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Top Kremlin Mouthpiece Still Exploiting Western Social Media

Despite supposed Big Tech moderation efforts and recent government sanctions by the European Union against Russian state-funded broadcasters RT and Sputnik, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan still has unrestricted access to spread Russian disinformation to hundreds of thousands of followers during wartime.

In response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, major social media platforms, including Meta, Google, Twitter, and TikTok, have implemented measures in order to minimize abusive and misleading content on their platforms, including banning RT and Sputnik in the EU per EU sanctions prohibiting these networks’ broadcasts on TV or online. Yet, there are gaps, such as Simonyan – who has accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers across platforms and is verified on most mainstream platforms – retaining unbridled access to her accounts and using them to spread disinformation.

Access to Simonyan’s social media accounts is not even restricted for IP addresses and users based in EU nations and Ukraine, even though the accounts of her media entities are blocked in these nations. Additionally, despite public commitments by platforms such as Meta to implement “more transparency … around state-controlled media outlets,” Simonyan’s accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok do not have labels similar to those on RT and Sputnik indicating that she is linked to Russian state media. And while Twitter has labeled Simonyan’s account for a few years, the platform has failed to restrict access to RT’s accounts in Ukraine.

RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan's follower count by social media platform as of March 3. In order from most to least, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram, YouTube, Yandex Zen, Facebook, VK, Odnoklassniki

CitationMolly Butler / Media Matters

Following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the EU sanctioned key Kremlin state broadcasters — including Simonyan — blocking the use of their bank accounts and banning them from traveling within the bloc. U.S. lawmakers have also introduced several bills calling for the RT editor-in-chief, among others, to also be sanctioned.

Page from the E.U.'s Official Journal of the European Union with a sanction listing for Margarita Simonyan. The document text describing Simonyan's reason for inclusion in the sanction states the following: "Margarita Simonyan is a central figure of the Government propaganda. She is also editor-in-chief of the English language television news network RT (Russia Today). Through her function, she promoted a positive attitude to the annexation of Crimea and the actions of separatists in Donbas."

CitationSource: Official Journal of the European Union

Simonyan has long been considered a key figure in the Kremlin’s media propaganda operations, yet her toxic behavior has been tolerated by Big Tech in the past. Under her leadership, RT and Sputnik have become key vectors of international Russian state disinformation campaigns, including spreading COVID-19 misinformation and far-right narratives. According to independent Russian outlet Znak, Simonyan is typically among the top 15 most quoted journalists in Russia.

A graphic created by the U.S. State Department depicting the structural organization of RT and Sputnik media ecosystem, in which Simonyan is placed centrally as the editor-in-chief of Rossiya Segodnya and RT

CitationSource: U.S. Department of State

Since the start of the war, Simonyan has notably called Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure “fake,” and linked to Russian media content accusing the Ukraine military of perpetrating the missile strike against a Kyiv residential building. On the second day of the invasion, Simonyan praised a screenshotted post from RT’s telegram channel quoting Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, who said that the Russian military would not strike civilian residences in Kyiv. Later on the same day, as anti-war protests in Russia unfolded and thousands were arrested, Simonyan posted a screenshot on Facebook that included threats against “liberals” and “traitors” who should have been “dealt with long ago.”

Facebook post by Simonyan containing a screenshot of a Telegram post

CitationTranslated from Facebook: Our liberals hate Russia and everything Russian more than the Ukrainians. This is difficult to believe, but it is so. The army is completing a special operation in order to secure the country, but thousands of traitors are sitting in the rear and dreaming of our quick defeat. This is unbelievable and something should have been dealt with a long time ago.

Additionally, while Meta has promised to work on “demonetizing [Russian state media] accounts” on the platform, Simonyan has made posts on both Twitter and Facebook advertising and promoting merchandise — shirts with the letter Z, a marking that has been used by many Russian military vehicles during the invasion — from RT’s online shop.

Facebook post by Simonyan sharing a Facebook post by RT na russkom advertising a RT clothing merchandise with the letter Z

CitationSource: Facebook

Social media platforms’ tolerance of her misinformation and controversial statements has been documented for years prior to the February invasion. Facebook had suspended Simonyan in 2019 for undisclosed reasons before reinstating her account and giving an unwarranted apology.

