Investigations
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Far-right amplifiers: how Russia reaches a Dutch audience through a detour

This article is the English translation of the originals “Loyale kanalen: hoe Rusland via een omweg het Nederlandse publiek bereikt”, published on Nieuwscheckers the 14th of April 2022

Russian news and propaganda are incorporated into Dutch-language news reports within hours. Right-wing conspiracy sites play a key role by translating and sharing articles. These sites circumvent language barriers and EU sanctions on Russian media and, more importantly, they surpass their sources in polarization and disinformation.

In early March, the European commission imposed a ban against Russian state media. It meant that in the Netherlands news sites of RT and Sputnik were banned. Although this blockade is easy to circumvent for anyone with a VPN subscription, and thus can acquire a Serbian IP address, the direct reach of Russian media has shrunk somewhat.

That does not imply that sources of Russian information and disinformation have become unreachable, because photos, videos and stories with disinformation are widely shared on social media by Dutch-speaking accounts. There are also other dissemination pathways, one of which runs via websites on the far-right.

Since the start of the corona pandemic, far-right conspiracy sites have pushed all sorts of theories about politicians’ hidden covid-agendas, risks of vaccines, and motives behind freedom-restricting measures and QR codes. Corona disinformation that came in part from Russian and Chinese sources.

So the orientation towards Russian information and worldviews has existed for a few years, and since the beginning of the war in Ukraine the same sites have been acting as conduits and amplifiers of propaganda and disinformation.

The analysis below analyses the sources and time lapse behind three Ukraine news-articles on Frontnieuws, a Dutch site with a reputation for spreading conspiracy theories, hoaxes, junk news and pro-Russian disinformation. Frontnieuws is the successor to the far-right, anti-Semitic platform Fenixx (still an separate entry on Frontnieuws).

April 3: Civilian casualties in Bucha, 1 hour and fifteen minutes

16:55 – Tass: Минобороны РФ опровергло обвинения Киева в убийстве мирных жителей в Буче.

17:38 – Fria Tider: Ryssland: Massakern är fejk.

18:07 – Frontnieuws: Valse vlag – Rusland: het bloedbad is nep.

Much has been written and fact-checked in response to reports of civilian casualties in Bucha. The Russian Foreign Ministry posted a denial statement on Telegram on April 3, which was later echoed by other sources, including news agency Tass, which writes: “The Russian Defense Ministry has denied Kiev’s allegations of killing civilians in Bucha.”

Based on that report, Fria Tider, a radical-right, Swedish-language website produces a news report with the headline “Russia: massacre is fake.” In it, the site also refers to a video posted in the Russian Defense Ministry’s Telegram channel.

Frontnieuws reproduces Fria Tider’s post in full in translated version. Comparison of the two versions suggests machine translation with Deeple, followed by editing for readability [this pdf compares the two versions].

Three screencaps of posts with breaking news about Bucha. Fltr: news agency Tass, FriaTider and Front News

Extreme outrage

Frontnieuws expands on the text with some translated paragraphs and several images from Veterans Today, an American pro-Kremlin conspiracy site. Veterans Today writes about Bucha with greater outrage and explicit imagery, citing Russian news agency Sputnik. Front News takes the first two words from Veterans Today’s headline – “False Flag: Watch NATO’s Fake Corpse Express in Bucha, Ukraine“. This creates a composite, new post: False Flag – Russia: Massacre is Fake.

Striking in the translation and editing of Russian information by right-wing conspiracy sites is the addition of extreme outrage, explicit images and quasi-forensic analysis. In the process, disinformation becomes more polarised and enriched during further dissemination. The original source – Tass – is dull and subdued by comparison.

April 8: Rocket at Kramatorsk station, 2 hours and 8 minutes

11:02 – RT: Dozens reported killed in Donbass rocket strike

11:45 – SouthFront: Ukrainian Tochka-U Hit Kramatorsk In Another Bloody Provocation. Dozens Of Civilians Killed [Mirror]

12:10 –  Frontnieuws: BREAKING: Oekraïense Tochaka-U treft Kramatorsk in een nieuwe bloedige provocatie – Tientallen burgers dood

The coverage by conspiracy sites following the rocket explosion at Kramatorsk station shows similarities to the dynamic around Bucha, including categorical denial of Russian involvement, and a for more aggressive tone of voice in comparison to reports in Russian media.

