Russia Has Taken Over Spanish-Language Airwaves on Ukraine

Kremlin-owned outlets are winning the information war with Spanish speakers.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A Spanish-language broadcast airs in Moscow.
A Spanish-language broadcast airs in Moscow.
News anchor Aliana Nieves reports on a Spanish-language broadcast in Moscow on Dec. 6, 2019. Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s state-owned media organizations unleashed a tidal wave of disinformation at Spanish-language speakers in January, according to analysis provided to Foreign Policy, in an effort that researchers believe is aimed at muddying support among Hispanics in the Western Hemisphere for Ukraine.

According to the Washington-based company Omelas, which put together an artificial intelligence-enabled dashboard to track Russian propaganda, Russian Spanish-language outlets—generously doling out Kremlin propaganda on Ukraine—outperformed their U.S. counterparts on audience engagement by a ratio of more than 3 to 1 in the last two weeks of January.

“They want to disrupt [and] politically influence the discourse in any or all of these countries to make it more difficult for the people to understand what is actually happening,” said Andrew Gonzalez, a program manager at Omelas who conducted the study. “On Ukraine, if they’re able to discombobulate the people from understanding what’s going on, it makes it much harder for the government to generate support for some type of retaliation or countermeasure.”

Russia’s state-owned media organizations unleashed a tidal wave of disinformation at Spanish-language speakers in January, according to analysis provided to Foreign Policy, in an effort that researchers believe is aimed at muddying support among Hispanics in the Western Hemisphere for Ukraine.

According to the Washington-based company Omelas, which put together an artificial intelligence-enabled dashboard to track Russian propaganda, Russian Spanish-language outlets—generously doling out Kremlin propaganda on Ukraine—outperformed their U.S. counterparts on audience engagement by a ratio of more than 3 to 1 in the last two weeks of January.

“They want to disrupt [and] politically influence the discourse in any or all of these countries to make it more difficult for the people to understand what is actually happening,” said Andrew Gonzalez, a program manager at Omelas who conducted the study. “On Ukraine, if theyre able to discombobulate the people from understanding whats going on, it makes it much harder for the government to generate support for some type of retaliation or countermeasure.”

Dating back to the Cold War, Russia has long tried to cultivate ties with leftist regimes in Latin America and has kept up strong relationships with countries such as Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela as they have doggedly stayed socialist into the 21st century. The Soviet Union has long had a willing audience in the region for narratives that paint the United States as an imperial power.

But researchers and experts have still been alarmed by the speed at which Russian propaganda began dominating Spanish-language digital airwaves during the ongoing Russian troop buildup along Ukraine’s border. According to Omelas tracking, during the last half of January, Russian government-owned outlets drummed up 1,600 posts that referenced Ukraine, including videos, articles, and social media content garnering 173,200 engagements—such as likes, shares, and comments—which was nearly 40 percent of engagements by users on Spanish-language stories about the crisis. Russia’s state-backed outlets more than doubled the output of the second-most prolific publisher of Spanish-language content on Ukraine, the Venezuelan opposition paper El Nacional, and U.S.-based outlets, led by Univision, CNN, and Telemundo, which published only 722 posts on the crisis.

Russia’s message has resonated. Popular posts on RT’s channels falsely asserted that the conflict over Ukraine could be a Western ploy to drum up arms sales and that the United States had put together a disinformation campaign to paint Russia as an aggressor. Russian forces invaded and annexed part of Ukraine in 2014, and Moscow has amassed more than 100,000 troops and heavy weapons close to the Ukrainian border since last fall.

Spanish speakers commenting on the content on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook appeared to be “really supportive of Russia,” Gonzalez said. Russian outlets, he said, “know how to put their finger on the pulse of any issue and generate the engagements needed to make their narrative dominant.”

In a statement, RT insisted that viewers were looking for a “balanced picture of news” by turning to the channel. “It is also not surprising that some would seek to cherry-pick stories and data, and form a narrative around our content that simply does not exist, in order to back particular claims that suit their narratives,” Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications, told Foreign Policy in an email.

As U.S. outlets are being outspent and out-published on Spanish-language content by their Russian counterparts, there is growing concern in the halls of Congress about the threat of misinformation and disinformation permeating Hispanic communities in the United States, especially after an onslaught of conspiracy theories engulfed South Florida during the 2020 presidential election.

“The amount of Spanish-language disinformation about the election was significant and sort of staggering,” said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow and head of the Alliance for Securing Democracys information manipulation team, which tracks Russian, Chinese, and Iranian state media. “And its somewhat inconceivable that Russia, being as skilled as they are at manipulating audiences, wouldnt understand that and attempt to exploit that at some level.”

Speaking before a House Administration Committee roundtable at Miami Dade College on Monday, former Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was defeated in a reelection bid in 2020, said the rise in disinformation flooding Hispanics in South Florida was not only from social media but also from WhatsApp groups, where U.S. residents communicate with their friends and family in the region, including Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Ecuador.

“It’s spread in an exponential way that is misleading our community,” the Ecuador-born former congresswoman said.

Yet experts worry that the Biden administration has been too slow to get its arms around the problem, as Russia’s state-owned broadcasters have become increasingly professional and the quality of their content has improved. The surge in Russian state-owned content in the Americas may have also had an impact on some corners of the U.S. media landscape. Fox News host Tucker Carlson reportedly has sought to line up an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin through Kremlin intermediaries in the United States and has publicly defended Moscow as the Russian military has built up well over 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border.

Last year, Russian state-owned broadcasters dwarfed their U.S. counterparts. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, drawing on data from the social monitoring platform CrowdTangle, found that RT en Español drew 24 million interactions over the past 12 months, compared to just 2.5 million interactions for Voz de América. When combined with RT’s other Spanish-language offshoots, such as its video-focused platform and RT america_latina, the Russian state-owned broadcaster drummed up 40 million interactions. Sputnik Mundo, another state-owned agency, got 4 million hits.

The focus on Ukraine also appears to be a new trend from outlets like RT, which had tended to focus on the Western Hemisphere more closely until recently. Schafer’s Alliance for Securing Democracy found that just 6 percent of the videos that RT America released in 2021 actually mentioned Russia. Even though viewers are aware that Moscow is behind the content, the focus away from the Kremlin gives Russian state-owned outlets the advantage of blending into mainstream news content more seamlessly, he said.

“Theres no effort to really attract people to Russia,” Schafer said. “It is to repel them from the West.” For instance, Russian state-owned outlets made a significant push to criticize Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez’s pro-U.S. government when protests broke out over proposed tax and health care reforms as well as government corruption in 2021.

And that’s what worries experts and officials. With nearly 500 million Spanish speakers around the world, mostly concentrated in the Americas, Russian disinformation can spread quickly through global social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube from the United States to the Caribbean and into South America—and vice versa.

“Instead of having to target Mexican, Bolivian, and Chilean audiences individually, Russia can reach all of the Spanish-speaking audiences simultaneously,” Gonzalez said. “The only thing people are going to be seeing is Russian propaganda.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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