Six days after Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine, the EU banned Kremlin-backed media platforms RT and Sputnik from operating inside or directing content at the EU. In the days between Russia’s war in Ukraine (which started on February 24) and the EU’s ban on Russian state media (which was enacted on March 2), RT en Español, RT’s primary Spanish-language outlet and one of RT’s most successful outfits, outperformed RT’s English-language account with more than double the number of retweets and 100,000 more likes on Twitter. While RT en Español remains one of Russia’s most influential accounts, its engagement has plummeted compared to pre-war metrics due to recent platform policies and restrictions, which have made it hard to access or monetize Russian state-media around the world. RT en Español, like other Kremlin-directed outlets, is now attempting to build back its audience through a range of tactics, such as rebranding and reinventing accounts, meant to get around platform bans.
While it is unsurprising that Russia’s banned media outlets are attempting to reinvigorate and sustain their messaging, new and rising Spanish-language accounts present a particular challenge. With hundreds of millions of speakers, Spanish is the fourth most-spoken language in the world, meaning Russian accounts messaging in Spanish have the potential to sway large portions of global public opinion. And Russia’s Spanish-speaking audience, though smaller than early-war levels, is already established: in the more than 160 days since the EU ban, RT en Español outperformed all other Russian Twitter accounts tracked on the Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard. Therefore, Spanish speakers are a particular target of disinformation from Russia’s state-controlled media, and the creation and reinvention of unregulated accounts spreading Russian-state narratives and circumventing restrictions expands the risk.
The reinvention and popularization of the program Ahí les Va is part of RT en Español’s revival campaign. Ahí les Va brands itself as a spunky and humorous news alternative to Western media. Before the war, its YouTube account was quite popular, with millions of subscribers. When YouTube suspended its account shortly after the war began, its platform shrunk. Since its suspension, though, Ahí les Va has slowly been gathering back its strength in content and presence. It currently has profiles across YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and a host of other platforms. It posts memes and witty video clips about international news from a lens of conspiracism, anti-Westernism, and Russian victimhood—which follows current Russian messaging narratives.
To the unassuming viewer, Ahí les Va might initially seem like a separate media entity from RT en Español; however, it is an affiliated program of the Russian news source. It retweets RT en Español’s posts, promotes RT en Español’s profiles, and defends the outlet, calling news sources that write about Russian state media “obsessive.” Most obviously, however, Ahí les Va’s website says it is copyright of TV-Novosti and links to RT en Español’s website, and in Ahí les Va’s account description on YouTube, it simply states “RT.”
Bypassing The Ban
Ahí les Va’s popularity is due in part to the global spotlight on Russia’s war in Ukraine and the program’s sharp and witty commentary. An interesting facet of Ahí les Va, though, is its ability to circumnavigate bans meant to reduce its visibility. Despite EU restrictions and YouTube’s suspension of its first account, Ahí les Va hosts profiles across multiple social media platforms, and has amassed 10,900 followers and 41,200 likes on TikTok, the world’s most downloaded app of 2022.
Content from Ahí les Va even demonstrates the depth of its efforts to circumvent media restrictions. In response to YouTube’s announcement that it would suspend RT and Sputnik programs on March 1, 2022, Ahí les Va uploaded a video to its website and social media accounts dedicated to informing its audience how to circumvent restrictions and view blocked content. In the video, RT host Inna Afinogenova (who no longer works ) recommends:
- Using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access blocked content from any location (VPN recommendations are provided, and videos explaining how to install VPNs are highlighted on YouTube);
- Subscribing to Ahí les Va’s other accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and RT en Español’s social media accounts;
- Reconfiguring satellite parameters to view RT en Español on its new, Russian satellite network (new satellite parameters are provided); and
- Downloading the RT noticias app using a provided, direct link to circumvent the block of the app on Google Play and the App Store.
The video marks the beginning of Ahí les Va’s pivot towards rebuilding its audience by circumventing restrictions. The program has been largely successful in doing so. against Russian state-backed Spanish-language accounts, Ahí les Va’s accounts for months experienced no comprehensive regulation across social media platforms. Despite its growing audience, its clear affiliation with RT en Español, and the alignment of its content with other Russian propaganda outlets, no other social media site besides TikTok labeled Ahí les Va as Russian state-controlled media during the first 150 days of the war. Twitter and Instagram only recently labeled Ahí les Va, but after its accounts were created and had gained between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of followers. As a result, Ahí les Va forged an unfettered reach into contemporary platforms and cultural spheres and is experiencing unbridled growth on platforms that have failed to regulate it. Without labels or restrictions across the board, RT en Español can use offshoot programs like Ahí les Va to skirt bans, bolster its audience, and sow division through information manipulation campaigns.
