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“Special operation in Ukraine”: disinformation and censorship in Latin America

YouTube’s channels and Facebook profiles of Russian-funded media outlets such as SputnikNews and Russia Today (RT) have been blocked in Europe and the United States for disseminating information considered false about the ongoing war against Ukraine. This has also happened in Latin America with all Sputnik Mundo and RT en Español channels, including Ahí les va, the most popular in the region, led by journalist/youtuber, Inna Afinogenova. The reasons given by these platforms for closing the accounts was the increase of manipulated content such as montages, fake images, and videos that favor Russia and defame Ukraine and its allies. 

Already since the Cold War era, Russia has been repeatedly accused of running information operations with the aim of manipulating public opinion. With the information revolution, the nature and diffusion of the power of the States have changed, making cyberspace a new unconventional operational domain for warfare, as its accessibility facilitates the existence of a multiplicity of actors and actions.

In this new combat terrain, it is usual to find electoral interference, disinformation, and fake news, cyber-attacks, drone attacks and financial influence as attack modalities, all coined under the name of hybrid threat or warfare, information, or Gerasimov doctrine. 

Regarding the modality of deformation and fake news, the existing narratives in the Spanish-speaking region have their main origin in translations of original content in Ukrainian, Russian, and English. Spanish fact-checker Newtral and Latin American fact-checker AFP Factual have so far jointly verified more than 80 hoaxes – false content disseminated in a coordinated and massive way with the aim of turning it into truth – on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok about the conflict.

Such verifications range from fake CNN live broadcasts to decontextualized or non-existent photos of protests that particularly seek to discredit Ukrainian political and military actions.   

Social networks and the Russian media in English

TikTok’s account of the media outlet Sputnik Mundo has about 62.6k followers. Since the start of “Russia’s special operation in Ukraine,” the account was blocked for six days and had 24 videos deleted for violating community standards, according to the media outlet’s host.

One of the causes was the publication of a video on February 27 suggesting that Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky had escaped from the capital Kyiv to Lviv. This was originally mentioned by the speaker of the Russian State Duma (Lower House of the Assembly), Vyacheslav Volodin, and disseminated by other Russian state-backed media outlets such as Tass (Russian News Agency). However, this content was false and Sputnik never rectified this information, according to an investigation by the think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD)

According to the US organization DFRLab, on the social network Twitter, in addition to the official accounts of RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo, the accounts of the Russian embassies in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay have been the ones that have most shared publications originally created by these media. This type of content tends to justify the operation in Ukraine and affirm the need to denazify and demilitarize this country to protect the Russian people, as well as to unmask the true intentions of NATO and the United States.  

Unlike what happened in the English Twitter account, where there was a regional trend with the hashtag #IStandWithPutin or #IStandWithRussia at the beginning of the war that was led by automated accounts or bots, no similar trend has been identified in Spanish-speaking countries. On Twitter in Spanish, the hashtags #YoEstoyConPutin or similar are mostly tags employed in 2015 to support Russia and its military actions in the war in Syria, and very few are related to the current war conflict. And the accounts that produced this content appear to be real and claim to be located in countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia. 

The social network Telegram, on the other hand, has been a great ally for the reproduction of Russian media in the region, as it is one of the few platforms that was not censored.

Selective censorship?

The censorship that these media have received is being highly questioned since Russian media agencies are not the only ones that have disseminated disinformation in the region and have not rectified it. The Mexican channel Televisa, for example, carelessly published images and videos of military attacks claiming that they corresponded to the war in Ukraine, when, in fact, they were from the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was denounced by Roberto de la Madrid who, however, had his YouTube channel closed for a few days due to the complaint.

This puts on the table that these global platforms are becoming judges of truth. In some cases, they get it right, and in others, they don’t, since their criteria and algorithms are selective, as they ultimately seek monetization more than truth.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

Autor

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Estudiante del Máster en Gerencia del Desarrollo Global de la Universidad de East Anglia, Inglaterra. Máster en Estudios Internacionales de la Universidad de los Andes. Participante del Programa de Formación 360/Digital Sherlocks (DFRLab) del Consejo Atlántico para combatir la desinformación cohortes 2021-2022.

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