This year, many Spanish-speaking Latin American countries — including Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela — will hold elections. Each country will be elect a new president, while Mexico and Colombia will also vote for new parliaments. In a recent statement, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned that the Russian government has launched a campaign to influence the elections in Mexico.
@DFRLab reviewed the pro-Kremlin media in Latin America to measure its reach, bias, and the potential for clandestine campaigning.
Kremlin-funded RT launched a Spanish version of its 24-hour news channel back in 2009 and has since amassed a significant audience.
On Facebook, the “RT en Español” page is more popular than the “RT.com” page, boasting 5.8 million followers, as compared to 4.9 million users following the Facebook page of the English language news channel.
According to SimilarWeb data, the RT page in Spanish was visited more than 32 million times in the last six months, which made it the second most popular iteration of RT.com after the English-language version.
A large percentage of these visitors came from three Latin American countries that will hold elections in 2018 — Mexico (15.8 percent), Colombia (10.3 percent), and Venezuela (9.8 percent).
Although the Spanish version of RT puts out a significant number of articles related to the three countries, it does not appear to be campaigning for any particular candidates in the upcoming elections through disproportionate positive or negative coverage in the region yet, with one exception.
Of the 46 that mentioned Mexico, 13 referenced the upcoming elections, however, no preference for a particular candidate was apparent. Of the 29 stories that mentioned Colombia, none mentioned the upcoming Colombian elections.
Of the 36 stories that mentioned Venezuela, 16 referenced the elections with a strong bias for current President Nicolas Maduro, the only candidate in the upcoming elections. The pro-Maduro articles on RT, like “Maduro: I’m ready to be the candidate of the people”, did not mention Maduro’s widespread unpopularity, nor the fact that the upcoming elections have already been condemned internationally. For example, neighboring Colombia even announced that it will not recognize the elections.
More broadly, RT’s coverage in Spanish has a strong anti-U.S. bias. An example was RT’s reporting on U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour of Latin America in early February. RT published a series of articles that portrayed the U.S. as a hostile power and used the headlines included below.
Joint programming with TeleSUR
Apart from its own programs and articles, RT further extended its reach by cooperating with regional media outlets. One such example is a TV show called “In Sight”, produced in partnership between RT and TeleSUR. TeleSUR is a multi-state funded pan-Latin American television network launched by the former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his former regional allies; the network’s partnership with RT on the show “In Sight” dates back to February 2016. Like RT, TeleSUR maintains an “anti-Imperialist” editorial stance, which in practice translates into an anti-U.S. and anti-neoliberal bias, of which TeleSUR has been accused on a number of occasions. These accusations are not unfounded, in fact, the lack of objective reporting led to the Argentinian government pulling out of the TV network, citing the “broadcaster’s blacklisting of alternative viewpoints” back in 2016.
RT’s partnership with TeleSUR has so far resulted in nine episodes of the “In Sight” show, none of which focused on the upcoming elections in Latin America. The show is being advertised as a Russian-Venezuelan alternative to biases in “Western” media.
“In Sight” is not the first project that RT and TeleSUR collaborated on. Back in 2014, RT broadcast a documentary “Mi Amigo Hugo” about the life of President Chavez that first aired on TeleSUR. In turn, TeleSUR broadcast an RT documentary “WHY?” on NATO’s bombings of Yugoslavia in 1999.
The cross-programming illustrates RT’s potential reach in the region’s information environment, especially in Venezuela where TeleSUR has a significant audience.
RT is not the only Kremlin-funded media outlet with a Spanish version, Sputnik News has one too. Sputnik’s reach in Spanish is significantly smaller than that of RT. According SimilarWeb, it was visited 5.4 million times in the past six months.
According to SimilarWeb, Sputnik is relatively popular in Mexico and Colombia, but not Venezuela.
Between February 1 and 7, Sputnik has published 40 articles concerning Mexico, and 11 mentioned the upcoming elections without any preference for any particular candidate. During the monitoring period, Colombia was mentioned in 90 articles, 25 of which made reference to the elections. Like RT, Sputnik does not appear to favor a certain candidate or party over the other yet.
Venezuela, on the other hand, was mentioned 105 articles, of those, 46 referenced the upcoming elections. Sputnik was also highly supportive of Maduro’s candidacy. A good example of Sputnik’s bias in favor of Maduro was an article titled “Maduro: Trump ordered the opposition to withdraw from the presidential elections”. Sputnik published this unfounded accusation at face value without performing a basic fact check or verifying the claim. In this case, objective coverage should have mentioned Maduro’s failure to concede on opposition’s demands, which led to their withdrawal from the reconciliation talks.
The broader sentiment of Sputnik’s coverage of Latin America was very similar to that of RT. Coverage was anti-U.S. and pro-Russian, demonstrated in recent articles linked below.
Other pro-Kremlin media
Apart from Sputnik and RT, at least two other pro-Kremlin outlets have Spanish versions — News Front and Global Research.ca.
News Front is a pro-Kremlin news outlet and, according to a whistle-blower interviewed by Die Zeit, is funded by the Russian intelligence. The site’s Spanish version featured a series of articles on Latin America and the United States, the majority of which have a strong anti-U.S. sentiment.
News Front has published two articles on the upcoming Mexican elections in the past month, both of them originally appeared on different sites. One article — “Mexico: if you let Lopez Obrador win the presidency of Mexico, will he be able to fulfill what he promised?” — exhibited strong positive sentiment for left-wing candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador, who has espoused protectionist and anti-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) stances in the past. The article opened with a paragraph that Obrador’s victory is likely due to the level of distrust in the Mexican government and the “Yankees”. The article went on to recite his election promises and noted his pledge to take half the normal presidential salary. Another article — “Opinion: the left can win in Mexico” — was also supportive Obrador’s anti-NAFTA stance.
In the past month, News Front published several articles about the Colombian elections with a strong preference for FARC, a socialist guerilla movement that transformed into a political party. News Front published one article with a positive sentiment towards FARC’s presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño.
Although News Front has far more content that favored specific candidates over others, its reach was rather limited compared to that of RT and Sputnik. According to SimilarWeb, the website had 122,000 visits in the last six months. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of visits did come from the three target countries –Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico.
In the past month the website published two articles about the Mexican elections, both in favor of left-wing candidate Obrador. One article — “Mexico — the ghosts of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador” — portrayed Obrador as an anti-establishment underdog:
Lopez Obrador is demonized and even his eventual triumph is presented as the prelude to economic and financial chaos.
Another article was a facsimile of the “Left Can win in Mexico” article, which was also published by News Front and maintained bias for Obrador’s campaign.
Globalizacion.ca did not publish any articles related to the Colombian or the Venezuelan elections in the past month.
Pro-Kremlin media has a substantial reach in Latin America, averaging at around 76 million annual website visits across three media outlets. The two largest players — RT and Sputnik — do not appear to be currently engaged in a large-scale promotion of specific candidates, with the exception of Venezuelan incumbent Nicolas Maduro. The two smaller pro-Kremlin outlets — News Front and Globalizacion.ca — were actively engaged in promoting a left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Mexican presidential elections.
Apart from supporting Maduro and Obrador, pro-Kremlin Spanish language media will likely continue to exploit division in and between countries across the Americas.
The @DFRLab will continue monitoring upcoming elections across Latin American election.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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