The Kremlin and its allies continue to use major U.S. social media platforms to spread war propaganda and disinformation to millions, a Grid review has found, despite the platforms’ vows to ban such content.
On YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, Grid found pro-invasion rhetoric, false war crimes claims against Ukrainians, and even fundraising campaigns for military equipment to aid the Russian invasion.
“It’s not terribly surprising,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for reforming social media. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not outrageous.”
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, social media giants Google (which owns YouTube) and Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) scrambled to quit their roles broadcasting Russian state propaganda to the world. They announced detailed plans about how they would remove or restrict the reach of Russian state media accounts.
Things don’t appear to have gone as the giants planned. Grid found dozens of examples of content prohibited by the platforms’ terms of service or their own public statements of policy:
- On Facebook and YouTube, Russian-aligned militants crowdfunded for equipment and supplies.
- On YouTube, where Russian state media is expressly banned, Kremlin-controlled outlets continue to post content to channels they control.
- On Instagram, popular Russian pro-war hashtags and messages proliferate across hundreds of thousands of posts, despite prohibitions on posts threatening harm or encouraging violence.
Grid’s review was simple and did not rely on sophisticated tools or analytics. First, we identified Russians under international sanction, Russian state media outlets and common Russian-language hashtags expressing support for the Ukrainian invasion. Then, we performed simple searches for those names and terms across each platform.
Kremlin-watchers and propaganda experts are frustrated by how slow these U.S. internet behemoths have been to curtail propaganda from the Russian state and its allies, despite explicit promises to do so. “These companies have a misguided sense of their role in society,” said Wendy Via, co-founder and president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
“Patriotic action” on YouTube
Grid found that more than 20 Russian state channels remain active on YouTube disseminating war propaganda.
Last month, Grid found dozens of Russian propaganda videos parroting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false claim that his invasion of Ukraine was intended to rid the country of Nazis. Following that report, YouTube stated it was “blocking access to YouTube channels associated with Russian state-funded media globally.” YouTube cited its guidelines in the announcement, which “prohibit content denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events.”
Last week, Grid informed YouTube of 23 channels on its platform that appeared to belong to Russian state media that were continuing to post propaganda. By Tuesday, YouTube appeared to have removed five. The company did not respond to Grid’s inquiry with comment or explanation.
YouTube similarly did not respond to inquiries from Grid regarding pro-Russian propaganda posted by self-styled independent journalist Patrick Lancaster. Lancaster, a popular producer of Kremlin-friendly conflict videos, remains active on the platform, garnering over 30 million views and hundreds of thousands of followers.
A widely viewed video of his that attempts to falsely depict the aftermath of a Ukrainian car bomb has received nearly 50,000 views. Grid reported on the video in February, concluding that evidence from Lancaster’s video strongly implied the “attack” was a staged event, using corpses as props.
Ben Dubow, a digital propaganda expert and founder of the geopolitical analysis firm Omelas, said the importance of YouTube’s earlier removal of the larger Russian state media channels should not be overstated. “The remainders, from what we’re tracking, are much, much smaller and likely reflect lack of internal expertise to find those channels rather than anything intentional,” he said.
Facebook: “Beat the enemy even better”
Several Facebook accounts appeared to be lending active support to the Russian effort — including a page that had claimed to be raising funds for tactical vests and other military equipment for the pro-Russian “Novorossiya Army.” Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language news mouthpiece, continues to post content to Facebook. So do accounts apparently controlled by sanctioned Russian figures Alexander Zaldostanov and Leonid Pacechnik.
Facebook’s community standards bar “statements of intent to commit violence” and “statements advocating for high-severity violence.” Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has said it will make Russian state media more difficult to surface.
Meta said it would “demote posts that contain links to Russian state-controlled media websites on Facebook,” but many recent videos posted by RT continue to garner thousands of views each. Via said while limiting access to RT in Europe is important, the potential impact of Russian state media in the United States should not be overlooked.
“We cannot have these people who are pushing this disinformation, particularly about the invasion of Ukraine, reach users across the world,” she said. “There’s a faction of Americans who will adopt and spread the very propaganda that Russia is spreading.”
The Facebook account raising funds to purchase military supplies, titled “HelpDonbass.ru,” had posted dozens of photographs, captions and videos of the equipment used to help the separatist militia group in recent weeks. The organizers of that effort appear to have posted a fundraising video to YouTube as well.
On March 25, the Facebook account posted a picture of military vests it claimed had been purchased through donations. “We thank all the Caring members of our group whose donations and support give us the opportunity to help the soldiers of the Novorossia army involved in offensive operations,” the post stated.
In another post, the group’s administrator relayed that the soldiers “would like to thank all the members of our group for sending them digital radio stations and lanterns, which not only give an opportunity to beat the enemy even better, but also help to avoid unnecessary losses!”
Meta appears to have removed access to the page following Grid’s inquiries to Facebook for this report. The company did not respond on the record to questions from Grid.
Instagram: “We Don’t Abandon Our Own”
Russian pro-war propaganda is easy to find on Instagram if one searches for common pro-war hashtags. For instance, a search for the hashtag #СвоихНеБросаем (“We Don’t Abandon Our Own”) returns more than 400,000 results, including several videos with thousands of views.
An Instagram page with 1.4 million followers, which uses the name and image of the Kremlin-aligned former president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov, who died in 2004, posted a video that purported to show captured Ukrainian soldiers. The post included a quote from sanctioned current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov that read, in part: “The criminal authorities of the Nazis will no longer send these young soldiers to slaughter.”
Instagram’s community guidelines prohibit serious threats of harm to public and personal safety, and clarify that “it’s never OK to encourage violence or attack anyone” based on categories such as “their race, ethnicity, national origin.” Instagram’s parent company, Meta, said in March that it had taken steps “to make content from accounts run by Russian state-controlled media harder to find on Instagram.”
Instagram continues to host accounts for high-profile, internationally sanctioned figures linked to the Russian government, including Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and TV host Vladimir Soloviev. Meta did not respond on the record to Grid’s questions about Instagram.
“The lack of systemic intervention on this kind of on these kinds of issues — it’s frustrating,” said Lehrich, of Accountable Tech. “They just seem to wait until there’s so much public pressure that they can’t not act.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.