Blog July 30, 2020

Two Faces of Russian Information Operations: Coronavirus Coverage in Spanish

RT en Español leaves coronavirus-related disinformation to other sites in the Russia-aligned information space.
virality project graphic with RT logo and flags

In this installment of the Virality Project, we look at coronavirus-related content on RT en Español, one of the most popular and prolific outlets in RT’s network. We find that, in contrast to that of RT’s English-language Page, RT en Español’s coverage of the pandemic does not exhibit strong politicization of the virus and its consequences. On the contrary, a study of Russian disinformation across the six languages covered by RT suggests that RT en Español is, unlike other RT outlets, not a primary vector for influence operations; instead, Russia-aligned disinformation is funneled into Spanish-speaking communities through other “grey” propaganda channels.

Background

Readers of English-language coverage of Russia’s information operations could be forgiven for getting the impression that audiences in the US and the UK are the main targets of its largest international media entity, RT. However, a closer look at Facebook data suggests that RT’s English-language properties are smaller and less popular than others in RT’s network. While RT’s sprawling operations make it difficult to take in all of its activities at a glance — its network consists of six websites (Arabic, English, French, German, Russian and Spanish), TV networks, at least 12 verified Facebook Pages, and a great number of accounts on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms — RT’s English-language Facebook Page publishes significantly fewer posts than its Arabic-, Russian-, and Spanish-language Pages:

A running total of posts appearing on the six RT Facebook pages from January 2010 to April 2020. The most prolific Pages are RT Arabic (378k posts), RT Russian (325k posts), and RT en Español (227k posts). These are followed by RT (126k posts), RT France
A running total of posts appearing on the six RT Facebook pages from January 2010 to April 2020. The most prolific Pages are RT Arabic (378k posts), RT Russian (325k posts), and RT en Español (227k posts). These are followed by RT (126k posts), RT France (94k posts), and RT Deutsch (68k posts). Data via CrowdTangle.

The English-language Facebook Page also lags behind the Arabic- and Spanish-language Pages in terms of average number of likes per post:

Average likes per post per month across the six main RT Facebook Pages. Data via CrowdTangle.
Average likes per post per month across the six main RT Facebook Pages. Data via CrowdTangle.

Similar comparisons suggest that the Arabic-, French-, and Spanish-language branches of Sputnik, Russia’s other major international outlet, outperform Sputnik’s English-language Page on Facebook as well. Clearly, content for English-speaking audiences is only a part — perhaps even a small part — of the overall overt media strategy pursued by RT and Russian information operations more broadly.

This raises a question that has not received much attention in English-language coverage of RT activities: what is RT doing with these regional properties? Do their activities mirror the manipulative behaviors analysts have observed on properties like RT America, In the Now, and Sputnik International, or do they differ in significant ways? In this update to SIO’s Virality Project, we explore coronavirus- and pandemic-related coverage on the Facebook Page for RT en Español, which, with almost 16 million followers, has the largest audience of any RT and Sputnik property on Facebook. In a previous post we showed that RT’s English-language coverage of the coronavirus pandemic included spreading coronavirus-related misinformation and conspiracy theories, aiming to undermine lockdown measures in the US and Western Europe while praising the same measures when taken by the Chinese and Russian governments. In this post we conclude that RT’s Spanish-language coverage is, in contrast, largely editorially neutral — and that the Russian government uses other, less attributable channels to spread coronavirus-related disinformation on Spanish-language social networks.

