Russian state media is pushing propaganda in Europe stigmatising Ukrainian refugees, sidestepping an EU ban by using workaround domain names, some with a single character changed in the URL, a study claims.
Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 22nd of February, the European Union banned Russia’s state-owned RT and Sputnik, labelling them “disinformation outlets” that were spreading propaganda to try to justify the war and destabilise EU countries. The sanctions banned them from broadcasting in the EU, and ordered tech platforms like Google to block their domains to European audiences.
But according to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an independent think tank monitoring the spread of disinformation and extremism, while the sanctions have resulted in traffic to the sites from within the EU dropping by about three-quarters, their content remained accessible to European audiences.
Specifically, it found that the Kremlin had apparently found a way of effectively circumventing the ban and allowing EU audiences to continue accessing the sites, by creating workaround domains, almost identical to the banned sites, that continued to direct readers to their content. While the workarounds were technically covered by the EU ban, they appeared to be escaping the enforcement, which is up to individual EU countries to police.
ISD senior digital methods manager Jordan Wildon, one of the lead authors of the research, said the workaround domains often involved simply substituting a character in the domain name – swapping a “-” for a “.” in the URL for a banned Spanish-language RT subdomain.
“Putting a hyphen in it makes it a totally new domain,” he told VICE World News. “But it would lead to exactly the same content.”
The researchers found 12 domains that were identical to RT, which had links to RT’s digital infrastructure. All of them were registered in Moscow, and all but one had been created in the weeks following the invasion of Ukraine.
“That was very much a seemingly intentional effort to get around the sanctions by that point,” said Wildon.
While the workaround domains didn’t make up for the traffic from the EU lost due to the sanction, the report found they still generated millions of views each month, potentially acting a “critical vector for Russian propaganda continuing to reach users in the European Union.”
Notably, the research found they were pushing stories that were clearly intended to drum up negative sentiment to Ukrainian refugees who had fled to Western Europe.
The stories claimed that Ukrainians were receiving preferential treatment compared to other refugees, were a drain on the resources of their host countries, and posed a security risk. Others focused on the supposed aggression of Ukrainian refugees and played up integration issues, with some portraying Ukrainian women in a sexualised manner.
The “workaround” domains are already covered by EU sanctions, through an “anti-circumvention clause” banning any efforts to skirt the prohibitions, said Johannes Bahrke, coordinating spokesperson for digital economy, research and innovation at the European Commission.
He said that, while the sanctions against Russian state-affiliated media were passed by the European Union, it was up to each EU member state to ensure their enforcement in their territory.
But it appears the official prohibition on the workarounds is not being effectively implemented, mirroring a wider issue identified by ISD researchers of inconsistent enforcement of the ban across different EU countries.
For example, in six countries – Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ireland and Sweden – there was no traffic to the banned sites in the time period, and in five others, traffic dropped by more than 90 percent.
Yet in Estonia and the Netherlands, there was a significant rise in traffic to the sites in the period after the ban, while in Austria, traffic dropped by an inconsequential 3 percent.
Wildon said authorities needed to take a more proactive approach monitoring and blocking the workaround sites, and to ensure more consistent enforcement of the sanctions across the bloc. If action wasn’t taken, he warned, Russian propaganda could continue to reach European audiences and harden attitudes toward Ukrainian refugees across the bloc.