‘Banned’ Russian propaganda still easy to find on YouTube

Ivan Makridin

 

“No culture cannot cancel culture,” says the once revered Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, twice winner of the Palme d’Or. He also has French citizenship. Beard scraggly, hair and clothing artfully rumpled, Kusturica looks at the camera nonplussed: “And how can you separate Tolstoy or Turgenev from the history of Europe? This is impossible.”

Behind him in soft focus is a well-stocked bookshelf. Equally soft is the mournful tinkling of a piano, as Kusturica speaks. “If we put sanctions on Russia, we spit on our past and our history and our Christian beliefs.”

I am watching this blatant piece of propaganda on YouTube. In the corner of the screen are the letters “PS” picked out in purple and black.  

Of course YouTube, like Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms have frequently claimed to have clamped down on and outright blocked Russian disinformation, particularly such state-owned media as Russia Today. Just a couple of weeks ago, a European Union court in Luxembourg confirmed the legality of a EU ban on RT France. 

The Kremlin, angered by the decision, said it would continue to look for loopholes to enable it to broadcast in Europe. The video I am watching is one of those ways, albeit by stealth.    

Research from advocacy group the Tech Oversight Project shows that PS, producers of the Kusturica video, is “People Say”, an attempt to sneak Russian content onto platforms that have banned state-backed propaganda. People Say also has its own Telegram channel.

These videos often borrow clips from documentaries screened by RT to tell their pro-Kremlin tales. One recent video shows Igor Kornet, described as the “Interior Minister of the LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic),” recalling war in the Donbas region in 2014 between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists. It is titled, in English, “For eight years, they’ve been killing us.” Kornet, wearing military fatigues, a Russian flag fluttering from what looks like a bunker behind him, says he saw his friends and colleagues being attacked back then by a “frenzied mob” that “tried to distort all values, starting with the values we learned as children about the Great Patriotic War and ordinary human values.” 

It is a straightforward justification for the Russian invasion in 2014, and by extension in 2022. Other PS videos purport to show survivors of the Holocaust talk about “Nazism in Ukraine” and a former officer of Ukraine’s security and intelligence services reveal their record of torturing detainees. 

“Big Tech platforms have become an international security threat,” Sacha Haworth, Executive Director at the Tech Oversight Project, told me via email, “and they continue to downplay the fact that they’ve become Putin’s pawns in his disinformation campaigns.”

Analysts at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue noted in July that the Kremlin harnessed YouTube’s popularity in Russia to spread disinformation. It could easily get around bans by simply rebranding its content, so RT documentaries suddenly became documentaries aired by the “Dig Deep Documentary” channel. And as I discovered simply by typing “RT news” into the search bar on YouTube, users such as Gareth Price upload the banned channel’s content on an almost daily basis. 

As Haworth wrote in her email: “The first step in tackling this issue is for Big Tech to admit it has a problem.”  

IN GLOBAL NEWS

Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls,” tweeted an angry Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International Secretary General, “are all at it today.” She was defending a report from her organization that criticized Ukrainian forces for “operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion.” Attacks on the report, she wrote, were “war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation.” And they “won’t change the facts.” 

But many disputed Amnesty’s choice to publish the report, not necessarily the facts in it. They argued that Russia would turn information into disinformation.

Inevitably, the official “Russian Embassy, UK” Twitter handle did gleefully cite the report. “Amnesty confirms,” it said, “exactly what Russia has been saying all along.” Amnesty did eventually apologize for the “distress” caused but stood by the report. “Being in a defensive position,” Callamard had said about the report’s findings, “does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”

So profoundly did her colleague, Oksana Pokalchuk, head of Amnesty International’s Ukraine branch, disagree that she resigned. On Facebook, Pokalchuk wrote, “Seeking to protect civilians, this research instead became a tool of Russian propaganda.” For Ukrainians it is obvious that information in wartime is a weapon and Amnesty just handed Russia a gun. 

But, perhaps as with journalists, Amnesty must report what it sees. “I think,” said the writer of Amnesty’s short report, “the level of self-censorship on this issue has been pretty extraordinary.”     

While Agnes Callamard appears well able to withstand pressure to resign, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is surely a man on borrowed time. He is flailing in a bid to survive, as others around him are engulfed in a phone tapping scandal. As in similar cases around the world, no one seems to have known what information they were looking to collect and quite why they were collecting it. As the Greek prime minister professed ignorance and ordered an inquiry, there were allegations that Greek spies were eavesdropping on a Greek member of the European parliament at the behest of Armenian and Ukrainian intelligence. 

The Greek intelligence chief has already resigned as has the prime minister’s general secretary, who also happens to be his nephew. This nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis, says Reporters Without Borders is now trying to sue the media outlets involved in breaking the story. 

The spyware used in this case is called Predator. It targets Android phones and reportedly emanates from a company in Skopje in North Macedonia. The random surveillance of people who governments and other interested parties might want to listen in on is set only to grow. It was recently reported in Israel that at least 12 European Union countries, including Greece, have an ongoing relationship with NSO, makers of the notorious Pegasus spyware.  

Finally, for all the talk of misinformation and manipulation above, it seems Gen Z, young people born from about 1998 on, is better equipped to spot disinformation. A new survey from the Poynter Institute shows that they incorporate more advanced techniques, including a reverse image search and verifying information across multiple tabs, to verify accuracy. Older people are more prone to passing on false or unverified news. The survey questioned over 8,500 people from the United States, Japan, India, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Nigeria and Germany. Over six in ten respondents said they saw misleading information every week. Incidentally, digital literacy does not mean young people won’t share false information. 

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior editor Shougat Dasgupta. Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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