Simonyan has a history of toxic online behavior, from tweeting in approval of child marriages to sharing harmful and derogatory posts about Black people during the George Floyd protests in June 2020. Additionally, the Kremlin-backed figure has talked about her disapproval of Belarusian and Russian dissidents, praised violence against demonstrators and an illegal plane hijacking, and mocked a hunger striker. This follows Simonyan's long history of calling for Russia’s violent annexation of Ukraine’s eastern territory.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Facebook Permits Racist Attacks On Afghan Refugees

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

As Afghan refugees flee the country following the Taliban takeover, xenophobic narratives are spreading widely on Facebook. Despite the platforms' claim to "prohibit the use of harmful stereotypes" and to protect refugees from "the most severe attacks," racist rhetoric that seemingly violates Facebook's policy is rampant in both public and private groups.

These attacks on Afghan refugees come amid the American military's withdrawal from the country and the Taliban's rapid advance, which has resulted in a humanitarian crisis for more than half a million people displaced from their homes since January. With the United States' final withdrawal from the country completed on August 31, numbers show that "approximately 116,700 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan" in recent weeks, many of whom allied with the United States over the previous two decades of war.

Now, as the U.S. occupation officially ends, users have taken to Facebook to promote xenophobic conspiracy theories and racist stereotypes about Afghan refugees as potential terrorists bent on harming the U.S. In reality, though much information has not been publicly released, government officials say they are conducting a thorough vetting process of refugees coming into the country from Afghanistan.

Some Facebook posts assert that terrorists will attempt to sneak in alongside Afghans seeking asylum. In "Back Boris," a public group with over 41,000 members, one user wrote, "The Taliban will definitely send some of their supporters to the West posing as refugees. They will fight us in our own country." (This post received over 1,000 reactions and more than 500 comments.) This narrative has also spread to right-wing media including Breitbart, where an article titled "Report: Up to 100 Afghans Seeking Resettlement in U.S. 'Flagged' by Terrorism Watch Lists" has received over 13,000 interactions on Facebook, according to the social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.

The Taliban will definitely send some of their supporters to the West posing as refugees. They will fight us in our own country.racist rhetoric about Afghan refugees

Other Facebook users claimed that Biden "surrendered Afghanistan to terrorists" and that only a small portion of people who were evacuated were U.S. citizens, claiming there was "NO VETTING. How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America?" Right-wing outlets like The Federalist have shared similar narratives which then spread on Facebook, with one such article accumulating over 1,700 interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) across both public and private posts on the platform.

Racist rhetoric against Afghan Refugees

Users are also leveraging xenophobic conspiracy theories to promote other misinformedright-wing narratives, especially those surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations and the U.S.- Mexico border policy. And some have even threatened violence, suggesting that users should arm themselves to "defend" their communities against Afghan refugees.

Racist rhetoric about Afghan refugeesArticle about Greece building a wall

Though the platform allows discussion of immigration policies, the consistent attacks in which a whole population of people are smeared with dangerous stereotypes seemingly violate Facebook's hate speech policy, which prohibits attacks based on national origin.

Disregarding its own policies on anti-immigrant rhetoric is not new for the platform, as a 2019 study in the European Journal of Communication found:

In short, commercial platforms such as Facebook provide spaces for xenophobic, racist and nationalistic discourse online, and they shape antagonistic (Farkas et al., 2018) attitudes towards immigrants. Moreover, through their large size, they affect mainstream discourses on immigration and refugees, and contribute to a normalization of previously marginalized types of utterances, attitudes and opinions. Anti-immigration groups and publics on commercial social networking services (SNSs) also seem to amplify xenophobic and racist attitudes among their participants.

Facebook is facing no accountability for the malicious content about Afghan refugees that is circulating on its platform, once again showing the company's failure to stem the spread of misinformation, even in times of crisis.

In Wake Of Kenosha Murders, Right-Wing Media Hype Vigilante Violence

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

An armed individual shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last night -- killing two and seriously injuring the third -- amid an uprising following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man. The suspected shooter has now been identified as a 17-year-old who reportedly "considered himself a militia member trying to protect life and property." Even before these details of the August 25 vigilante shooting were known, figures across the right-wing media ecosystem began hyping the violence, defending the alleged shooter, and using the deadly incident to fearmonger about activists and "the left."

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