Russia attempts to evade EU’s ban on propaganda about Ukraine

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Russia attempts to evade EU’s ban on propaganda about Ukraine

The number of sites spreading propaganda about the war in Ukraine has exploded nearly six months after the European Union blocked two of Russia's top misinformation channels.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the European Union moved to block two Russian online news services, RT and Sputnik.

Russia has found ways to evade the ban, rebranding work to disguise it.

They have shifted some of their propaganda duties to diplomats.

They've cut and pasted much of the content onto new websites that had no obvious ties to Russia, in some cases.

NewsGuard - a New York-based firm that studies and tracks online misinformation - has now identified 250 websites that spread Russian disinformation about the war, with dozens of new ones added in recent months.

There are allegations that Ukraine's army has staged some deadly Russian attacks to curry global support, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is faking public appearances, or that Ukrainian refugees are committing crimes in Germany and Poland.

Some sites appear to be independent think tanks or news outlets.

Half of the sites are English-language, while others are French, German or Italian.

Many were set up long before the war and were not obviously tied to the Russian government until they suddenly began parroting Kremlin talking points.

Sleeper sites are websites created for a disinformation campaign that are mostly dormant and slowly build an audience through innocuous or unrelated posts, and then switch to propaganda or disinformation at an appointed time.

NewsGuard found instances of false claims with a pro-Ukrainian bent, despite the fact that much of the disinformation about the war in Ukraine comes from Russia.

They included claims about a hotshot fighter ace known as the Ghost of Kyiv, which officials later admitted was a myth.

YouTube, TikTok and Meta - the company that owns Facebook and Instagram - pledged to remove RT and Sputnik from their platforms within the European Union.

In some cases, researchers have found that all Russia had to do to evade the ban was to post it from a different account.

The Disinformation Situation Centre, a Europe-based coalition of disinformation researchers, found that some RT video content was showing up on social media under a new brand name and logo.

In the case of some video footage, the RT brand was removed from the video and reposted on a new YouTube channel that is not covered by the EU's ban.

Felix Kartte, a senior adviser at Reset, said that more-aggressive content moderation of social media could make it harder for Russia to circumvent the ban, and is critical of the role of social media in democratic discourse.

The parent company of YouTube did not respond to a request for comment about the ban.

Officials are trying to shore up their defences in the EU.

The EU approved legislation that would require tech companies to do more to root out disinformation in the northern part of the country.

Last month, European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova called disinformation a growing problem in the EU, and we need to take stronger measures. The proliferation of sites spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine shows that Russia has a plan in case governments or tech companies try to restrict RT and Sputnik.

Western leaders and tech companies will have to do more than close down one or two websites if they want to stop Russian disinformation.

Steven Brill, one of the other chief executive of NewsGuard, said the Russians are smarter.