Washington – (AP) – Despite Russia being the country that invaded its neighbor Ukraine, the Kremlin’s version is adamantly warning social media users across Latin America that the US is the bigger problem.
“Never forget who the real threat to the world is,” reads a headline, translated here from Spanish. The article, originally posted to Twitter by RT en Español in late February, is aimed at an audience half a world away from the fighting in Kyiv and Mariupol.
As this war rages on, Russia is planting falsehoods in the feeds of Spanish-speaking social media users in nations that have long mistrusted the US. The goal is to rally support for the Kremlin’s war in these countries and foment opposition to America’s response.
Although many of the claims have been debunked, they are spreading widely across Latin America, helping to make Kremlin-controlled outlets some of the best Spanish-language sources for information about the war. Russian outlet RT en Español is now the third most shared page on Twitter for Spanish language information about the Russian invasion.
“RT’s success should worry anyone concerned about the success of democracy,” said Samuel Woolley, a University of Texas professor who studies disinformation. “RT is geared towards authoritarian control and, depending on the context, towards nationalism and xenophobia. We risk Russia gaining control of an ever-increasing eyeball market share.”
US-based tech companies have attempted to limit Russian outlets’ ability to disseminate post-invasion propaganda by banning outlets-connected apps, downgrading the content and flagging state-run media. The European Union has banned RT and the Russian state-owned company Sputnik.
Still, the content thrives on Spanish-language websites, message boards, and social media pages. While Russia also creates propaganda in languages like English, Arabic, French, and German, it has had particular success with Spanish-speaking users, according to a recent study by Esteban Ponce de Leon, a Bogota, Colombia-based analyst with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab , a Washington think tank funded by the US and other governments.
Russia’s discredited claims about Ukraine and the US include claims that the invasion was necessary to confront neo-Nazis or that the US was secretly supporting biological warfare research in Ukraine. In fact, the US has long provided public funding to biological labs in Ukraine that study pathogens in hopes of containing dangerous disease outbreaks.
This type of disinformation can easily flow from Latin America to other countries — including the US — with large Spanish-speaking communities. Sometimes it is passed between relatives who may share claims across continents. It’s another potential entry point for Russia and a reminder of the sophistication of the Russians’ effort.
“There are several ways that RT is actively engaging communities across Latin America and the United States,” said Jacobo Licona, a researcher at Equis Labs, a democratic company. “That’s one of the reasons RT has been so effective, that they built that network or community upfront.”
As one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, Spanish is of obvious interest to any government or organization intent on shaping global public opinion. But Russia’s focus on the Spanish language goes further, reflecting the historical and strategic importance of Central and South America during the Cold War, said Atlantic Council analyst Ponce de Leon.
For decades, the Soviet Union sought to exploit historic tensions between the US and Latin America by supporting communist factions and major allies, including Cuba. Russia has attempted to portray the US as a colonizing empire, while the Kremlin has worked to strengthen its own ties to the hemisphere.
RT’s Spanish language service began in 2009, four years after its English language version. It quickly gained ground and is now far more popular than its English counterpart. RT en Español has more than 16 million followers on its Facebook page, almost three times as many as on its English page.
High-profile names in Latin America have helped RT on a few occasions. Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa began hosting a weekly political talk show for RT in 2018, less than a year after leaving office. He has since been convicted on corruption charges that forced him to flee Ecuador to Europe. Authorities in Ecuador have also accused him of trying to destabilize the government of his successor.
In March, RT en Español’s Facebook page saw an increase in interactions, generating around 75,000 likes, reactions and comments on its pages every day, according to analysis by the Equis Institute, a democratic research and polling firm. The rise in exposure continued after tech company Meta said it was demoting Russia’s state media sites on its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
On Twitter, RT and Sputnik are getting help from Russian diplomats and a network of other accounts that researchers say are artificially boosting the posts’ popularity. This has helped RT become the third most shared page for Spanish-language information about the Ukraine war on Twitter, beating local news sources and international media outlets like the BBC and CNN.
Ponce de Leon tracked thousands of accounts that had posted or reposted content from RT and Sputnik on Twitter and found that 171 accounts were responsible for 11% of total engagement with the posts. During an eight-day period in March, these accounts posted more than 200,000 times, or an average of 155 tweets per day for each account — significantly more than a regular user.
The suspicious accounts helped distribute the content to authentic users, Ponce de Leon said, in a bid to grow RT’s already impressive audience in Latin America.
“Russia is trying to maintain its popularity in Latin America,” he said. “RT and Sputnik already have a large audience in the region. Do we need to worry? The answer would be yes.”
Associated Press writer Abril Mulato contributed to this report from Mexico City.
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