In Latin America, Russia is waging an information war

Illustration by Global Voices

Traditionally, when Russia and the United States have a dispute, Russia tries to get closer to the latter’s neighbors in Latin America. And while Russia does not have significant economic leverage to increase its influence in this region, its information channels in Latin America are developing rapidly and efficiently.

Russia Today (RT) Español, Sputnik Mundothe network of Russian diplomatic missions and their allies politicians, academics, influencers and fake Internet user accounts contribute significantly to how Latin Americans view global politics, according to our research conducted at Vilnius University, Lithuania, during the first semester of 2022.

RT Español, founded in 2009 by the Russian state, is banned in Europe. Nevertheless, it is one of the most popular sources of information about Ukraine in Latin America. His Facebook page has more than 18 million subscribers, almost five times more than the English version. Western media channels in Spanish lag behind RT Español — CNN has around 15 million subscribers, the BBC around seven million and Deutche Welle three million.

The currently suspended RT and Sputnik Twitter accounts did not have as many followers, but netizens and troll factory workers shared their content. Other accounts, like ” Donbass Media on Twitter, created in February 2022 and managed by the “ Spanish Committee for Aid and Support to Donbass whose mission is to “cover the situation in Donbass”, have been active in covering alleged Ukrainian crimes against civilians and the humanitarian activities of Russian Federation troops. Donbass Media, which is reportedly run by volunteers, posted over 800 tweets and has over 33,000 followers. However, it is difficult to know how many of them are real, because the number of likes, comments and shares is low.

As Western countries have decided to block Russian media, the network of Russian representatives has become particularly important in this information war. Embassies share information from RT, provide original material or share posts from other embassies. They have a very large network of followers. For example, theRussian Embassy in Mexico has nearly 62,000. The information generated by diplomatic missions is widely shared. Another example is the news that the crisis in Ukraine began long before February 24, thus implying that Russia did not start the war and that 48 people were burned alive by Ukrainian nationalists in Odessa in 2014, without no penalties, has been shared over 4,000 times and received almost 7,000 likes.

There are also a significant number of fake social media accounts. Like the one on YouTube in the name of Ricardo Meruanousing a photo of the famous Chilean comedian Ricardo Meruane and having only occasionally shared music videos, appeared in April 2022 with an endless stream of pro-Russian news about Ukraine.

“Accuse everyone except Russia”

All the news sources mentioned above share messages created between them or repeat official statements of Russian politicians. Although the messages targeted are numerous, it is possible to identify some major narratives that Russia seeks to instill in Latin American societies: Western guilt, Ukrainian guilt, allegations of Russophobia and Western hypocrisy. These narratives are complementary, creating distrust of Ukraine and its partners and portraying Russia as the real victim of the West.

One of the first explanations used to justify Russia’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine was the narrative of ‘Western guilt’, i.e. messages of ‘aggressive NATO expansion of a perpetual “Western imperialism” and of Ukraine as a “puppet of the West.” The expansion of NATO was one of the first justifications for military intervention. One of RT’s most popular Spanish-language political satire programs had actively explained Russia’s “red lines” in the month before the invasion.

At the start of the war, the Russian Embassy in Mexico carried Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s message that Russia tried to negotiate with the West, but met only “lies and deceptions . When the war broke out, various Russian embassies in Latin America occasionally shared short messages, mostly from Lavrov, claiming that the purpose of the war was to prevent the West (or the United States) from create a unipolar world or end US dominance.

Another historical element often exploited by the Russian media is the Nazi image. The West is frequently accused — both on official diplomatic accounts and in niche videos on TikTok — of supporting Nazis and ultranationalists who have infiltrated Ukrainian politics and the military, of funding military or chemical weapons labs, and to collaborate with Ukrainian nationalists to make the country a platform for the fight against Russia. The “guilty West” narrative is intertwined with another that blames Ukraine for the war.

Banning Russian channels would be russophobia »

“Historical Russophobia” is another narrative that has become crucial since Western governments moved to ban Russian media to curb misinformation. Russian diplomatic missions, Russian-funded media, and trolls have been very active in sharing messages about the persecution of Russian-speaking citizens outside Russia and the destruction of Russian culture. They point out that the Russian media ban deprives Westerners of the opportunity to hear the Russian version of events.

Inna Afinogenova, former deputy editor of RT Español and presenter of a popular political satire show in Latin America, is a particularly interesting example of the spread of this narrative. From the start of the war, she strongly condemned the restrictions imposed on RT and other Russian media channels. She later disappeared from public view and reappeared after a month of silence with her own Youtube channel. Speaking from Spain, she said she did not want to support a war with civilian casualties, and therefore left RT and Russia. At the same time, she advised not to believe that Ukraine is an innocent victim, stating that she could not say whether RT publishes propaganda or not, but claimed that propaganda is something that is spread by all Western media.

The last most striking narrative is that of “Western hypocrisy”, closely linked to the ” whataboutism. The mention of Ukraine immediately brings to mind other Western interventions, notably the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the European response to the refugee crisis. However, these arguments are not told to help understand the conflicts, but to present the United States as the real conqueror of the world and the actions of Russia as a resistance to their hegemony.

The example of the bombing of the Yugoslavia by NATO, popularized by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, was also used. Emir Kusturica argued that the current conflict in Ukraine is essentially a consequence of the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO in 1999. For him, this idea is rooted in the position of the Kremlin, according to which the bombing of Serbia by the NATO is the West’s original sin and a humiliation to be avenged by Russia. This narrative gained momentum when Russian embassies in Latin America shared the story of a journalist who survived the bombings, comparing her experience to that of residents of Donbass.

The narratives of Russia echo the pains of Latin America. Tense relations with the United States, the attempt to emerge from its shadow, and the desire to build an international system in which the role of the United States and other former colonial powers is limited are behind the search for alternatives. Concerning Latin America, Russia tends to soften its imperialist tone, to underline the hypocrisy of the Western powers and to recall the darkest episodes of its relations with the United States.

This study was conducted in June 2022 by Dr Ieva Giedraitytė and Benas Butrimas at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University, Lithuania. Since then, the quantitative data may have changed.

In Latin America, Russia is waging an information war