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Pro-Russian Narratives Rise Among Latin American X Users, Research Shows

FILE - The X logo is seen on a smartphone screen July 31, 2023. New research shows that X, formerly Twitter, has seen an uptick in pro-Russian narratives among Spanish-language users in Latin America.
FILE - The X logo is seen on a smartphone screen July 31, 2023. New research shows that X, formerly Twitter, has seen an uptick in pro-Russian narratives among Spanish-language users in Latin America.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, it sparked outrage in many parts of the world. Images of atrocities by Russian fighters and destruction of Ukrainian cities tilted much Western public opinion in favor of Kyiv.

Not necessarily in Latin America.

A study by Georgetown University in Washington found that the social network X, formerly Twitter, has seen a significant uptick in pro-Russian and anti-Ukraine narratives among Spanish-language users in Latin America.

But there’s a catch: “Unofficial” sources of information and, particularly, anonymous accounts are playing a large role in the spread of Kremlin narratives, the researchers concluded.

That research, published by Ukrainian fact-checking organization Stop Fake, was the work of Valerie Senger and Jacob Basseches. They are students of a master’s degree program in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Despite the rise of pro-Russian sentiment on X, Senger and Basseches say these views may not have truly taken hold among actual people in the region.

“We did not see a lot of die-hard, nonanonymous, Latin American locals boosting pro-Russian narratives — yet,” Basseches told VOA.

To analyze the changing narratives on X, Sanger and Basseches selected five key events in the war: the start of the invasion; Russia’s shelling of a railway station in the city of Kramatorsk; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization”; Finland joining NATO; and Russia’s shelling of a pizzeria in Kramatorsk.

That last incident, on June 27, 2023, killed well-known Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina and injured two Colombian citizens.

Sanger and Basseches chose these events because the Kremlin officially commented on them and because the events generated peak searches on Google for “Ucrania,” the Spanish word for Ukraine.

From there, the researchers identified 200 Spanish-language tweets about each event that received the most shares, likes or comments. These were further categorized based on the sentiments the posts expressed.

The categories ranged from the most pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian to the most pro-Ukrainian/anti-Russian opinion. A rating of zero meant the tweet was neutral.

Sanger and Basseches found that Latin American X users reacted fairly neutrally to the onset of the invasion.

But after the shelling of the Kramatorsk station, responses became more polarized. Pro-Russian tweets used insulting terms like “Ukronazi,” while pro-Ukrainian ones called Putin a “terrorist” or “war criminal.”

When Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia, Latin American X users began to express pro-Ukrainian views more often and the level of polarization increased.

Finland's ascension to NATO sparked more pro-Russian posts, but the number of neutral tweets also increased significantly.

After the shelling of the pizzeria in Kramatorsk, Latin American X users were more likely to show pro-Russian views.

Despite fluctuations in the reactions, the researchers say the overall trend is a rise in support for Russia among Spanish-language X accounts — particularly those in Latin America.

“Many would assume that it would be the opposite [...] with all the [Russian] atrocities and all the visuals,” Senger said.

Beyond charting the overall direction of public attitudes, Senger and Basseches found that at the start of the war, the most ardently pro-Russian opinions came from Spain, not Latin America.

Some of those posts were shared by prominent individuals, while others came from anonymous accounts. The researchers say that finding could indicate such opinions are more common in Spain or that Russian influence operations initially targeted Spain.

The researchers also found that credible accounts with large followings that could counter disinformation or pro-Russian influence — such as the X accounts for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and CNN Espanol — had less user engagement. For example, Senger and Basseches found no relationship between the number of followers an account had and the number of likes received by one of its tweets.

“Influence, in its digital dimension, occurs and is channeled through individuals,” they wrote.

They also discovered that the role of anonymous accounts — the ones found to play a large role in the spread of Kremlin narratives — became especially noticeable after Finland joined NATO, accounting for over a fifth of the most popular tweets in Latin America.

Still, this event received fewer responses from Latin American users than others — and the tweets from nonanonymous accounts were slightly more pro-Ukrainian.

A similar pattern came after the shelling of the Kramatorsk railway station and Putin’s partial mobilization announcement. Based upon the reach of anonymous accounts, the researchers inferred that X's complex algorithms — as opposed to factors such as follower counts — play a central role in determining which tweets receive the most attention from users. They noted that the algorithms now prioritize tweets from accounts that pay for an X subscription. (X recently made its interface less transparent and limited data access for researchers.)

The findings suggest that the uptick in pro-Russian sentiment online may have been the result of a Russian influence operation.

While they cannot prove that definitively, Sanger and Basseches believe Latin America remains a target for Russian propaganda.

In November, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center pushed a similar view. The center said it had found a well-financed disinformation campaign targeting the region.

“[I]ncreasingly the Kremlin has realized that they are not having much success in Europe, that they are not able to change government opinion and popular opinion about the Ukraine war,” special envoy James P. Rubin, the center’s coordinator, told journalists last month.

According to Rubin, that has led Russia to look elsewhere, including Latin America and Africa.

Senger and Basseches also see signs of that effort.

“Our findings demonstrate that Russian efforts to influence public discourse among Hispanics [...] intensified after the invasion began,” their study states. “And that these efforts were successful.”

This article originated in VOA’s Russian Service.