Methods

As in our previous post on RT, this analysis is based on qualitative coding of RT posts, in this case those appearing on the RT en Español Facebook Page between January 1 and May 1, 2020. This group was filtered to approximately 2,000 posts that contained coronavirus-related terms, which were then manually coded according to their characteristics: editorial slant (negative, neutral or positive); the country or countries they referred to (if any); the themes they address, including those common to coronavirus disinformation (e.g., the spread of the virus, death counts, human-interest stories, etc.); and finally whether or not they were designated as “op-eds,” that is, represented as the opinion of an individual. For example:

“La famosa Basílica de Guadalupe en la Ciudad de México y todas las iglesias del país se han quedado vacías después de que la Iglesia católica pidió a los fieles que permanecieran en casa para ayudar a prevenir la propagación del coronavirus.” (“The famous Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and all of the churches in the country have remained empty after the Catholic Church asked all faithful to remain at home to help prevent the propagation of coronavirus”) — Neutral, Mexico, Lockdown, Not Op-ed

“Crecen los casos de tos y fiebre pero no es gripe: ¿está pasando desapercibido el covid-19 en EE.UU.? El país podría estar ignorando cientos de casos por la incapacidad para evaluar adecuadamente el coronavirus.” (“Cases of cough and fever are rising but it’s not the flu: is COVID-19 going unnoticed in the US? The country could be ignoring hundreds of cases due to its inability to properly diagnose coronavirus.”) — Negative, US, Spread, Not Op-ed

“Aterrizan en Italia aviones militares rusos para la lucha contra el coronavirus:
Los primeros aviones militares rusos con virólogos y equipos para combatir el coronavirus aterrizaron en la base militar italiana Pratica di Mare el 21 de marzo. Los especialistas fueron recibidos por el ministro de Exteriores, Luigi Di Maio, que expresó su eterno agradecimiento a Rusia "por su solidaridad y amistad". "Le daría la mano, pero no puedo, así que la pondré en mi corazón", le dijo el ministro al jefe de la delegación en referencia a las medidas de precaución ante el covid-19” (“Russian military planes landed in Italy for the fight against coronavirus: The first Russian military planes with virologists and equipment to combat coronavirus landed in the Italian military base Pratica di Mare on March 21. The specialists were met by the Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, who expressed his eternal gratitude to Russia “for their solidarity and friendship”. “I would shake his hand, but I can’t, so instead I will put him in my heart”, said the minister to the head of the delegation in reference to the precaution measures against COVID-19.”) — Positive, Russia, International Aid, Not Op-ed
 
These codes were then used to evaluate RT’s content across the period for country-specific narratives and editorial trends.

Findings

The most immediately apparent feature of RT’s Spanish-language coronavirus coverage is that it is much less polarized than its English-language coverage: almost 94% of content about the pandemic was editorially neutral, while editorially negative and positive content made up 4.5% and 1.7% of the whole, respectively. (In contrast, only 68% of English-language coronavirus content was neutral, and 25% was negative in tone.)

A chart showing a breakdown of content appearing on RT en Español according to editorial slant. Editorially “neutral” posts made up almost 94% of content. Via CrowdTangle
A chart showing a breakdown of content appearing on RT en Español according to editorial slant. Editorially “neutral” posts made up almost 94% of content. Via CrowdTangle.

The difference in tone between RT en Español and RT is striking at times: compare two posts on the WHO’s decision to put off declaring an international health emergency that appeared on January 23:

Posts from RT en Español (left) and RT (right)
Posts from RT en Español (left) and RT (right) about the WHO’s decision not to declare the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency. The Spanish post reads: “The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that it could declare an international health emergency in connection with the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan (Hubei, China).

Chart of the percentage breakdown of topics appearing in coronavirus coverage on RT En Español.
Chart of the percentage breakdown of topics appearing in coronavirus coverage on RT En Español. Via CrowdTangle.

While the United States is the recipient of the most negative coverage on RT en Español — as it was on RT’s English-language Page — negative coverage on the whole is not reserved for “the usual suspects.” At times, RT en Español even comes close to criticizing China and Russia for their pandemic response (albeit it in an editorially “neutral” manner):

RT en Español posts that verge on criticism of Russia (left) and China (right).
RT en Español posts that verge on criticism of Russia (left) and China (right). Translations: “With reference to high-ranking anonymous sources, in a March 25 article the Italian newspaper La Stampa labeled Russian assistance in the fight against coronavirus a geopolitical and diplomatic project by Moscow, since ‘80% of the Russian deliveries are absolutely useless or of little use to Italy” (left). “Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to warn about the outbreak of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus and suffered retaliation from security agencies, died in Wuhan (Hubei, China)” (right).

