Since January, Russian state-owned media has flooded the Spanish-speaking news scene with its propaganda. Seemingly, its main purpose is to reduce Hispanic people’s support for Ukraine. Russian media, such as the known “Russia Today” (RT) television network, claim that the West is spreading misinformation about the conflict in Ukraine, wrongly accusing Russia of being an aggressor. More specifically, they say that the U.S. is using the crisis to increase arms sales.
Washington-based company Omelas was able to trace Russian propaganda displayed in its Spanish-speaking media outlet. Their findings show Russia successfully outperforming the U.S. at the end of January, with more than triple the audience engagement on its network. This strategy confuses Hispanic electorates about what is happening in Ukraine. In turn, governments of Spanish-speaking countries struggle to gather the necessary public support to take a harsh stance on Russia’s invasion.
Moreover, Russia’s attempts to develop ties with socialist regimes in Latin America can be traced back to the Cold War. Now, Moscow maintains solid relationships with countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which continue to be governed by left-wing parties. According to Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch, these countries still have a sizable audience that agrees with the depiction of the United States as an imperial power, making them an ideal target for anti-U.S. content.
In the weeks prior to the invasion, analysts were alarmed at how efficiently this information was spread, and how quickly it took over Spanish-speaking digital news outlets. Omelas identified more than 1,600 posts from Russian-owned media referencing Ukraine. This content gathered 173,200 reactions (including likes, shares and comments), and represented almost 40% of overall engagement in Spanish-speaking news stories during the crisis. According to a Foreign Policy article, Russia doubled the number of news content published by “the second-most prolific publisher of Spanish-language content on Ukraine, the Venezuelan opposition paper “El Nacional” and U.S.-based outlets, led by Univision, CNN, and Telemundo, which published only 722 posts on the crisis.”
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has been ongoing since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, culminating with an invasion on February 24. Last fall, as many as 150,000 Russian troops were stationed at the borders with Ukraine. Western analysts observed that several Spanish-speaking commentators seemed to back the Russian initiative.
As a response to these narratives, RT highlighted that viewers seeked to have “a balanced picture” of the conflict through their channels. Anna Belkina, head of communications at RT, said in an email to Foreign Policy that “it is also not surprising that some would seek to cherry-pick stories and data, and form a narrative around our content that simply does not exist, in order to back particular claims that suit their narratives.”
More recently, the U.S. Congress was concerned that Russian-owned, Spanish-speaking media was out-publishing U.S. media. This revived the debate on the danger of misinformation, and its potential impact on Hispanic communities everywhere. During 2020’s elections, South Florida was a notable target for conspiracy theories aiming to discredit Joe Biden as a suitable president. Former Democrat congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who lost her 2020 reelection bid, stated that the Kremlin also used WhatsApp groups to spread rumours in U.S. communities abroad, specifically in countries near Russia.
Before the invasion, outlets like RT focused more on discrediting the West’s political decisions. Now, covering the Ukrainian crisis has become a new line of focus. In 2021, only 6% of RT America’s publications mentioned Russia. This strategy may help the outlet blend into the U.S. media landscape more smoothly, as well as concealing RT America’s link to Moscow.
With around 500 million Spanish-speakers in the world, officials worry that Russian propaganda – which currently dominates that segment – will continue to spread quickly through social media, slowly erasing the U.S. narrative.
Featured image by: NBC News.