Russia blames Ukraine’s disinformation against Spanish speakers

Washington (AP) – Although Russia is the country that invaded its neighbor UkraineThe Kremlin’s version relentlessly warns social media users across Latin America that the United States is the biggest problem.

“Never forget who the real threat to the world is,” reads a headline, here translated from Spanish. The article, originally posted in late February on Twitter by RT en Español, is intended for an audience half a world away from the fighting in Kiev and Mariupol.

While this war is raging, Russia is launching lies in feeds from Spanish-speaking social media users in nations that already have long experiences of having distrust of the United States. The goal is to gain support in these countries for the Kremlin’s war and arouse opposition to the US response.

Although many of the allegations have been discredited, they spread widely in Latin America and help make Kremlin-controlled businesses some of the best Spanish-language sources of information about the war. Russian outlet RT en Español is now the third most shared site on Twitter for Spanish-language information on Russia’s invasion.

“The success of RT should be of concern to anyone who is concerned about the success of democracy,” said Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas who researches disinformation. “RT is aimed at authoritarian control and, depending on the context, nationalism and xenophobia. What we risk is that Russia gains control of an ever-increasing market share of eyeballs.

US-based technology companies have tried to rein in The ability of Russian businesses to spread propaganda after the invasion by banning apps linked to businesses, degrading content and branding state-run media. The European Union has banned RT and Russian state-owned Sputnik,

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Still, content thrives on Spanish-language websites, bulletin boards, and social media. While Russia also creates propaganda in languages ​​including English, Arabic, French and German, it has found particular success with Spanish-speaking users, according to recent research by Esteban Ponce de Leon, a Bogota, Colombia-based analyst with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab , a think tank in Washington that receives funding from the United States and other governments.

Russia’s discredited allegations about Ukraine and the United States include allegations that the invasion was necessary to confront neo-Nazis, or that the United States has secretly supported biological warfare research in Ukraine. In fact, the United States has long publicly delivered funds for biological laboratories in Ukraine researching pathogens with the hope of curbing dangerous disease outbreaks.

That kind of disinformation can easily flow from Latin America to other countries – including the United States – that have large Spanish-speaking communities. Sometimes it goes between relatives who might share the claims across continents with each other. It is another potential starting point for Russia and a reminder of the sophistication of Russian efforts.

“There are various avenues where RT is actively engaging communities across Latin America and the United States,” said Jacobo Licona, a researcher at the Democratic firm Equis Labs. “That’s part of the reason RT has been so effective that they’ve built this network or community beforehand.”

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

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

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

High-profile names in Latin America have in some cases given RT a hand. Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa began hosting a weekly political talk show for RT in 2018, less than a year after he left office. Since then, he has been convicted of corruption charges that forced him to flee Ecuador to Europe. The authorities in Ecuador have also accused him of trying to destabilize the government of his successor.

In March, RT saw an España’s Facebook page boost its interactions, generating around 75,000 likes, reactions and comments on its pages daily, according to an analysis by the Equis Institute, a Democratic research and polling firm. The bump in engagement continued even after tech company Meta said it was in the process of degrading Russian-state media sites across its platforms, which include Facebook and Instagram.

On Twitter, RT and Sputnik get help from Russian diplomats and a network of other accounts, which, according to researchers, artificially increase the popularity of the posts. It has helped RT become the third most-shared site for Spanish-language information about the Ukraine war on Twitter, surpassing local news sources as well as international businesses such as the BBC and CNN.

Ponce de Leon tracked thousands of accounts that posted or re-posted content from RT and Sputnik on Twitter and found that 171 accounts were responsible for 11% of the total engagement with the postings. Over a period of eight days in March, these accounts were sent more than 200,000 times, or an average of 155 tweets a day for each account – significantly more than a normal user.

The suspected accounts helped spread the content to authentic users, Ponce de Leon said, in an effort to grow RT’s already impressive audience in Latin America.

“Russia is seeking to maintain its popularity in Latin America,” he said. “RT and Sputnik already have a large audience 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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