By Dulce María Hernández Márquez, Daryna Sydorenko
- Widespread Influence: The popularity of Russian media in Latin America is underscored by the millions of followers they have garnered. Actualidad RT and Sputnik Mundo have amassed substantial followings on social media platforms, reshaping public perceptions and shaping a significant part of the region’s media landscape.
- Proliferation of Narratives: Russian propaganda employs a range of narrative groups, including the ones of oppression of the Russian minority in Ukraine, intolerance of other nationalities, and the portrayal of the West as an aggressor in Ukraine. These narratives aim to discredit the West and foster distrust among Latin American audiences.
- Telesur’s Role: The Latin American news channel, has also joined the ranks of misinformation purveyors, aligning itself with the Russian narrative. Its role adds to the complexity of the misinformation landscape in the region.
- Challenges in Countering Influence: Despite the widespread reach of Russian media in the region, governments in Latin America have largely refrained from intervening, with Uruguay being a notable exception. The reluctance to take a firm stance on the conflict and a deeply ingrained negative perception of media censorship allows Russian propaganda to flourish and further complicates efforts to counter its influence.
Having traveled thousands of kilometers, Russian propaganda has reached a land of opportunities where its misinformation has been welcomed. In recent years, the Russian news outlets Actualidad RT/RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo have meddled in Latin American media space. These news agencies are in charge of sharing misinformation, news intentionally missing crucial information, and Kremlin propaganda.
This intrusion has been in the works for years since the Russian media found a common interest, they could exploit to enter the region — not only by themselves but also with the help of local agencies and governments. The Russian narrative of fake news, disinformation, victimization, and assigning blame to everyone but themselves is growing non-stop in Latin America.
The Russian Reach: Actualidad RT and Sputnik Mundo
Actualidad RT is the most popular of these media, having the largest audience on Facebook — around 17 million followers — which surpasses the Spanish accounts of other international outlets like CNN or BBC. In addition, RT’s Twitter account is followed by 3.5 million people, and its Instagram account by 1.1 million. Meanwhile, Sputnik Mundo has a smaller audience, with 624,000 followers on Facebook and 168,000 on Twitter.
In addition to these traditional platforms, the Russians have been able to diversify their media, as in the case of ¡Ahí les va!, a news show owned by Actualidad RT. This news outlet used to have a YouTube channel with more than a million subscribers, but it was shut down on March 1, 2022. At that time, Google blocked access to all accounts deriving from the news agencies Russia Today and Sputnik News “to stop the spread of misinformation and disrupt disinformation campaigns online” according to Kent Walker, president of Google Global Affairs.
However, the show moved to its own website, where it continues to issue new videos regularly. According to its description, the show presents “information, but with some humor. Humor, but with a lot of information”, but in reality, it is a newscast without much seriousness that uses RT en Español as a source.
Russia Today’s discourse
One of the Ahí les va episodes is titled “Attack on the Crimean Bridge: a news story with almost three centuries of Context”. The 9:30-minute video begins with the intention of commenting on an attack on the Crimean Bridge, during which the Ukrainian government was said to have killed 2 civilians. However, the host mentions the attack only for the first two minutes and then proceeds to explain the historical conflict in Crimea and its geopolitical implications. Creating a convenient narrative for Russia.
First of all, the host mentions how the Russians got into Crimea after the Ottomans and Tatars. Throughout the whole piece, he places a huge emphasis on the Russian people as the majority of the population on the peninsula. In this narrative, the show failed to mention that Russia recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 1991, thus confirming Crimea’s affiliation. With its illegal annexation, Russia violated international law. Even if the majority of people residing there were ethnically Russian, it didn’t grant them the right to forcefully annex the territory. Moreover, since the Russian imperial and later Soviet rule over Crimea the ethnic composition of the peninsula was drastically changed by the government. Among other tools, mass deportations of indigenous peoples and resettlement of the Russian population in Crimea were used.
