Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the European Union moved to block RT and Sputnik, two of the Kremlin’s primary channels for disseminating propaganda and misinformation about the conflict.
Nearly six months later, the number of sites promoting the same content has exploded as Russia has discovered ways to circumvent the ban. They’ve rebranded their work in order to hide it. Diplomats are now in charge of some propaganda. They’ve also copied and pasted much of the content onto new websites with no obvious ties to Russia.
NewsGuard, a New York-based firm that studies and tracks online misinformation, has identified 250 websites that are actively disseminating Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens more added in recent months.
Allegations on these websites include allegations that Ukraine’s army staged some lethal Russian attacks in order to gain international support, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is faking public appearances, and that Ukrainian refugees are committing crimes in Germany and Poland.
Some of the websites present themselves as independent think tanks or news outlets. The majority are in English, with the remainder in French, German, or Italian. Many were established long before the war and had no obvious ties to the Russian government until they suddenly began repeating Kremlin talking points.
“They could be establishing sleeper sites,” NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz speculated. Sleeper sites are websites created for a disinformation campaign that are largely dormant, gradually building an audience through innocuous or unrelated posts before switching to propaganda or disinformation at a predetermined time.
While NewsGuard’s analysis found that much of the disinformation about the Ukraine war comes from Russia, it also discovered instances of false claims with a pro-Ukrainian bias. They included claims about the Ghost of Kyiv, a hotshot fighter ace who officials later admitted was a myth. YouTube, TikTok, and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, have all pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their European Union platforms. But researchers have found that in some cases all Russia had to do to evade the ban was to post it from a different account.
The Disinformation Situation Center, a disinformation research coalition based in Europe, discovered that some RT video content was appearing on social media under a new brand name and logo. In the case of some video footage, the RT brand was simply removed and reposted on a new YouTube channel that was not subject to the EU’s ban.
According to Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at Reset, a U.K.-based nonprofit that has funded the Disinformation Situation Center’s work and is critical of social media’s role in democratic discourse, more aggressive content moderation on social media could make it more difficult for Russia to circumvent the ban.
“Instead of implementing effective content moderation systems, they are playing whack-a-mole with the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus,” Kartte said.
The parent company of YouTube did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ban.
Officials in the EU are attempting to fortify their defenses. The EU approved legislation this spring requiring tech companies to do more to combat disinformation. Companies that fail may face large fines.
Last month, European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova described misinformation as “a growing problem in the EU, and we really need to take stronger measures.”
The proliferation of sites spreading disinformation about the Ukraine conflict demonstrates that Russia had a contingency plan in place in case governments or tech companies tried to restrict RT and Sputnik. That means Western leaders and tech companies will have to do more than shutter one or two websites if they hope to stop the flow of Kremlin disinformation.
“The Russians are a lot smarter,” said NewsGuard’s other co-CEO, Steven Brill.