Despite Western bans, Putin’s propaganda flourishes in Spanish on TV and social media
With almost 500 million speakers and a global reach, Spanish has always been one of the key languages for Kremlin’s propaganda. But Spanish-language channels became even more important after Vladimir Putin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Western ban of state-funded outlets such as RT and Sputnik didn’t deter the Kremlin’s impact in Spain and Latin America through social media channels, Telegram channels and local influencers who favour Russia’s side.
This piece analyses the impact of Kremlin’s Spanish-language propaganda with the help of two fact-checkers and two experts, who explain how Russia is managing to spread false narratives about the conflict in Latin America and beyond.
A clear focus
“"Thank you for the victory!": Mariupol residents thank Putin for liberating the city” ; “Russia: US tries to divert attention from Nord Stream sabotage with cheap hoaxes”; “Another overpriced Army procurement scandal erupts in Ukraine.” Those are some of the recent headlines on the homepage of RT en Español, the Spanish-language output of the state-controlled broadcast network RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
Launched in 2009, years ahead of Spanish-language 24-hour news channels such as DW Español or France 24 Español, RT en Español has grown to be a key information tool for the Russian state to spread its counter-narratives among Spanish-speakers.
While the news outlet is currently blocked on the TV sets and on the online space of the EU, the US, Canada and other countries, it is still thriving in Latin America. Its 24/7 cable news channel claimed an audience of 18 million in 2018 and social media accounts with more than 25 million followers. This makes RT en Español one of the most followed foreign news services in the region. Unlike other state-owned news outlets, RT en Español is a propaganda tool at the service of the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda and has helped Vladimir Putin get across his message at a time when he’s more isolated than ever.
RT en Español is more successful than any of the other services of RT, which include English, Arabic, German and French. This shows both the popularity of the channel in Latin America as well as the importance that Moscow gives to Spanish-speaking audiences.
According to Vladimir Rouvinski, Associate Professor at the Universidad Icesi in Colombia, three reasons explain the appeal of RT to Spanish-speaking audiences: the deficit of non-Western media in Latin America, anti-American sentiment in the region and lack of knowledge of the realities of today’s Russia.
"The Russian government is trying to foster the idea that Russia is more or less another version of the Soviet Union, a Soviet Union 2.0 that is really leading the fight against the hegemon that is the United States,” Rouvinski says.
The Kremlin’s information strategy towards Latin America is based on the idea that the entire Western Hemisphere is part of Washington’s priority area of political, economic and social concern, explains Rouvinski. In other words, Russia has an interest in the region because of its proximity to the United States.
"It’s about diminishing the influence of the United States and the influence of Western values associated with Washington or Europe here in Latin America," Rouvinski says.
Noise from suspicious accounts
An analysis done by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine revealed that the most used keyword in RT en Español website’s news sub-headlines is “EEUU,” the standard abbreviation for the United States in Spanish. The study also reveals that news links shared by RT en Español's Facebook page focused more on the United States than on any other countries in Latin America.
“The common thread for RT’s communication in the region is questioning US imperialism,” says Iria Puyosa, a Senior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Puyosa explains that part of Russia’s strategy is blaming any social problems on Western countries and presenting a narrative that Putin is a “global leader who brings stability and progress” and might create a new world order where the Global South has a seat at the table.
After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine over a year ago, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has focused on spreading narratives that justify the war. Further research by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab shows that Russian-state media dominate social media conversations in the region when it comes to the war, with RT en Español being the third most-shared domain on Twitter for Spanish posts discussing the war after YouTube and El País. Sputnik Mundo, another Russian state-owned Spanish-language news agency, is among the top 15. However, it is important to note that there are indicators that this is inauthentic activity through coordination from suspicious accounts.
According to Puyosa, RT en Español spreads three talking points: ‘Ukraine is threatening Russia as a puppet of NATO and the United States;’ ‘Ukraine is a Nazi regime;’ and ‘Russia is fighting an anti-imperialist war against Europe and the US.’
Rouvinski explains that RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo differ from other 24 hour news channels like DW Español or France 24 Español in that most of its content is criticism against the US and the West rather than impartial news reporting. “They are gaining space,” says Rouvinski. “They are now much better positioned as an alternative source to more traditional global outlets like BBC or CNN and even better positioned than some local news media.”
For Rouvinski these media outlets have eroded liberal democracy in the region. “They increase polarisation and never talk about consensus,” he says.
Beyond traditional media
RT and Sputnik reach their audiences through traditional means but also through social media and messaging channels. The Kremlin uses other strategies such as troll and bot farms and local influencers to spread the same pro-Russian narratives. This is why those who work to debunk disinformation think the biggest risks lie on the internet.
Julio Montes, co-founder and director of independent Spanish fact-checker Maldita.es, says that the consumption of state-owned Russian media outlets often comes from those that are already convinced of the narratives being peddled. “The consumer of RT or Sputnik is someone who has already been convinced of certain narratives,” says Montes. “That's why at Maldita.es we think that we have to focus on locating and detecting these disinformation narratives.”
The war between Russia and Ukraine created fertile ground for these narratives to spread and fact-checkers saw a lot of false information on the conflict being shared in different channels.
Olivia Sohr, Director of Impact and New Initiatives at Argentinian fact-checking organisation Chequeado, says many of these items target Spanish-speakers. According to a report by Newsguard, while both Russia and Ukraine take part in these information wars, most false narratives spread online are anti-Ukraine. An analysis done by Chequeado on the most common narratives spread during the first six months of the war revealed that the most common digital channels where disinformation circulated are Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram and WhatsApp.
“The vast majority were videos and photos out of context," says Sohr. "For example, photos of the Gaza conflict presented as if they were from the conflict in Ukraine. Also photos or videos of earlier conflicts. For example, from 2014 in the same region, but presented as if they happened this year."
