One Year, Fifty Films: Russian Propaganda Documentaries Spread on YouTube, Despite Ban
Full-length Russian propaganda films justifying the war proliferate on YouTube, despite the platform’s ban on Russian state-funded media
“We hear that we started the war in Donbass, Ukraine—No.” Russian President Vladimir Putin says grimly to the camera, flanked by the colors of the Russian flag. “It was unleashed by the collective West, which organized and supported the unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine in 2014, and then encouraged and justified genocide on the people of Donbass.”
This clip — in which Putin advances blatant misinformation about the origins of the war that he, in fact, started — appears at the beginning of a polished, 30-minute documentary on YouTube channel iEarlGrey, which according to Russian state media, is run by independent journalist Mike Jones. The channel’s logo is embedded in the video, but Jones is not its creator. The film was produced by Russian propaganda outlet RT and was first published on its documentary website, RTD.RT.com, a fact NewsGuard easily confirmed by comparing iEarlGrey’s YouTube upload to the branded RT documentary on RTD.RT.com. On YouTube, iEarlGrey’s republished RT film has racked up 43,000 views in three months, and contains no RT branding, nor any warning that the content is Russian propaganda.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, RT’s documentary site, RTD.RT.com, has published 50 films that advance disinformation about the war — a rate of about one a week. These documentaries are available for free on RTD’s website — and, as NewsGuard discovered, on YouTube — in Russian and English, with some available in French and Spanish.
In March 2022, YouTube banned Russian state-funded media from its platform globally, proceeding to block channels belonging to RT. Despite this policy, NewsGuard found more than 250 uploads of RT’s documentaries about the war in Ukraine across more than 100 YouTube channels, with over a half-million views combined. Approximately 200 uploads of RT films clearly displayed the RTD logo, while 50 of the videos had their connection to RT removed, presumably in an attempt to avoid detection by YouTube.
The films repeat egregious falsehoods about Ukraine, including that Ukraine’s Maidan political revolution in 2014 was a “Western-backed coup,” as mentioned above; that Ukrainian authorities committed “genocide” of Russian-speakers in Donbas; and that “Nazism” is rampant in Ukrainian politics and society. (These claims, and more than 100 others, have been debunked by NewsGuard on its Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracker.)
The films use harrowing footage to advance pro-Russian false claims about the war. For example, the opening sequence of one RT-produced documentary — “Operation Ukraine: Crime without Punishment, history of crimes against Donbass civilians” — that NewsGuard found on YouTube, shows the aftermath of two missile strikes in civilian areas in Eastern Ukraine in March and April 2022. The film, posted on YouTube by ex-U.S. cop turned pro-Russia conspiracy theorist John Mark Dougan, uses footage of civilian casualties and an interview with a grief-stricken widow to blame Ukraine for killing the civilians, citing as evidence a widely debunked claim that a serial number filmed on a Tochka-U missile proves that the Ukrainian army was to blame for one of the attacks. At one point, the film cuts to a political analyst who states, “Such a provocation is multilayered. The Third Reich used it, too.” As of February 2023, the film had garnered 19,000 views on Dougan’s channel.
Several so-called documentaries advance other known Kremlin propaganda tropes, such as that sanctions on Russia are the result of Western “Russophobia,” and that the sanctions have had little impact on Russia, while devastating European economies.
Asked for comment, YouTube did not challenge NewsGuard’s findings. In a Feb. 20, 2023, email to NewsGuard, a YouTube spokesperson said, “Since the devastating war in Ukraine began, our teams have quickly restricted and removed harmful content, and our systems have connected people to high quality information from authoritative sources. We’ve removed more than 9,000 channels and more than 85,000 videos related to the war for violating our Community Guidelines. Additionally, we blocked YouTube channels associated with Russian state-funded news channels globally, resulting in more than 800 channels and more than 4 million videos blocked. Our teams continue to closely monitor the ongoing war and are ready to take further action.”
As of Feb. 21, 2023, YouTube had removed 81 of the 250 uploads identified by NewsGuard.
YouTube’s RT Influencers: From Online Gamer to Ad-Supported, Russian Propaganda Peddler
NewsGuard found that the most-viewed English-language RT propaganda films appeared on iEarlGrey, the channel run by Mike Jones, a British former YouTube gamer living in St Petersburg, Russia, according to his Twitter profile. Prior to March 2022, the channel primarily focused on producing content related to online gaming. But shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Jones pivoted to Russian propaganda, publishing videos with titles such as “Mother claims ‘There was no airstrike,’” in which Jones repeated widely-debunked Kremlin claims that the March 2022 airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol was staged. The video violates YouTube’s policy prohibiting content denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events. At the time of writing, it remains up on the channel generating ad revenue.