Then, the host also mentions that just before 2014, some ‘Ukrainian nationalist movements’ in Crimea ‘declared that there was no place for different ethnic groups on their territory’. According to the video, ‘nationalists’ argued they couldn’t coexist and that there had to be a superior group, and the other one must leave. Therefore, as he said, the Russian population of Crimea put a stop to being ignored and ‘reunified with Russia’, and — the hosts made emphasis on how — contrary to the Donbas, there was no violence, just a bit of sparse confrontations. Nevertheless, he later mentions that what happened in Crimea could have had a peaceful solution, yet the “West” did not want it that way. So, in the same speech, the host uses contradictory claims — both that the annexation of Crimea was and was not violent.
Not a new story
The episode correlates ideally with at least three groups of narratives the Russian propaganda machine employs regularly to cover up the country’s actions regarding Ukraine. In particular, the “Attack on the Crimean Bridge” episode refers to the messages of oppression of the Russian minority in Ukraine and ‘attacks of violent nationalist groups’, which aim to form beliefs about the illegal and violent displacement of everything Russian in Ukraine. It also mentions ‘the aggression of the West against Russia on Ukrainian territory’. These messages aim to present the West, led by the US, as an exploiter of Ukraine and a threat to the world order, as well as to form public distrust towards the West and Russian domination.
Please see the other key narrative groups below and analyze how often you see them in the comment sections following the news about the situation in Ukraine. By the frequency of their mentions, it is easy to determine the success of the infiltration of opinions favorable to Russia to the population of the Latin American region.
Ahí les va: The Controversy
Having been suspended from their YouTube accounts has not been the only problem that Actualidad RT has confronted, as it also had to face the resignation of the vice director of Ahí les va, Inna Afinogenova. The Russian, residing in Madrid, has declared herself an independent journalist, sharing news on her own YouTube channel as well as in Spanish media. However, her focus is mainly on Latin America where the majority of her audience lives.
On her channel, Afinogenova has shared that she does not agree with the war provoked by her country and that she “is not going to make war propaganda.” However, the journalist has not shown support or sympathy for Ukraine either. In fact, her videos are full of mixed messages about the war.
“I am not going to agree with a war that affects the civilian population of my country, but neither with one that affects countries as far away and unknown as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, or Palestine. And I don’t care if it’s the United States, France, Israel, Ukraine on Ukraine itself, which is what they’ve been doing for years, or Russia that drops bombs.“
Her message might look like a proclamation of neutrality and exposing the hypocrisy of other states, but in fact, it is a cliché narrative of Russian propaganda. As we look closer, she mentions the attack of ‘Ukraine on Ukraine itself’ which hints at the Ukrainian ‘civil war’ in Donbas. It is another narrative created to cover up the activities of Russian special forces and troops which, according to the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), were actively engaged in mobilizing, leading, and equipping separatist militias in the Donbas region since the spring of 2014 to the present.
With more than 230 thousand subscribers on YouTube and participation in Spanish media such as Público, La Base, Caras y Caretas, and Canal Red, Inna continues to have great relevance and reach in the Latin American region.
Actualidad RT Was the Winner of 2018 FIFA World Cup
According to specialists, Russian media found its way to Latin America by sharing news that was not related to politics, rather they focused on the special interests of the population. In 2021, Vladimir Roudinski from FIU Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy published an article titled “Russia’s Strategic Communication in Latin America and the Caribbean”. In that article, Roudinski calls RT “an opportunistic channel” as well as mentions that “Russian media constantly include politically unrelated news and reports like sensationalized bulletins in its feed”. Therefore, with this strategy, its channels would get “new followers who otherwise would not be interested in getting information from RT or Sputnik”.
Meanwhile, Mario Morales, professor of Communication at the Javeriana University of Colombia, said in an interview with DW that “Russia took advantage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup to break into Latin America with its media” and in this way “Moscow used an event apparently devoid of ideology to present RT as an alternative uncontaminated by political propaganda or ideological or government interests.”
