Europe has banned Russia's RT network. Its content is still being disseminated.

The website that calls itself Man Stuff News caters to a certain sensibility, with categories like “Backyard Grills,” “TV Shows for Kids” and “Beard Grooming.” A recent article titled “Tips for Dads During Labor” offers this little piece of advice: “Just remember to spend some time together before deciding whether or not to give birth.”

However, by accessing the world news section, the nature of the coverage will change dramatically. There, a recent article played down an international warrant to arrest the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, for war crimes. It repeats, word for word, an article that appeared the day before under a different title on the website of RT, Russia's global television network.

RT, which the US State Department describes as a key player in the Kremlin's disinformation and propaganda apparatus, has been blocked in the European Union, Canada and other countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Sites like Man Stuff News, however, they helped RT bypass the restrictions and continue to reach European and American audiences, according to a new report.

According to the report, compiled by researchers from the German Marshall Fund, the University of Amsterdam and the Ministry of Health, replicas of RT articles were recycled thousands of times across hundreds of sites. Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a non-profit research organization. The sites include content aggregators such as Infowars, run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; RT mirrors repurposed from abandoned “zombie” sites; fake local news outlets with names like the San Francisco Telegraph; and domains focused on spirituality, yoga, extraterrestrials, and the apocalypse. Many of the articles were then further disseminated via social media.

The rationale behind republishing RT content most likely varies from site to site, but clandestine republishing poses a particular danger in the European Union, where concerns about Kremlin-linked disinformation campaigns are intensifying, especially as Russia seeks to weaken European support for Ukraine before that happens. parliamentary elections next week.

“This is really the tip of the Russian propaganda iceberg,” said Bret Schafer, a co-author of the report and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “It was quite clear when we were managing search results in the EU that if Russian propaganda doesn't appear on Russian domains, it still finds its way in, which is kind of a double trouble because it doesn't just evade restrictions and bans, but it does it on less transparent sites than RT itself.

RT said in a statement that its content does not toe the “US State Department/NATO party line” and added that it is “very pleased that RT's news content is so massively popular with a wide range of platforms and users”.

A message sent to an email address listed for registration on the Man Stuff News website went unanswered. The site offers few details about where it is based or who runs it.

According to the researchers, as non-Russian sources parroted the Kremlin's talking points, they helped legitimize the narratives to an often unaware audience. The copied articles, which the researchers described as “Russian propaganda dolls”, targeted a huge geographic swath of viewers via sites registered in at least 40 countries on six continents, including countries where RT is apparently blocked. When RT's content in languages ​​other than English is taken into account along with other Kremlin-controlled media, the true scope of Russian propaganda laundering is likely much larger, the researchers said.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a speech this month that she was “particularly concerned about the increase in foreign interference and manipulation in our societies, our democracies and our elections.” She cited “swarms of negative misinformation” about specific issues and candidates and malicious attempts to “buy influence and cause chaos.”

Last month, a consortium of 36 European fact-checking organizations said that false or misleading content about the European Union or Ukraine was among the most widespread forms of disinformation it encountered.

An EU report this year said operators abroad – obviously from Russia, but also from China – are coordinating on “virtually all platforms” to create an alternative information environment that would undermine trust in democracy. Last month, the European Commission conducted a pre-election stress test to assess platforms' preparedness against AI-generated falsehoods, influence campaigns from bot accounts and other threats.

Since 2022, the Kremlin has been unable to access some of its main messaging channels in the West after Canada and the European Union took RT off their airwaves. This month, the bloc suspended broadcasts of four more Russian media outlets.

In the United States, government regulators have not taken action against the American outpost of the Russian network, RT America. Instead, television distributors across the country cut ties with RT America in early 2022, and it closed within days.

Online platforms have also tried to curb RT's reach; YouTube has blocked global access to RT-affiliated channels and said it made efforts to remove harmful misinformation. Recycled RT content, however, persists there and on other platforms, the researchers said, echoing findings from other research groups. On YouTube, RT articles appeared to be narrated using an automatic text-to-speech generator to evade filters. Content copied from RT also appeared on major social and messaging sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Substack, Telegram and X, as well as on niche platforms such as Gab and Rumble, the researchers said.

Working through more than 1,500 RT articles published last year, the researchers searched for websites that had similar content or metadata, limiting their search to results geolocated in the United States and Belgium, the de facto capital of the European Union.

Some of the sites were likely spreading RT's content with the network's permission, the researchers said, while others had plagiarized RT without its knowledge. The sites may have been ideologically aligned with the Kremlin or more intent on driving traffic to increase visibility or advertising revenue. Some sites revealed that they were republishing RT content. (Man Stuff News concluded its copy of the article on Putin's arrest warrant by publishing the web address of RT's original article.)

Verbatim replicas of RT's articles appeared in media outlets affiliated with the governments of Cambodia, Iran, Nigeria and Yemen, as well as in a Lebanese outlet owned by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia. The researchers linked a website to a conservative Catholic online ministry in Texas that contained posts about abortion, candle making and, in one example from RT, the lack of aid after an earthquake in Syria.

The researchers noted that RT was not the only Kremlin media outlet to be recycled. As major elections in the European Union and the United States approach, Russian disinformation operators have sharpened their strategies. Recent videos featuring synthetic voices and other signs of AI manipulation have targeted right-wing American voters with false messages about President Biden. Fake news organizations created by Russian agents have imitated real American news outlets while promoting Kremlin propaganda; A former Florida sheriff's deputy who received political asylum in Moscow has created more than 160 such fake sites.

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