As social media platforms and the EU have taken action against Russian state disinformation about the Ukraine war, a group of pro-Russian bloggers is experiencing a huge surge in popularity, according to a study.

According to a study, a small network of western bloggers and YouTubers is feeding a rapidly growing audience with Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine. While the EU has banned the Kremlin channels RT and Sputnik and social media platforms have also taken action against state-controlled Russian media, the self-proclaimed “independent journalists” continued to reach millions with their disinformation, according to the independent think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) based in London. On YouTube alone, the twelve influencers examined had a total of 1.6 million subscribers.

The bloggers’ reports often came from the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, reinforced the Kremlin’s views and denied or downplayed Russian atrocities, reports the US broadcaster NBC, citing the study. According to the researchers, the reports in English, German, French and other languages ​​proved effective in undermining efforts by European governments and US social media platforms to stop the spread of Russian propaganda.

Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter have used measures such as blockades, flags and fact-checking to counter misinformation. However, most of these efforts have focused on official Russian government and state media, the ITS noted, according to NBC. While this is partially effective, it misses an important area of ​​Kremlin disinformation.

“The current strategy focuses too much on clear ties to the Kremlin: state media accounts and channels, journalists with clear ties, and embassies and consulates,” the US broadcaster quoted Melanie Smith, head of the ISD’s digital analysis department. “It overlooks a large amount of content coming from actors who can reach large audiences very quickly and spread pro-Kremlin disinformation without the state having to be directly involved.”

Ukraine war popularizes pro-Kremlin bloggers

According to the study, the Ukraine war gave the formerly rather insignificant Russia-friendly bloggers, some of whom have been active for years, a surge in popularity. The ITS identified a group of twelve of the most influential of these propagandists posting on social sites such as YouTube, Telegram, Facebook and Twitter. They also include the Germans Thomas Röper, who lives in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Alina Lipp, who, according to her Telegram channel, also emigrated to Russia some time ago. The 28-year-old native of Hamburg takes the view that supporting Ukraine is tantamount to supporting National Socialism and, among other things, claims without any evidence that Ukrainians carried out a false flag massacre in a maternity hospital in Mariupol. Lipp’s following, mostly on Telegram but also on YouTube, grew from around 2,000 followers in February to more than 160,000 in May, according to the report. Lipp did not respond to a request for comment on the study, NBC said.

In its investigation, the ITS also named Eva Bartlett, a Canadian activist who previously spread conspiracy theories that Syrian rescue workers, known as the White Helmets, staged fake attacks during the Syrian civil war, according to NBC. Bartlett is not employed by RT, but has written opinion pieces on the website of the Russian state-controlled news channel, filmed videos with RT correspondents and shared RT content to circumvent the platforms’ blocking of Russian state media. Facebook has flagged Bartlett’s posts as saying they may be “partially or wholly under the editorial control of the Russian government.” The Canadian also did not respond to a request for comment.

Reports with gruesome images of dead bodies and violence

The most popular of the pro-Kremlin influencers identified by the researchers, according to NBC, is Patrick Lancaster, a Missouri-born US Naval Intelligence veteran and self-proclaimed independent crowdfunding journalist embedded in the Russian army. Since December, Lancaster’s YouTube channel has grown from 57,500 subscribers to over 500,000 with its daily reports from Russian-held parts of Ukraine. His videos are often dramatic reports with gruesome images of dead bodies and violence for which Lancaster blames Ukraine. In at least one of the films, the scenes shown were reportedly staged. Lancaster has appeared frequently on Russian state media and on Infowars, a far-right Texas radio and online conspiracy-telling channel. He also did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the findings of the ITS, the bloggers examined in the study are a powerful tool for spreading propaganda. The institute writes on Twitter that they exploit loopholes in the social media platforms and circumvent their efforts to label misinformation as such. Russian state channels interviewed and quoted her, and Russian embassies abroad posted her content on Facebook and Twitter.

“Some of the disinformation that’s spreading fast isn’t fact-checked because it’s reaching an audience that’s considered smaller or less important than that of RT and Sputnik,” Smith said, according to NBC. “But the topics of conversation are the same and the evidence presented is the same.” The bloggers are independent people who are free to express themselves within the confines of the platforms’ policies. “And sometimes they incite violence, deny war crimes and spread blatant disinformation about the context of events and how people are victimized.”

Sources: NBC, Institute for Strategic Dialogue on Twitter