Multiple studies have tracked down the use of social media accounts, on Telegram and Twitter in particular, to spread and promote pro-Kremlin narratives. These studies suggest the presence of large-scale, coordinated Russian propaganda campaigns on social media.
One of these studies uncovers networks of Telegram channels that spread Kremlin propaganda and disinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a global audience in different languages. Another one details how Russian embassies in Latin America and Spain are one of the main amplifiers of the Kremlin media outlets. “They have been using social media since the beginning,” Puyosa says. “What is new is the way they are working with embassies.”
She explains this is a way to get local news outlets to report on the Kremlin’s message since it is coming from a government official. “This gets them a greater reach,” Puyosa says. “They reach people who aren't following these outlets and just get their news from their normal newspaper and television channel.”
These messages are further spreading throughout social media. During the first year of the war, Maldita.es has debunked more than 170 hoaxes and pieces of misinformation on the conflict. They have also seen how Telegram channels with wide reach in Spain and Latin America have been spreading disinformation and how their messaging shifted when Russia invaded Ukraine.
"During the pandemic we localised the groups spreading disinformation, especially the issue of COVID-19 and vaccines," Montes says. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, those groups – all of them – turned around and started supporting the Russian invasion."
Here come the influencers
Another tactic the Kremlin seems to be using to circumvent TV blockages in the West is leveraging sympathetic influencers with large social media followings. An analysis by the Brookings Institution looking at the spread of Russian propaganda on platforms show that seven of the top 15 most retweeted accounts in their dataset of prominent users are independent, Spanish-language influencers who are unaffiliated with RT or Sputnik.
An investigation by Spanish newspaper El Confidencial describes the journey of Spanish YouTubers Rubén Gisbert and Liu Sivaya to the Russian-controlled Donbas region, where they were able to film and “report” from the ground. The area is currently off-limits to most Western media as one needs Russian authorisation and escort to even enter the zone.
The article describes how these influencers shared pro-Russian narratives. The Russian Embassy in Spain has even shared their content. Sivaya, whose YouTube channel has almost 200,000 subscribers, posted a video from Mariupol describing the Ukrainian city, where thousands of people were killed by Russian bombings and buried in mass graves, as “liberated” and “reborn.” Gisbert, whose YouTube channel had 476,000 subscribers at the time of this writing, has appeared on RT to criticise Western coverage of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“[The Kremlin is] also distributing news using local influencers: people who are local, who are YouTubers, who have a popular television news channel, who have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter,” says Puyosa. “Those people are working together with Russia, probably due to some ideological alignment or for hire, or in some cases probably both.”
That’s why Montes thinks it is a mistake to focus only on official channels like RT and Sputnik. “It is much more effective to spread disinformation narratives through ‘influencers’ who have created their own communities and serve as ‘viralisers’ of hoaxes and manipulations,” he says.
The Kremlin’s focus on Spanish-language content does not surprise Montes due to the sheer numbers of Spanish speakers in the world. More than 496 million people have Spanish as their native tongue, including more than 62 million in the United States alone.
"We are a very interesting market for disinformation," says Montes, "The same narratives that you create for Latin America have an impact in the United States and in Spain, and through Spain, in Europe."
Can Russian falsehoods be contained?
In February 2022, the EU announced it would be banning RT and Sputnik from operating in their 27 member countries due to “systematic information manipulation and disinformation by the Kremlin.” Canadian telecom companies followed this move as did US companies, which led to the closure of RT America, RT’s English-language outlet in the United States.
Meta and TikTok also made RT's and Sputnik's social media content unavailable to users in the European Union, including the United Kingdom, whereas YouTube moved to globally block all Russian state-funded media.
Following these policies by Western countries and Big Tech, should Latin American countries follow suit? The sources in this piece don’t think so. They see blockages as a way to potentially embolden the Kremlin’s narrative and as not being very effective since there are numerous ways to circumvent blocking.
“When you block, people say ‘See! These imperialists don’t want you to hear what they are saying because they are telling the truth,’” says Puyosa. “You are making their point for them and making their tool more credible.”
Furthermore, a study by our own Director of Research Richard Fletcher and other researchers mapping the audience of RT and Sputnik’s foreign outlets prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that the footprint of their websites is very limited. Looking at 21 countries, including Latin American countries and Western countries that ended up banning these services in their territory, the study shows that through their websites neither outlet reached more than 5% of the monthly digital populations of any of these countries.
For Montes, there needs to be an overhaul on how a media outlet is conceived and defined. He argues that to regulate disinformation there should be clear parameters of compliance to determine what is considered a media outlet and what isn’t so that these criteria are clear and available to the public. “We have a big problem with the rules of the game,” Montes says. “Everything is a media outlet and at the same time nothing is.”
Understanding what kind of disinformation generates interest and why people believe those narratives is key in curbing their influence, says Sohr. “We can focus on giving people the tools to identify when a photo or a video is fake,” Sohr says. But even if we do, the next information crisis will be more challenging to contain as AI-generated images are improving by the minute.
“How do we prepare ourselves for the next crisis?,” she says. “Citizens need better tools so when they come across disinformation they can disprove it and know what to look for, whether it is the hands, whether it is the eyes, whether it is the metadata that comes with the image or the systems we find to be able to differentiate what is real from what is not.”
For both Rouvinski and Puyosa, rather than banning outlets coming from Russia, the best response lies in education and awareness, as well as continuing to provide a diversity of counter-messages and viewpoints. “The more correct way is to foster awareness about why [Russian-state media] do what they do,” says Rouvisnki. “In other words, I believe that what we need to do is to better educate the Latin American public opinion in order to understand what is behind what they are doing.”