Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has curtailed the reach of Russian state media in the U.S., forcing the Kremlin to use other avenues to reach Americans and other Western audiences, according to a recent Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment obtained by Yahoo News.
The war, along with Russian media’s coverage of it, “has spurred Western governments, social media companies, and individuals to limit or disengage from Russian state media outlets, likely degrading many outlets’ ability to directly message to Western audiences through 2022,” states the April 22 DHS bulletin, produced in coordination with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The assessment is part of the U.S. government’s tracking and analysis of Russian state-sponsored messaging efforts targeting Western audiences. But those who track Russian disinformation remain concerned about the Russian government’s capabilities when it comes to meddling in the 2022 midterm elections.
There has been a global crackdown on Russian state media since the February invasion, pushing Russia to use more circuitous channels to reach the West. But these efforts are likely to be less successful, according to the bulletin.
“We assess that Russia’s efforts to circumvent Western punitive actions, such as redirecting state media users to alternative hosting platforms, in addition to its use of covert channels, are unlikely to be as effective in reaching U.S. and European audiences as legacy RT and Sputnik infrastructure,” the April 22 bulletin states, referring to two government-sponsored Russian media outlets.
However, the bulletin notes that English-language state media in China have provided an avenue for Russian disinformation and misinformation to maintain its influence.
“Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chinese state media outlets began amplifying Russian allegations of U.S.-funded bioweapon labs in Ukraine, portrayals of NATO as the aggressor through decades of U.S.-led eastward expansion, and assertions that Western sanctions are unlikely to be effective,” the DHS assessment states.
“However,” the report adds, “Chinese-state media did not amplify some other Russian-backed narratives, such as the claim that Nazis ran Ukraine.”
One DHS source involved in tracking Russian disinformation targeting the U.S. says the decreased reach of Russian state media appears to have, at least up until now, weakened the Kremlin’s efforts to potentially influence the 2022 elections or made such efforts more difficult.
“Russia is just going to have to get more creative. They’re going to have to rely in some respects on countries like China to do their bidding,” the official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal agency assessments, said. DHS declined Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Russian disinformation experts told Yahoo News the assessment tracks with what they’ve seen in recent months but strongly cautioned against downplaying or underestimating Russia’s capabilities.
The diminished reach of its state media will force Russia to use more covert channels like proxies to try to influence the upcoming elections, said Bret Schafer, senior fellow and head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan group that aims to counter Russian disinformation campaigns.
“Those proxies don’t have the same audience,” he said.
But Russia’s messaging challenge isn’t new, Schafer said. He pointed to the Russian propaganda outlets News Front and South Front, for example, which were removed from Facebook in 2020 after they were discovered to be linked to Russian intelligence services.
“We’ve seen evidence over the last couple of years that they’ve continued to try to circumvent those bans by essentially running that content through mirror sites, sites that just publish the same content verbatim but they have different domain names so they’re not getting caught by Facebook,” he said. “So that means it’s slipping through, but those domains don’t have much of a following."
While Schafer said Russian state media outlets that are aimed at the global south, such as RT Español and RT Arabic, have not been affected as much, the decline in interactions “on Facebook in particular has been significant … especially if you talk about the outlets that target English speakers primarily.”
“They’re struggling, when you look at those aggregate numbers, to find the same audience that they were before the war,” he said.
The DHS bulletin notes that RT’s twitter handle urged its followers to join alternate platforms like Canada-based video streaming service Rumble, which hasn’t yet limited Russian state media content. As of March 18, RT’s Rumble account had 36,000 subscribers compared to late February, when it had almost 4.6 million subscribers to its now-blocked YouTube account.
The assessment says U.S. audiences visit RT and Sputnik websites “substantially more often than all covert Russian proxy outlets combined,” citing commercial data on website traffic trends. On a three-month basis in early 2021, RT and Sputnik received roughly 29.7 and 5.6 million U.S. visits respectively, while different proxy outlets received between 5,000 and 612,000, according to this data.
While Schafer said any impact state-run media outlets like RT or Sputnik had has clearly been degraded, he warned that Russia still has other tricks up its sleeve.
Specifically, Schafer said he remains concerned about Russia’s ability to influence political campaigns through hacking or hack-and-leak operations, which would essentially use intelligence services to obtain compromising information about a candidate that could then be leaked through various channels, such as a U.S. media outlet.
“Those options are still available,” he said. “So I still think there's a clear foreign influence threat. It’s just likely not going to come from an overt attributable source.”
Russia could also attempt to compromise U.S. voting infrastructure, as it has done in the past, said Shelby Grossman, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory who has been tracking pro-Kremlin propaganda online since before the invasion.
“Even if such attempts are on their surface not very effective, the perception of voting infrastructure insecurity could undermine confidence in the election,” she told Yahoo News.
Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and expert on disinformation threats, did not view the DHS document but said that generally speaking she thinks it’s too early to say whether efforts to decrease Russian state media’s reach are working, let alone whether they will limit Russian disinformation operations that target U.S. elections in 2022.
“Moscow has a whole suite of other tools it continues to use despite limitations on RT and Sputnik, such as gray propaganda websites through which it launders disinformation; its foreign allies who amplify narratives for them; domestic and foreign influencers, such as media personalities and social media stars, including in the U.S., who amplify Russian disinformation; and fake social media accounts,” she said.
A former senior government official involved in aspects of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections put it more bluntly.
“They don’t need China; they don’t need state media,” said the former official, who also requested anonymity. “They just need social media and Tucker Carlson."