Russian Television propaganda still blooms in EU despite sanctions

According to research published in November by the German Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategies (CeMAS), there has been a significant increase in support in Germany for conspiratorial interpretations of Russia’s war against Ukraine since April 2022. 

Regarding the statement that “Putin is a fighter against the global elite who secretly rule the world,” about 44% of Germans agree (or partially agree). 

Russian propaganda, like its following, easily evades sanctions despite the European Union’s prohibition on Russian news networks from broadcasting in Europe. 

The EU’s Russian-speaking population advises how to independently set the satellite dish or connect Russian channels through the set-top devices on social media. However, YouTube continues to be the most effective tool for propagandists because it is impossible to identify and block every account.

The Russian-speaking population illegally sets up satellite antennas

The police arrested a man at the end of October in the Latvian city of Jelgava who had installed unauthorized televisions and given access to illegal Russian channels in approximately 100 homes in the Jelgava district.

Television receivers, code cards, and other specialist tools were taken from him during the searches. The man is presently undergoing trial after being charged with illegal business activity. 

Sales of television and satellite antennas rose in March in Lithuania. Specifically, because there is still a sizable portion of the population that speaks Russian there, demand rose in the areas surrounding Vilnius closer to the Belarusian border.

Pro-Russian channels are turned off

In August, the NTV-Mir channel on the HotBird satellite of the French satellite provider Eutelsat was stopped. The last Russian news channel to broadcast from a European satellite was NTV-Mir. Russia, the occupied territories of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states, the Middle East, and North Africa are all regions where Eutelsat continues to broadcast Russian state channels.

“Reporters Without Borders” appealed the decision against the French broadcasting agency Arcom to continue allowing Eutelsat to transmit Russian TV via French satellites. An open letter to EU Foreign Minister Joseph Borrell was published in response to the complaint, based on a report by Denis Diderot’s committee on Kremlin propaganda in France. 

Several MEPs joined the movement. As noted numerous times, “Evtelsat” has been deaf to these demands thus far. Mykola Orlov, the son of Alexander Orlov, a former Russian ambassador to France, manages the French company, which has been conducting business in Russia for a long time and successfully.

Russians are evading the sanctions by Europe

The French TV provider Eutelsat has a long history of successful operations in Russia. Despite this, there is still a chance to retune the dish to Russian “Express-AM8” and “Express-80” after disconnecting Russian channels from European satellites. 

Similar directions can be found on social media sites and YouTube. Since the start of the war, Yevhen Kucher has broadcast at least 15 of these videos on his channel. The remaining portions of his content are political streams in which he describes how Ukraine “bombed Donbas for eight years,” which is false. However, most of these instructions are published by regular Russian-speaking TV operators, who customers frequently approach to tune Russian TV.

There are also setting-up recommendations on the forums, for instance, for Germans who speak Russian. Satellite antennas are bought on AliExpress or even in “Russian stores” in Germany; truckers from Russia can also provide them. Some late settlers bring coupons from their homeland in their cars. 

Punishment for illegal viewing of TV channels is only in Latvia. The maximum sentence that a viewer of Russian TV can face is a fine of up to 700 euros. However, recording a satellite dish oneself is challenging, and obtaining a master’s at home is both time-consuming and expensive. More and more people are using apps and set-top devices with the ability to view TV channels online.

Can the software be hacked?

The disconnection of the Russian TV stations “Russia RTR / RTR Planeta,” “Russia 24,” and “TV Center / TVKI / TVC” was announced on June 6 by the German video provider Kartina TV, which was, until recently, one of the primary repeaters of Russian TV networks in Europe. The agency noted the adoption of the sixth round of sanctions against Russia by the European Union, which declared the transmission of these TV networks illegal. 

A set-top box called “Kartina TV” has software, pre-installed channels, and streaming services. There are many video services; not all are registered in an openly accessible jurisdiction. One of these was connected to us. Nearly all Russian news networks are represented on the list, including Russia 1, NTV, REN TV, and others. 