Actualidad RT took advantage of the Latin American affinity for soccer to gain a large audience in the region, for example, to sympathize with the public RT hired Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, one of the most famous soccer players in Colombia and South America to host and comment the 2018 World Cup events for the Latin American audiences. Russian media used the FIFA event as an opportunity, and it would serve them even more after its suspension in the European Union.
Telesur, the media infiltrate in Latin America
Telesur is a Latin American multi-state television news channel with headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, which has been in operation since 2005 and was founded by the Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information. The channel is financed by the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba; in 2016 it lost financing from Argentina and in 2020 from Uruguay. Since 2014 the channel also has its website and broadcasts in English.
The Venezuelan channel has received much criticism for carrying out Chavista propaganda and modifying news at the convenience of the Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro governments. Now it has also been in charge of misrepresenting the news it shares about the Russian war against Ukraine.
It is not surprising that Venezuelan state media, which also has the financial support of Nicaragua and Cuba, publishes news defending the Russian position in the war, pointing out Ukraine as a villain and victimizing Russia. These countries had already supported the Russian government’s aggressive actions before in 2014 when they voted against the UN GA Resolution committed to supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity in light of the ‘results’ of an illegal referendum called to legitimize the Russian annexation of the peninsula. In Telesur’s catalog, you can find news lacking information important for the full context of an event and with a very partial position similar to Actualidad RT and Sputnik Mundo.
Despite not having as high a reach in social media as the Russian news outlets, Telesur is consolidated in the region and has a huge audience in more traditional media. The news channel is broadcasted on public television in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, as well as transmitted by satellite signal in all Latin American countries, besides being present in regions of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
The Venezuelan network has taken advantage of its Latin American character and the large audience with which it has garnered over the years to share its news with a Russian affinity. This is something that the Russian media have tried, but certainly have not achieved. Nevertheless, the try has not been a competition between them, it has been a team effort. All these media have taken it upon themselves to share the same Russian propaganda, even with the support of Latin American governments.
Restraining Russian Media Misinformation in the Region
In 2022, at the start of the war, there was a massive suspension of Russian state media in the European Union and Canada, as well as their pages and channels on various international platforms such as social media and international satellite TV companies. However, this has not happened in Latin America, or at least in its majority.
In this way, the only censorship effort that has happened in the region have been made by networks such as YouTube to the channels of Actualidad RT, Sputnik Mundo, Ahí les va, etc., and social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, which have reduced their reach, as shared by the same media. But this has not happened on the part of the governments, except for the case of Uruguay.
On March 1, 2022, following in the footsteps of the European Union, the National Telecommunications Administration of Uruguay announced the suspension of the transmission of the Actualidad RT signal on the ANTEL TV online platform. This decision has been strongly criticized for “attacking freedom of speech” and that “it is necessary to know the Russian perspective of the war.”
Latin America is in a strange position regarding freedom of speech. In this region, media censorship has been seen hand in hand with totalitarian governments and dictatorships of the second half of the 20th century. Nowadays, periodism is a high-risk career, with journalists being persecuted, exiled, and even murdered. The memories of this censorship and the revolutions that arose against them are still very present in the Latin American public, which is why audiences are very reluctant to censor the media. The obstruction of media is still perceived as government dirty tricks to hide the news, even if it is to media that share false or distorted information.
Russian propaganda has spread in Latin America. Millions of people are excited about the publications of Actualidad RT and Sputnik Mundo on social media, many others tune in to Telesur from their TVs and all of them consume fake news, misinformation, and everything that is convenient for the Russian government. A few years ago, the Russian media took advantage of the Latin American passion for soccer to gain a large audience in the region, and they have been able to benefit from it since the start of the war. Russian media has earned a great position with the public, and it will be difficult to take that place away from them.
Uruguay always leads in Latin America; it is very much in character that it is the only country so far to do something against disinformation and fake news. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the other governments in Latin America will shut down Russian media in mass, and if they do, Russian disinformation will find its way back into the region, either through Telesur or by seeking other outlets that promise to provide unbiased news when in reality is not so. Disinformation must have to be combated in another way.
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