Russia Today: RT is banned in Europe, but hundreds of websites allow you to view its content | Technology
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the unknown page budrigannews.com published an article in mid-April about Pope Francis’s criticism of European countries for the situation of Ukrainian refugees. That same content, word for word, published that same day, could be read on Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin-funded media outlet that the European Union has banned since the invasion of the former Soviet country. noweg.comwhich is advertised as a page with up-to-the-minute news about Equatorial Guinea, or atb.com.bofrom Bolivia, showed the same images and texts.
Up to 112 web pages do the same: replicate the content of the Russian propaganda channel banned in Europe. But sometimes to get information through RT you don’t have to be so far-fetched: just type a web address slightly different from the original, change the location on your Twitter profile or even return to an official RT page that seemed to have disappeared. RT’s dozen major new web addresses have accumulated, between May and June alone, more than five million visits.
The tricks used by the Russian international channel are detailed in a report, carried out by EL PAÍS, by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research center based in London and focused on the polarization of the debate and disinformation techniques. Several previous analyzes (like this one from the BBC or this one from the Disinformation Situation Center) had analyzed how RT continues to flood social networks, but the ISD focuses on web pages. Since covering the entire internet would be impossible, some of their work has been manual and therefore limited: they reveal probably only a small part of all the tactics out there, but enough to underline how fragile the EU-imposed veto is.
Pages registered in Moscow
When the ban on accessing RT and Sputnik, the Kremlin’s other major advertising channel, is created, theoretically a barrier is raised in Europe that prevents access to its contents. The first thing the ISD researchers did was get around it to consult the original RT website using a VPN connection (which allows you to hide where you are accessing the internet from). To narrow the field of their research, they decided to analyze only the stories about Ukrainian migrants in Europe. They made a selection of hundreds of articles from the original web and searched them this side of the barrier, that is, with European connections. They put them into Google and the search engine returned results for more than 800 articles exactly the same as those of RT, hosted on web pages that spread or replicate the same content.
A large part of these articles are hosted on 12 web pages whose address was not the original RT one, but whose content was the same and, above all, the IP address to which they connected was the same as RT’s (the IP makes tuition of a website and is unique). In two other dependent pages appeared tests to avoid restrictions: one of the domain names they used was “against censorship”. All the pages are registered in Moscow, by a Russian service provider, and most of them were created in the six weeks after the invasion of Ukraine.
Until then, those who most clicks accumulated were two specific domains: news.rt.com Y en.rt.com. As of April 1, the links that were easiest to find and accumulated the most visits became news-rt.com (with the hyphen instead of the period) and as of June, also esrt.press.
news-rt.com alone it accumulated 1.2 million visits in the month of May and 88% of its users came from Spain, according to data from SimilarWeb.com. RT in Spanish In fact, in recent years it was the most followed service of this channel on social networks, with more than twice as many followers on Facebook as the English version.
A wall too porous
Social networks have also applied the European veto to Russian accounts, but it is very easy to get around it. Instagram is easily accessed from Spain, using a data rate and not a Wi-Fi network. newstenespanol, which broadcasts RT news to its almost 20,000 followers without any restrictions. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, often labels Kremlin-controlled media posts to warn its users of the unreliability of the content.
On Twitter, a small modification available to any user allows you to see RT’s tweets: by manually changing your location to a territory outside the European Union, you can now see messages, photos and videos broadcast by the chain. “It seems that Twitter uses the self-declaration of where we are to decide whether to show RT content, instead of the actual position: this implies that the RT ban on this network can be bypassed very easily throughout the EU” , ISD researchers say. A Twitter spokesperson points out in this regard that the company focuses on complying with EU sanctions and for years has limited the visibility of RT’s tweets (they do not appear as recommended, for example).
The video platform YouTube has also banned RT, but another recent analysis has identified some 50 channels that publish content in Spanish produced by the Russian network.
More complex forms, like the 112 pages of copy-pasted RT content, seem less directly related to the original brand. But there is evidence that they are often part of the same network: this is the case, among others, of MainStreamMedia Limited (based in the United Arab Emirates), which registered seven pages that replicate RT content, three from Bahrain and four from the United Kingdom. United. Another 46 pages function as news aggregators: they offer the headline, the subtitle and the first paragraph of the RT news, and then link directly to the original website.
It is relevant that researchers have reached the list of web pages simply by searching for words in Google, the most used search engine in Europe. “It was while doing another investigation when we noticed that, while the official RT addresses were not offered in the results, alternative pages did appear in the searches… and many appeared,” explains Francesca Arcostanzo, one of the authors of the analysis.
The most surprising thing about the research, however, is how porous the wall that has been erected in the European Union is. Russia Today often does not need any tricks: as this newspaper has verified, depending on the operator used, or depending on whether you are connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data, the original pages of RT in Spanish are at a click. “The researchers have worked from different countries (United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy) and we have seen how the implementation of the veto works differently in each country.” Hence, a “more consistent” approach between authorities from different countries, but also between technology giants such as Google or Twitter, to the veto is one of the recommendations after their study. “When they can be linked to the Kremlin, pages that replicate that content should be banned just like the original RT,” the authors conclude.
Despite the flaws, the veto also has another objective. As Nika Aleksejeva, a researcher at the thinktank American Atlantic Council, “the fact that a media outlet is banned is first and foremost news. Label that medium as something bad, and unclear readers will try to avoid that source. The ad itself reduces your visibility and audience and encourages users not to share or consume that content.” With an ongoing war, RT has been marked, at least for the time being, as a source of war propaganda, adds Aleksejeva.
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