Indeed, NewsGuard analysts based in the U.S. and U.K. found that dozens of pro-Russian propaganda videos on iEarlGrey’s YouTube channel featured Google-enabled programmatic ads from household brands, including Expedia and home insurance provider Urban Jungle, nonprofits such as Doctors Without Borders, and organizations such as the United Nations Refugee Agency, which has provided humanitarian assistance in Ukraine since the start of the war. “Ice Station Europe,” an RT-produced documentary promoting the claim that the “anti-Russian sanctions” have pointlessly devastated European economies since “there are no alternatives to Russian supplies [of gas]” was one of the dozens of videos monetized on iEarlGrey’s YouTube channel.
More recently, monetized videos on his channel show Jones apparently filming in Russian-occupied Lugansk and Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. NewsGuard found that these videos featured programmatic ads from Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by parents who lost children during the 2012 Newtown school shooting, International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian crisis relief organization whose work includes providing emergency assistance to Ukrainian refugees, insurance company Liberty Mutual, and Spectrum, an U.S.-based internet and cell phone service provider, among others. (While dozens of pro-Russian propaganda videos were monetized on iEarlGrey, the vast majority of RT propaganda films NewsGuard found across YouTube did not feature programmatic advertising.)
With Jones’ help, the Russian propaganda films have garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube. For example, the RT documentary “Fast Forward to Fascism,” which repeats the false narrative that Ukraine has systematically targeted ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine, and juxtaposes scenes of 1940s Nazi Germany with modern-day Ukraine, has drawn approximately 50,000 views since Jones posted it on his channel in November 2022.
After NewsGuard contacted YouTube for comment about this video, YouTube removed iEarlGrey’s upload of “Fast Forward to Fascism” as well as 17 other uploads of the film on anonymous channels that NewsGuard identified.
YouTube did not address NewsGuard’s inquiries about why iEarlGrey is permitted to continue posting Russian propaganda on YouTube, or why those videos are allowed to generate ad revenue.
iEarlGrey also did not respond to two February 2023 emails from NewsGuard, inquiring about the channel’s promotion of Kremlin propaganda and RT documentaries, and its relationship with RT.
NewsGuard found that other channels followed similar trajectories to iEarlGrey. Anonymously run channel EVENT2BABI NEWS previously published French-language R&B music videos, but in August 2022, it switched to boosting pro-Russian propaganda, including full-length RT documentaries translated into French. It has 42,000 subscribers. One upload, titled “Wagner PMC, Contract with the Motherland,” about the work of Russia’s brutal private military contractor Wagner, has garnered 133,000 views in the two months since it was uploaded. This video’s success appears to have been aided by approximately 20 accounts that shared its URL on Twitter, enabling it to reach well beyond the channel’s audience, NewsGuard found.
An Army of Pro-Russian Trolls Flying Under YouTube’s Radar
Not all channels promoting RT films on YouTube were as prominent as iEarlGrey or EVENT2BABI NEWS. NewGuard discovered over 80 anonymous channels spreading pro-Russian propaganda about the war. With small subscriber bases and low view counts per video, these channels appear able to avoid moderation by YouTube, despite uploading multiple RT news clips every day. Although they appear insignificant individually, they collectively have a powerful cumulative effect.
For example, NewsGuard found that the RT film “Donbass: I’m Alive!” has been uploaded by some 40 different anonymously run YouTube channels, cumulatively reaching tens of thousands of viewers. The film claims in its closing sequence that “NATO is the reincarnation of the Wehrmacht and SS.” (The Wehrmacht was the armed forces of Nazi Germany, while the SS was a Nazi paramilitary organization responsible for running concentration camps and executing opponents.)
YouTube removed the videos after NewsGuard flagged the uploads, but did not comment on how this content had been allowed to proliferate on the platform. Asked to comment about whether it only monitors accounts with significant followings, YouTube did not respond.
Along with the anonymously run accounts, NewsGuard found RT films on at least five channels with a small number of subscribers that are apparently run by the Russian government. With names like Russian House in Dar es Salaam, and Russian House in Athens, the channels are purportedly run by Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation — a Russian government cultural-promotion agency. (Rossotrudnichestvo has been under EU sanctions since July 2022, for what the bloc described as spreading the “Kremlin’s narratives, including historical revisionism.”)
YouTube told NewsGuard that it removed some of the flagged content for circumventing the platform’s restrictions of Russian state sponsored news channels. NewsGuard found that YouTube did, indeed, remove uploads of RT documentaries from these channels, but did not take the channels themselves down.
A Successful Russian Propaganda Campaign?
RT’s Editor-in-Chief, Margarita Simonyan, has spoken openly about how the outlet uses unbranded channels to circumvent YouTube’s ban. In April 2022, she told Russian state TV channel Russia-1, “Without using our brand, we open a channel on YouTube, it gets millions of views in a few days. After three days [YouTube’s] intelligence services figure it out […] and close it.”
RT did not respond to NewsGuard’s inquiry about whether the Russian state media organization is behind the various accounts peddling these films. Still, NewsGuard’s findings show that despite YouTube’s ban on Russian state media, this propaganda has found a way to thrive.