On the other hand, RT en Español reserved its overt praise for China and Russia, just as RT did. Many of these “positive” posts refer to international aid sent by Russia and China to Italy, which has been a key component of those countries’ public diplomacy during the pandemic. Together these two countries made up almost 70% of “positive” content on RT en Español:

A chart showing which countries were mentioned in editorially positive coronavirus-related content appearing on RT en Español. Via CrowdTangle.
A chart showing which countries were mentioned in editorially positive coronavirus-related content appearing on RT en Español. Via CrowdTangle.

Significantly, the content on RT en Español breaks down into roughly the same categories as that on RT’s English-language Page; it does not appear to be the case that the former is more editorially “neutral” than the latter because it is posting about different topics. Like its English-language peer, RT en Español publishes a large amount of content related to a few clear categories: 1) reports on case numbers; 2) pictures of cities under lockdown; and 3) “human interest” stories about life during the pandemic. 

Examples of typical content relating to three common categories of post on RT en Español: information about case counts (left), lockdowns (center), and “human interest” stories (right).
Examples of typical content relating to three common categories of post on RT en Español: information about case counts (left), lockdowns (center), and “human interest” stories (right).

Implications

If RT en Español is indeed more editorially “neutral” than other RT and Sputnik Pages, as this analysis suggests, how should this be interpreted in light of the Russian government’s historical use of these properties as tools for public diplomacy and influence operations? One possibility is that, while the Russian government is committed to spreading disinformation about the pandemic in the US and other Western European countries, it has no such interest with regard to Latin America. Another possibility is that, in contrast to English-language RT, which has doubled down on its role as a home for crackpots and conspiracy theorists, RT en Español is positioning itself to be viewed as a legitimate news source for many people across Latin America. The fact that there is plenty of Russia-attributed coronavirus disinformation in Spanish would seem to make the second possibility more likely. In that case, we might think of Russia’s information operations in Spanish as having “two faces,” at least when it comes to coronavirus coverage: one face, RT, serves as a more or less straight news source, while the other, consisting of sites such as Sputnik Mundo and News Front Spanish, functions as a disinformation conduit.

Thanks to the EU-based East StratCom Task Force’s Disinfo Database, we can form a good picture of what precise channels the Russian government is using to push coronavirus-related disinformation into the larger media ecosystem. In the case of Spanish-language disinformation, two channels are by far the most commonly used: Sputnik Mundo and News Front Spanish.

Language Disinfo on RT (% of total) Disinfo on Sputnik (% of total) Disinfo through other channels (% of total) Total
Spanish 9 (9.5%) 28 (29.5%) 58 (61%) 95
English 35 (21.6%) 35 (21.6%) 92 (56.8%) 162
French 18 (28.6%) 27 (42.9%) 18 (28.6%) 63
German 19 (30.6%) 33 (53.2%) 10 (16.1%) 62
Russian 14 (2.1%) n/a 647 (97.9%) 661
Arabic 118 (54.4%) 68 (31.3%) 31 (14.3%) 217

 

The data collected by the East StratCom Task Force shows that RT’s role in disinformation operations differs considerably according to language. In Arabic, for example, RT was the primary channel for more than half of the disinformation cases flagged by the Task Force; on the other hand, RT in Russian accounted for only 2% of cases (due in part to the fact that there are so many more outlets through which the Russian government can communicate with Russian speakers.) The fact that RT en Español was responsible for a smaller proportion of disinformation (with only one post related to the coronavirus pandemic) across this period than its English, French, and German peers supports the idea that this branch of RT is being reserved for another facet of Russia’s influence activities. If RT en Español becomes a trusted news source across Latin America it will arguably have greater potential to enact Russia’s public diplomacy in that area. 

 

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