RT videos still spreading Ukraine disinformation on YouTube, report finds
Feb 22, 2023
Hundreds of videos produced by the Russia-controlled publication RT have found their way on to YouTube in the past year, despite the platform’s ban of such media last year.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, banned all Russian state-funded media from its platform globally in March 2022, citing a policy barring content that “denies, minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent events” as Russia sought to guide the narrative on its war in Ukraine.
But a report published on Wednesday by Newsguard, a US-based disinformation watchdog, found 250 uploads of 50 RT-created videos about the war in Ukraine across more than 100 YouTube channels since the ban. The content had reached more than half a million views combined according to the study, and contains debunked claims about Ukraine’s regime and its actions in the war, including that the country had installed Nazi leadership and committed war crimes against its own citizens.
These key narratives in the Russian disinformation campaign seek to undermine Ukraine’s credibility and demonize Ukraine,” said Madeline Roache, an author of the study. “They come as part of a bigger attempt to erode support for the country internationally.”
In many cases, the RT logo was scrubbed from videos that also appeared in full on RT’s website – suggesting the outlet was purposely obscuring the origins of its content to bypass YouTube’s rules.
The platform’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, has spoken openly about such tactics, stating in April 2022 that it is able to upload unbranded videos that remain online for several days before being detected.
“Without using our brand, we open a channel on YouTube, it gets millions of views in a few days,” Simonyan told state media in April 2022. “After three days [YouTube’s] intelligence services figure it out … and close it.”
RT did not respond to a request for comment about whether it was behind the accounts cited in the study. In a statement to Newsguard, YouTube did not dispute the findings but stated that its teams have removed more than 9,000 channels and more than 85,000 videos related to the war since the conflict began.
A spokesman added that related to the ban on Russian state-funded news channels, more than 800 channels have been removed and 4m videos have been blocked.
“Our teams continue to closely monitor the ongoing war and are ready to take further action,” the spokesman said. As of 21 February, YouTube had removed 81 of the 250 uploads identified in the NewsGuard study. It did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.
One monetized channel identified by the study to be sharing RT-created content is run by a British national living in Russia named Mike Jones. The gamer turned pro-Russia influencer has gained more than 117,000 followers sharing a variety of pro-Putin propaganda, conspiracy theories and disinformation.
In one video, he claims the March 2022 airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol was staged. Though that video and others violate YouTube’s policy prohibiting content denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events, at the time of writing it remains up on the channel generating ad revenue.
In response to the study, YouTube removed 18 videos from Jones’s channel featuring RT content, but did not respond to a request for comment as to why the account remains online and continues to run advertisements.
The study also found RT content hosted on at least five channels that appear to be run by the Russian government directly, including one from Russian agency Rossotrudnichestvo, which the EU placed under sanction in July 2022 for spreading what it described as “Kremlin’s narratives, including historical revisionism”.
Researchers say they were shocked at the sheer scale of disinformation being produced by RT despite global efforts to stem the propaganda machine. The outlet made 50 documentaries in the past year, or about one a week.
“This is a lot of investment and a lot of work and to produce these films,” said Roache. “They are moving beyond short news clips. It shows the value they are placing on getting their disinformation narratives out.”
Most of the documentaries were in English and in Russian, but researchers said they are seeing a growing number of films released in French, German and Italian – despite sanctions against RT levied by the EU.
“It shows that these sanctions haven’t deterred the amount that is being produced, which reinforces again the importance of this content in its information operations during the war,” Roache said.
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