Banned Russian state media find a home at Telegram – POLITICO

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok have all removed Russia’s RT – and its English, Spanish, French and German channels – from their platforms after the European Union imposed sanctions on the Kremlin-backed media network.

But these organizations spreading Russian untruths and talking about the war in Ukraine are alive and kicking up on Telegram, the encrypted messenger, even after the company said it had taken steps to protect them within 27 countries -Blocks to block.

Europe’s sanctions require RT to be removed from TV shows, video platforms, internet service providers and a litany of other digital networks to prevent falsehoods spread by Moscow from reaching large, mostly online, audiences. But on Telegram, these outlets still have free reign within the 27-country bloc.

RT’s multilingual outlets have collectively amassed an audience of over a million subscribers across their Telegram channels, which are still available across the EU. Some outlets have seen double-digit gains in followers since the start of the war in Ukraine, based on POLITICO’s analysis of those networks. Disinformation experts also say that Western far-right groups and conspiracy theorists have used Kremlin-backed disinformation to undermine Western support for Ukraine.

Speaking to RT France, the outlet questioned how the European economy would survive after sanctions were imposed on Russia. On RT Deutsch, Vladimir Putin’s invasion was reworded to falsely claim it was aimed at “denazifying” the Ukrainian military. On RT en Español, Kiev’s armed forces have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians in the country’s two breakaway “republics”, Luhansk and Donetsk. Similar untruths were also routinely shared, in both English and Russian, on official RT-Telegram channels with hundreds of thousands of followers.

“The rules are clear. There must be no circumvention,” Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values ​​and Transparency, responded to written inquiries from POLITICO, adding that it was up to member countries to take action against those who had not complied with the sanctions. “All actors should live up to their responsibilities. Firstly, because it is law in the EU. Secondly, everyone has now understood what it is about.”

France has so far banned RT’s French outpost from operating within its borders, but media regulators have been slow to respond to its activities.

In a statement, Telegram spokesman Remi Vaughn said the social network has now blocked Kremlin-backed media outlets from using its platform within the EU. “The process is now complete and all RT channels are blocked,” he said. But POLITICO was still able to access many, but not all, of those channels on Telegram, and Vaughn said the ban currently only applies to people who signed up for Telegram with an EU-based phone number. The companies’ engineers expanded this to include people with non-EU phone numbers who were physically in the block.

Jekyll and Hyde

Increasingly the go to the social network For right-wing extremists and jihadists, Telegram has taken on a Jekyll and Hyde personality during the war in Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the country’s president, has regularly shared emotional messages with his 1.3 million followers on the network about efforts to contain the Russian armed forces. Independent Russian media outlets have turned to the platform to break news about the war after the Kremlin throttled access to mainstream platforms. A group of more than 300,000 pro-Ukrainian hackers uses Telegram to spread information about potential targets in Russia.

But Western national security officials and Ukrainian disinformation experts are also warning that major Telegram channels — with possible links to Russian security services — are also spreading manipulated war material about alleged Ukrainian atrocities, false claims that Zelenskyy fled the country, and other untruths that are not a social media platform that prides itself on bucking the trend of increased content moderation.

“These Telegram channels have become a very serious, very effective tool of the disinformation machine,” he said Lyubov ZibulskaFounder of – and now advisor to – Ukraine Center for strategic communication and information securitywhich pursues so-called hybrid threats of both cyberattacks and disinformation targeting the country.

“Unfortunately, in Ukraine, including the occupied territories, they are spreading this hatred of Ukraine and the West,” she added. “The problem with Telegram channels is that you can’t track who is behind them.”

Increase in followers

Pavel Durov, the Russian founder of Telegram, has tried unsuccessfully to venture into the geopolitical crisis.

In a Russian-language message to his more than 650,000 followers on the network, the 37-year-old said that due to the widespread sharing of “unconfirmed information” about the war, the site was considering the possible removal of Telegram channels – many of which have tens of thousands of subscribers – until the end of hostilities.

But after a backlash from local users, many of whom had told him Telegram was a source of independent news about the invasion, Durov backed down. “I ask you to reconsider and not believe the data published in Telegram channels during this difficult period,” he told his followers.

RT’s presence on Telegram – in breach of EU sanctions – has had a spillover effect within Western conspiracy theory and far-right groups, many of whom are vocally supportive of Vladimir Putin.

In Germany, where the state-supported media company was banished In February, RT Deutsch content about Ukraine was the most-shared material on more than 200 far-right and conspiracy channels since the war began, according to analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism.

Overall, RT Deutsch’s more than 1,400 links were viewed 19.5 million times – between November and the end of February – with the vast majority of these posts either supporting the Russian invasion or encouraging Kremlin talks about the invasion. The Moscow-affiliated media outlet has also urged its readers to join its Telegram in response to the German and EU-wide ban, prompting a 20 percent surge in the membership of its channel, which now has more than 110,000 members.

The outlet has maintained ties to the German far right, including the Alternative for Germany political party. Many of the country’s COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and influencers, often with hundreds of thousands of followers on Telegram, have moved from spreading lies about the global coronavirus crisis to debunked claims promoted by the Kremlin.

“These influencers basically re-published Russian propaganda lines about the war,” said Julia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who conducted the investigation. “In Germany, Telegram is the central platform for fringe groups, especially conspiracy and right-wing extremist groups. They continue to repost content from RT.”

This article has been updated.

This article is part of POLITICSPremium Tech Policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools enable you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU technology policy and driving decisions that impact your industry. E-mail [email protected] with the code “TECH” for a free trial. Banned Russian state media find a home at Telegram – POLITICO

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