic versions of international news organizations. such as the BBC.

RT’s main Facebook channel has more than 7 million subscribers, although it is unclear how many are in Europe where it is blocked. Prior to the block, RT’s YouTube account had approximately 4.65 million subscribers in English and 5.94 million in Spanish.

When it became the first news network to surpass one billion views on YouTube in 2013, a senior YouTube executive joined an RT show to mark the occasion, praising RT’s ability to deliver “authentic” content. ” instead of ” agendas or propaganda “.

Yet, in 2018 and 2019, YouTube and Facebook respectively decided to label public media channels. YouTube has awarded the same labels to the BBC and PBS, which are also backed by governments.

Long before the invasion, RT’s coverage of the war in eastern Ukraine pushed the idea that Ukrainian forces were oppressing ethnic Russians in the region and that Russian-backed rebels were fighting for their freedom and their human rights.

As news of Russia’s military buildup began to hit the headlines, more people started watching RT, especially in Spanish and Arabic. YouTube’s algorithms often recommend content to viewers based on previous videos they’ve watched, so someone who searched for information about the war might have been recommended an RT video. Facebook also relies on dozens of complex signals to choose which content to highlight in users’ feeds.

On Facebook, Ukraine-related videos were among RT and Sputnik’s most recent popular videos on politics. Like several other ideologically motivated news outlets, Russian state media regularly publishes human interest stories and videos of, for example, a chipmunk eating almonds. But never before have the sites had so many popular videos at once: A clip of Russian President Vladimir Putin calling on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms and go home received more than 25,000 likes, shares and comments in Spanish , Vietnamese and Arabic.

Once the invasion began, that message intensified, with RT reports from the front lines refusing to use the word “war.” Instead, he used the Kremlin term, “special military operation.”

Around the time YouTube stopped recommending Russian state media videos to new viewers, traffic began to drop precipitously, according to analysis of data from The Post. Facebook and TikTok banned Russian state media in Europe in late February. On March 1, Google completely banned RT and Sputnik in Europe after the European Union added the two organizations to its sanctions list, further limiting their sources of traffic. Then on Friday, he went further and blocked them globally, causing views on RT and Sputnik to drop to zero.

Facebook has only banned Russian state-backed channels in Europe and says it is slowing down traffic elsewhere.

The changes made by tech companies to curb traffic to Russian propaganda came as part of a much larger effort to neutralize Russia’s official argument about why it invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian politicians have been very active on social media, constantly posting videos and tweeting, calling out Western companies that have given official Russian sources a platform and spreading their own viral content about Ukrainian heroism and its military, including some turned out not be true.

Together, policy shifts and widespread support for Ukraine in Europe and the United States have made it difficult for Russian government channels to popularize their own message outside the country.

However, that could still change. Part of the drop could be related to a decreasing interest in invasion news. And Russia continues to try to regain its footing in the information war.

Just last week, a Spanish-language video of Putin complaining that Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion were being ‘ignored’ garnered nearly 300,000 views and more than 30,000 interactions on Facebook when it was published by RT Play en Español, according to Avaaz. It was then that he was stuck in Europe but visible elsewhere.

An Arabic-language video posted to Facebook on Tuesday quoted a person who claimed to be a Russian defense official as saying that US biological labs in Ukraine tested coronavirus samples on bats. The video had 99,000 views.

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