This story originally ran on Wednesday. YouTube on Friday removed the videos discussed in this article from its platform as it announced that it was “blocking access to YouTube channels associated with Russian state-funded media globally.” ”Our Community Guidelines prohibit content denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events,” YouTube said in a statement. “We are now removing content about Russia’s invasion in Ukraine that violates this policy.”
YouTube has become one of the most effective online platforms for the Kremlin to spread toxic misinformation to Russian speakers to justify President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a Grid news investigation has found.
Since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, YouTube and other platforms have moved aggressively to block Russian state propaganda in English and other languages from reaching Western audiences. But the video streaming giant, which enjoys a massive audience inside Russia, continues to allow the Kremlin to use its platform to push misleading Russian-language propaganda about Ukraine, including claims of Nazism against the Ukrainian government that experts call “morally repugnant.”
A Grid review identified dozens of Russian-language propaganda videos posted to YouTube by Russian state accounts pushing false claims that the Russian mission in Ukraine is motivated by “denazification,” or to liberate the country from fascist Nazi rule. To justify his invasion, Putin has repeatedly alleged that the Ukrainian government is engaging in genocide of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, a claim for which there is no evidence.
Russian state media’s YouTube videos mentioning denazification have been viewed a total of more than 7 million times since the invasion, Grid found.
“If they are letting the Kremlin use their platforms to spread war propaganda and false flags to justify their invasion, then they have a responsibility,” said Alice Stollmeyer of the Hague-based group Defend Democracy, which monitors disinformation and social media. Her group has argued that tech companies, including YouTube and its parent, Google, should freeze Russian state media accounts. “It’s really, really high time that [YouTube] step up their efforts,” Stollmeyer told Grid.
Neither YouTube nor Google responded to Grid’s requests for comment.
YouTube is one of the most actively used social media platforms in Russia. With nearly 75 percent of Russian internet users active monthly YouTube viewers, YouTube is by far the most popular non-Russian social media site in the country.
Following recent moves by the Kremlin, YouTube is also one of the last non-Russian social media platforms still operating in the country. The state blocked Twitter and Facebook from Russian networks on March 4, and TikTok voluntarily curtailed uploads and livestreams from within Russia in response to a new Russian law banning what the Kremlin views as “fake news.”
“Morally repugnant and deeply offensive”
The Kremlin’s domestic propaganda arms have been using YouTube to push out particularly noxious propaganda, scholars say.
A group of scholars of genocide, Nazism and World War II called Russia’s rhetoric equating the Ukrainian government with the Nazi regime “factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it, including Russian and Ukrainian soldiers of the Red Army.” The Anti-Defamation League said Putin’s invoking of Nazism to justify his invasion was “unacceptable.”
A newscast posted to YouTube on Sunday by Russian state-owned broadcaster Channel One begins with a clip of Putin falsely alleging that Nazism is supported “at the government level” in Ukraine. It is followed by a TV presenter who states, “There are Nazis in Ukraine, and that is a fact. There are very real Nazis who worship Hitler, wear a swastika, torture and kill, and we will show them to you now.”
The video is one of dozens hosted on YouTube — viewed a combined total of more than 7.5 million times — that Russian state-owned media outlets have posted to the platform since Feb. 23 spreading false claims about Russian “denazification” in Ukraine, Grid found.
Several of the videos refer to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “Operation Denazification.” The term relates to Putin’s baseless claim that neo-Nazis have infiltrated the Ukrainian government, which he has repeated in the lead-up to his decision to invade Ukraine. Ukraine’s government is democratically elected; its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish.
To conduct our review, we examined YouTube videos on Russian state-controlled channels that use the Russian term for “denazification” in the video title or description. We did not examine videos in which the claim may have been discussed but the term was not included in the title or description text.
While Ukraine’s government is democratic, far-right neo-Nazis are reportedly present in the country’s armed forces. A division of the Ukrainian national guard known as the Azov Battalion began as a militia movement with neo-Nazi roots. The group, estimated to have 900 members, was incorporated into the country’s guard in 2014 to help fight pro-Russian forces. Members of the group have reportedly been linked to violent attacks on minorities, denied the Holocaust and “waxed lyrical” about Adolf Hitler.
YouTube and Russia: There’s history
The problem of Russian propaganda is hardly new for YouTube. Since 2018, the platform has attached disclaimers to videos posted by Russian state channels noting that the broadcaster “is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government.”
Since Russia’s invasion, YouTube has faced internal and external pressure to do more to combat disinformation. Ukrainian employees of Google called for a global ban of Russian state media in a letter that now has more than 2,000 signatures, Insider reported Monday.
On Feb. 26, YouTube pledged to begin removing some ads from videos posted by Russian state media accounts — a move it terms “demonetization” — and deprioritize their videos in search results.
But European leaders pressured YouTube to do more. In a Feb. 27 letter to YouTube, Google, Meta and Twitter, the leaders of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said the platforms had become “an accessory to the criminal war of aggression the Russian government is conducting against Ukraine and the free world.” The leaders accused the companies of hosting Russian propaganda for years without regard for the damage it caused.
YouTube announced March 1 that it blocked access to RT and Sputnik from Europe. Those Russian state-run channels communicate in languages other than Russian and are focused on audiences outside of Russia.
In a March 1 blog post titled “Helping Ukraine,” Google, which owns YouTube, said it was taking “extraordinary measures to stop the spread of misinformation and disrupt disinformation campaigns online” and said it had already removed “hundreds of channels and thousands of videos for violating its Community Guidelines, including a number of channels engaging in coordinated deceptive practices.”
One of those state-owned YouTube channels, associated with the popular talk-radio-style host Vladimir Solovyov, was taken down by YouTube on Monday. But not before a video making claims about Russia’s “denazification” amassed just shy of 3 million views. The European Union imposed sanctions on Solovyov Feb. 23. He was described in a recent EU report as a “propagandist” who is “known for his extremely hostile attitude towards Ukraine and praise of the Russian government.”
Celebrating speech, censoring opposition
YouTube has claimed that celebrating “free speech” is a central tenet of its mission. “One of the things that is important to us at YouTube is the fact that we do enable so many voices, and that we do enable people to express themselves and really celebrate the freedom of speech,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in an interview last September. “That’s a core value of ours.”
Wojnicki spoke following criticism from within and outside Google for blocking Russians’ access to videos and an app created by Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, whom Putin has kept in prison.
But YouTube appears to have handled Russian state propaganda differently from other misinformation-rich content. For example, when YouTube hosts videos about conspiracy-rife topics like covid-19 or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the platform has added prominent information panels linking to credible information sources. But the Russian state “denazification” videos on YouTube don’t contain a label adding information or context other than a link to the Wikipedia page for the broadcast outlets.
Moira Whelan, director for democracy and technology at the National Democratic Institute and who formerly served as deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy in the State Department, said on topics like the covid-19 pandemic or the Ukraine invasion, tech platforms face “an obligation to be on the fact side of that conversation.”
“I respect the intention to want to show people what is being said,” Whelan said, “but when it crosses the line into endangering lives and endangering the public discourse as to what is actually happening, there is a culpability that companies will face, whether it be in a human rights court or in the court of public opinion.”