The Kramatorsk train station, where hundreds of civilians were waiting to be evacuated by train on April 8, was hit by a missile carrying cluster munitions around 9:30 Dutch time. Around eleven o’clock, a report appears on RT [link blocked: screencap] that factually describes the incident.

The warring parties are both cited by RT with statements and conjectures about the type of munition and who launched the projectile: Russian or Ukrainian forces. Neither party is blamed at this point: “Kiev immediately accused Russia of responsibility, while Moscow-backed local forces have blamed the Ukrainian army for the deaths.”

Polarized spin

SouthFront, an English-language pro-Kremlin website registered in Russia, puts a polarized spin on the news. The site clearly paraphrases RT’s coverage at the outset, citing the same spokespeople, but constructs a decidedly anti-Ukrainian narrative. “Meanwhile, the mainstream media are already spreading allegations about the Russian Iskander missile, blaming the Russian armed forces for yet another fake civilian massacre.”

The missile strike, according to SouthFront, is a deliberate action by the Ukrainian armed forces and the “Nazi regime in Kiev,” and this is illustrated with explicit images of victims. The headline leaves no room for doubt: “BREAKING: Ukrainian Tochka-U Hit Kramatorsk In Another Bloody Provocation. Dozens Of Civilians Killed (Photos 18+)”

Frontnieuws has reproduced SouthFront’s article in full, including a dozen images, scattered throughout the text in much the same position. The English article was machine translated and appears edited afterwards, primarily for style and readability; the headline was copied almost verbatim. [both versions are compared in this pdf].

April 11: Interview with Sergey Lavrov, 3 hours and 50 minutes

11:29 – RT: Russia seeks to end US-dominated world order – Lavrov

13:29 – NewsPunch: Russia Intends To End The US Dominated World Order

15:19 – Frontnieuws: Rusland is van plan een einde te maken aan de door de VS gedomineerde Wereldorde

Although media such as RT and Rossiya24 have become less accessible in the West, soundbites from Russian television can be found on Western websites. One example is a television interview of with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Rossiya24, in which he explains his views on the conflict in Ukraine. RT reports on it in English [link is blocked in EU: screencap], making it accessible to a global audience.

Two hours later NewsPunch, an American source of fake news and Russian propaganda, devotes a message to it. Many parts of the text and quotes from RT’s message recur in it. It is possible that NewsPunch sourced parts of the article from another outlet, because similar texts and quotes were circulating online around the time of publication, mainly via press agency Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).

Nuance removed

Frontnieuws has translated NewsPunch’s post in full, presumably using Deeple. A side-by-side comparison in Word of NewsPunch’s and Frontnieuws’s versions shows signs of editing for readability [in this pdf both versions are compared].

Reproduction of the article from RT via NewsPunch to Frontnieuws was done almost in its entirety, with the exception of RT’s closing paragraph about the reason for the conflict. “Russia has now demanded that Ukraine officially declare neutrality and never join the U.S.-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists that the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and denies that it intended to retake the two republics by force.”

There is some journalistic distance in this paragraph, but even on this detail conspiracy sites appear to be more outspoken in their choice of information than the original source. So that nuance in the conclusion of the article has been brushed aside.

Conclusion

Russia-affiliated conspiracy sites are able to keep up with breaking news at the pace of mainstream media, mainly through mutual copying and machine translation of articles. In doing so, they use links to give the impression of drawing on official sources. This is only partly true, because they do more than pass on Russian news and views. In fact, these websites create sensational narratives and add polarization and disinformation on events in Ukraine. With systematic exaggeration they surpass their Russian sources by a great length.

Arno van ‘t Hoog – Nieuwscheckers

Photo: Flickr, er.c st.mmel