According to the service’s website, it “holds permissions to show all channels that are part of the First Channel family” and describes itself as “the official operator of Russian TV abroad.” The company is registered in Cyprus, yet the contacts include phone numbers with a German area code.

The Play Market and AppStore do not enable the installation of Russian news channel apps. However, the Android console does, for example, through the file manager. Additionally, many people who speak Russian have Telegram groups where they post advice on how to set up Russian channels on a set-top device. 

Additionally, all other applications remained after removing the official applications of Russian TV channels from the AppStore and Google Play Market. You may find many applications with Russian state channels if you input the appropriate search terms from any European nation. 

Their creators, who create comparable systems for accessing television in other nations, appear to have nothing to do with Russia.

Oleksiy Schwartz, a former coordinator at Navalny’s headquarters in Kurgan who now lives in Germany and works for FBK, thinks it’s challenging to cope with Android consoles that are airing Russian channels:

“You may install a third-party program with the same channels and broadcast it on any Android device. Much work is required to get the applications to quit displaying Russian TV. Unofficial programs for Android installation will only do this if the official parts of the Play Market and AppStore can. A console must be purchased and used, another requirement that not everyone would choose.”

With the help of cards, they connect to Russian channels

Also growing in popularity in Europe is a system known as “car sharing,” which allows multiple independent receivers to watch pay satellite or cable TV channels using a single access card.

All you need for this is internet connectivity. A business or person in Russia purchases access to satellite or cable television and “distributes” it to others, even those outside Russia. A European person purchases a standard set-top device, visits a Russian company’s website that offers car-sharing services, makes a payment (often between 3 and 5 euros a month), and is given a login and password to access Russian TV.

We discovered many websites offering card-sharing services for Russian channel viewing. Payment for them is made through banks in Kazakhstan or Belarus, free from sanctions.

Social media has permeated Russia for a long time

The YouTube channel RT in German has been removed for spreading false information concerning mass vaccine deaths in September 2021. A tragic end befell the German station RT on TikTok towards the end of May 2022.

Before the full-scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine, the German regulator ZAK had already banned RT DE, which was transmitting from Serbia, in early February. However, the nation’s authorities do not actively oppose Russian propaganda on the Internet and smart TVs. 

Anyone in Germany who wants to view RT content can visit a mirror of the previous website with a German-language range. The websites of First, Russian 1, NTV, and other Russian news networks are also accessible in Germany, France, Finland, and other nations.

Telegram is filled with pro-Russian narratives, and people

The insider found a large “family” of German-language Telegram chat groups and channels that promoted Russian propaganda. It is simple to determine that they are related to one another because they have linkages in common.

For instance, one of them features daily RT news updates on other stations. Videos and announcements from pro-Russian demonstrations held in Germany are shared in another. The latter even has a dedicated chat room for talking politics, a channel for memes, a club for Putin fans, and a website for the Free People.

Before the pandemic, the majority of these Telegram channels were established. Anti-Spiegel is the most well-liked, with 95,000 subscribers as of May 2019. One of Germany’s most well-known Russian propagandists, Thomas Röper, who has lived and worked in St. 

Petersburg, since the late 1990s, has maintained this site. Roper broadcasts on his website, YouTube (where he has over 100,000 subscribers), Twitter, and Facebook, in addition to Telegram. The primary medium for the propagandist is still Telegram, based on the frequency of updates.

A pro-Russian blogger actively spread false information about vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he changed his name to Z-voenkor. He began going across the Donbas region and talking about the “atrocities” of the “Nazi junta.” 

One of the most well-liked “alternative” news sources on German-language channels and Telegram groups devoted to conspiracy theories, according to the Berlin-based CeMAS institute, is Anti-Spiegel. All of Roper’s blogs have yet to be blocked, though, at the same time.

Despite not being the most widely used messenger in Europe, Telegram saw a massive rise in usage during the pandemic, at least in Germany. Now, between 15% and 18% of respondents, according to various surveys, fall into this category. The German television network ZDF took notice of this with alarm:

Telegram has evolved into a sanctuary for radicals. Pandemic deniers, right-wing extremists, and even criminal organizations may communicate there nearly uncontrolled. Telegram was initially designed to connect with dissidents in oppressive regimes safely.

