Sunday, June 16

Europe Banned Russia’s RT Network. Its Content Is Still Spreading.

The website calling itself Man Stuff News caters to a certain sensibility, with categories like “Backyard Grilling,” “TV Shows for Guys” and “Beard Grooming.” A recent article headlined “Tips for Dads During Labor” offered this nugget of advice: “Just remember to spend some time together before deciding whether or not to give birth.”

Get to its section devoted to world news, however, and the nature of the coverage changes drastically. There, a recent article belittled an international warrant to arrest Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, for war crimes. It repeated, word for word, an article that had appeared a day before under a different byline on the website for RT, Russia’s global television network.

RT, which the U.S. State Department describes as a key player in the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda apparatus, has been blocked in the European Union, Canada and other countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Sites like Man Stuff News, however, have helped RT sidestep the restrictions and continue reaching European and American audiences, according to a new report.

Replicas of RT articles have been laundered thousands of times through hundreds of sites, according to the report, written by researchers from the German Marshall Fund, the University of Amsterdam and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research nonprofit. The sites include content aggregators like Infowars, run by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; mirrors of RT repurposed from abandoned “zombie” sites; faux local news outlets with names like San Francisco Telegraph; and domains focusing on spirituality, yoga, extraterrestrials and the apocalypse. Many of the articles were then further disseminated through social media.

The rationale for reposting RT content most likely varies from site to site, but the surreptitious republishing represents a particular danger in the European Union, where concerns about Kremlin-linked disinformation campaigns are intensifying, especially as Russia tries to weaken European support for Ukraine ahead of parliamentary elections next week.

“This is really the tip of the Russian propaganda iceberg,” said Bret Schafer, a co-author of the report and a senior fellow at German Marshall Fund. “It was quite evident when we were running the search results in the E.U. that if Russian propaganda is not showing up on Russian domains, it’s getting through, which is sort of a double whammy because it’s not just evading restrictions and bans, it’s doing so on sites that are less transparent than RT itself.”

RT said in a statement that its content did not follow the “U.S. State Department/NATO party line” and added that it is “very glad that RT’s news content is so massively popular with a wide range of platforms and users.”

A message sent to an email address listed for the Man Stuff News website registration went unanswered. The site offers few details about where it is based or who operates it.

As non-Russian sources parroted the Kremlin’s talking points, they helped legitimize the narratives to an often unsuspecting audience, the researchers concluded. The copied articles, which the researchers described as “Russia’s propaganda nesting dolls,” targeted a huge geographic swath of viewers via sites registered in at least 40 countries across six continents, including in countries where RT is ostensibly blocked. When factoring in RT’s content in languages other than English along with other Kremlin-controlled media outlets, the true scope of Russian propaganda laundering is probably much greater, the researchers said.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a speech this month that she was “particularly concerned about the rise of foreign interference and manipulation in our societies, our democracies and our elections.” She cited “swarms of negative disinformation” about specific issues and candidates and malicious attempts at “buying influence and causing chaos.”

Last month, a consortium of 36 European fact-checking organizations said that false or misleading content about the European Union or Ukraine was among the most prevalent forms of disinformation it had encountered.

An E.U. report this year said operatives abroad — most obviously from Russia, but also China — were coordinating on “virtually all platforms” to create an alternative information environment that would erode trust in democracy. Last month, the European Commission conducted a pre-election stress test to evaluate the platforms’ preparedness against A.I.-generated fakery, influence campaigns from bot accounts and other threats.

Since 2022, the Kremlin has been unable to gain access to some of its main messaging channels in the West after Canada and the European Union took RT off their airwaves. This month, the bloc suspended four other Russian media outlets from broadcasting.

In the United States, government regulators did not take action against the Russian network’s American outpost, RT America. Instead, television distributors across the country cut ties with RT America in early 2022, and it shut down within days.

Online platforms have also tried to curb RT’s reach; YouTube blocked global access to channels affiliated with RT and said it strove to remove harmful misinformation. Laundered RT content, however, persists there and on other platforms, researchers said, echoing findings from other research groups. On YouTube, RT articles seemed to have been narrated using an automated text-to-speech generator to evade filters. Content copied from RT also appeared on major social and messaging sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Substack, Telegram and X, as well as on niche platforms such as Gab and Rumble, the researchers said.

Working from more than 1,500 RT articles published last year, the researchers looked for websites that featured similar content or metadata, limiting their search to results geolocated in the United States and Belgium, the European Union’s de facto capital.

Some of the sites were probably circulating RT’s content with the network’s permission, the researchers said, while others had plagiarized RT without its knowledge. The sites may have been ideologically aligned with the Kremlin, or more intent on driving traffic to boost visibility or ad revenue. Some of the sites disclosed that they were reposting RT content. (Man Stuff News ended its copy of the article about Mr. Putin’s arrest warrant by posting the web address of the original RT story.)

Verbatim replicas of RT articles appeared on media outlets affiliated with governments in Cambodia, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen, as well as on one Lebanese outlet owned by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia. Researchers connected one website to a conservative Catholic online ministry in Texas that had posts about abortion, candlemaking and, in an example lifted from RT, the lack of aid after an earthquake in Syria.

Researchers noted that RT was far from the only Kremlin media outlet being laundered. As major elections approach in the European Union and the United States, Russian disinformation operatives have honed their strategies. Recent videos featuring synthetic voices and other signs of manipulation by artificial intelligence targeted right-wing American voters with fake messages about President Biden. Fake news organizations crafted by Russian operatives have mimicked actual American outlets while promoting Kremlin propaganda; one former sheriff’s deputy in Florida who received political asylum in Moscow has built more than 160 such fake sites.