German authorities claim that Telegram ignores their frequent demands to delete extremist content. Schwartz argues that citizens of the CIS countries mainly utilize Telegram and that even Germans refer to it as the “darknet.”

The Russian social network VK (formerly known as VKontakte), managed by the son of Volodymyr Kiriyenko, the first deputy head of the presidential administration, continues to be one of the primary forums for propaganda. The VK website is restricted in various nations, including Latvia.

YouTube hosting

YouTube continues to be an essential platform for Russian propagandists. Daily RT newsletters are dispersed from there on numerous unknown channels that are more challenging to find and block. 

According to Oleksiy Schwartz, their job is to push the videos to the top of YouTube by using bots to wind up views and comments so that as many users as possible may watch the conditional Solovyov.

Additionally, there are outlets run by Kremlin “unofficial propagandists,” such as Yuriy Podolyak and Anatoly Shary. Despite frequent blocking and reemergence under different guises, Putin supporters may quickly locate them thanks to YouTube recommendations. For instance, the new Podolyak channel, launched only three weeks ago, has 40,000 subscribers.

Russian TV networks can purchase the right to broadcast content from YouTube channels, such as gaming streams. For instance, a track called “Ura Igra”, which has existed since 2017 and has more than 30 thousand subscribers, reportedly broadcasts the show “60 minutes” with Olga Skabeeva and Yevhen Popov. 

The channel’s Steam profile claims that a certain Oleg Lebedev allegedly runs it from “Sverdlovsk, Russia,” but Lebedev’s VK profile has been blocked due to “suspicious activity.” 

Ura Igra’s Telegram administrator started posting links to Russian news articles on the “Watch” platform in October. There is a price list with advertising costs for VC “Ura Igra” in the neighborhood; therefore, it’s probable that such placement was done for profit.

RT broadcasts are still available in Europe on the famously unmoderated video-sharing websites Odysée and Rumble. Both services evolved during the pandemic into a haven for aggressive dissidents (the number of Rumble visitors increased 31 times from 2020 to 2021). 

RT material is currently streamed on both platforms. And while Rumble’s CEO, Canadian entrepreneur Chris Pawlowski, publicly refused to remove RT France’s releases, stating that he would withdraw France from his video hosting service, Odysée’s CEO eventually agreed to do so (committee coordinator Denis Diderot Andre Lange). 

The request to prohibit Russian news outlets came from the French government, yet any EU nation can access the video hosting’s content.

Alternative strategies to counter propaganda

Andre Lange points out that it is more straightforward to secure digital platforms’ cooperation despite the Rumble situation than satellite providers and national broadcasting regulators.

He uses Twitter’s management as an illustration, claiming that they just blocked an account for spreading the fake that Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was a Nazi. (The TV station “Russia 1” launched a similar fake in April; this time, it was about the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.) 

However, Twitter frequently only makes announcements that it would block accounts for making negative statements toward Ukrainians, but this does not happen.

We agree with Lange and Debunk EU’s Karina Urbanaviciute, the project manager of this worldwide, nonpartisan group that looks into misinformation and encourages media literacy. 

Urbanaviit cites a campaign by anti-extremism groups in the US and Australia that obligated Facebook to request that specific terms and phrases connected to violent extremism (such as “Heil Hitler”) automatically link to “Life After Hate” and “EXIT Australia,” which help people find a safe exit from extremist groups. 

The researcher claims that concentrating on how individuals receive information, rather than forbidding people from watching, is the key to successfully fighting Russian propaganda:

“We need to understand that it is simply impossible to block everything. Therefore, it is necessary not only to control the information space but also to develop media literacy in school, as in Finland, for example. Both methods take a very long time and will give effect after 5-10 years. 

As for people of age and the impact of propaganda on them, things are even more complicated. According to research, people believe conspiracy theories because they are so comfortable. Also, many people are comfortable watching Russian channels because they confirm their beliefs. Something has to happen to make staying in this bubble uncomfortable.”

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