Performance & Analysis
Twitter: Ahí les Va established a new Twitter account in April, shortly after RT en Español was banned. In the account’s first three months, it generated 80,800 likes and 35,500 retweets. In July, Ahí les Va was one of the ten most retweeted Russian state media accounts on Twitter. That month, it earned more retweets and likes than Sputnik Mundo while only sending around a tenth of the tweets. Ahí les Va’s most popular tweet mocked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Vogue photoshoot and received 6,144 retweets and 10,200 likes. Twitter labeled Ahí les Va as media affiliated with the Russian government on August 4, after it had collected more than 20,000 followers.
Instagram: Ahí les Va’s first post on Instagram was in November 2019, and its content routinely receives between 25,000-60,000 views. Its most viewed content is a video describing how to continue viewing Russian media despite the EU ban, and a news clip announcing London’s extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. These pieces of content received 253,000 views and 255,746 views, respectively. On August 1, 2022, Ahí les Va had 165,000 followers. Within the past week, Instagram labeled the account as Russia state-controlled media
Facebook: Ahí les Va’s main profile is not marked as state media. It is labeled as a personal blog, and the primary location for the page administrators is listed as Russia. The profile was created in December 2019, but it did not begin to post until February 17, 2022. It has nearly 14,000 likes and 40,000 followers as of August 12, 2022. Data obtained from Crowdtangle showed Ahí les Va’s follower base spiking by 51 percent during the final week of July. During the first week of August, it had more total interactions than Sputnik Mundo, which is generally the second-highest performing Russian Facebook page messaging in Spanish. A secondary Ahí les Va profile has 15,000 likes and posts the same content. It is also unlabeled by Facebook.
YouTube: On March 11, Ahí les Va’s host complained on Twitter that the program’s YouTube page had been taken down. One day later, Ahí les Va activated a dormant YouTube account it had started on January 30, 2020 and began uploading videos to re-establish its platform. Its initial videos received varied attention, gaining from 2,900 views to 16,000 views, with one of its early videos about “cognitive warfare” tallying 38,000 views. Its most recent videos continue to accrue between 2,000 and 10,000 views. As of August 13, Ahí les Va has 26,600 subscribers, and its channel has 265,421 views. Though the YouTube account Ahí les Va promotes on its website is blocked, YouTube has not yet acted to remove its fresh account or label it as Russia state-controlled media.
Odysee: Videos from six months ago on Ahí les Va’s Odysee account were averaging between 100 and 200 views. Now, its posts on the platform receive between 4,000-10,000 views. Its most popular content seems to be its videos responding to the bans on Russian state media, with one video garnering 22,000 views. As of August 13, Ahí les Va has 11,158 followers.
Telegram: Ahí les Va’s Telegram profile was created on March 16, 2022. Its first post garnered 9,200 views. Comparatively, some of the account’s more recent posts have accrued 13,000 to 26,000 views. Ahí les Va has 28,600 subscribers as of August 13. Telegram does not label the account as state-controlled media.
Website: Ahí les Va’s website was first indexed by Google in March 2021. As of July 22, 2022, three tabs were present on the site: “Latin America and the Caribbean,” “News Summary,” and “International.” Five days later, on July 27, a “Social” tab was added, in addition to a notification feature that alerts viewers when new video episodes are released. On August 1, videos related to Latin America and the Caribbean appeared on the website’s page under the Latin American tab, which was previously vacant. Ahí les Va’s fresh efforts to build up its website and curate videos indicate that the media site is cultivating its platform in an attempt to expand its reach and push Russian narratives.
Despite the EU’s ban on Russian state media, Russian state-sponsored mouthpieces continue to find an audience in the Spanish-speaking world. Ahí les Va has had success in recent months expanding that audience. It activated a dormant Facebook page one week before the war in Ukraine began. Fourteen days later, Ahí les Va activated a dormant YouTube page. Around two months into the conflict, the outlet created a new Twitter account. Since then, it has gained nearly 40,000 likes on Facebook, 26,000 YouTube subscribers, and 20,500 Twitter followers. Ahí les Va has snagged a front-row seat in the Spanish news sphere to propagate the Kremlin’s messaging, coasting on platforms’ delayed response or failure to label its accounts. While Spanish-speaking users should be vigilant in their consumption and sharing of news, social media platforms and media sites alike need to take a more proactive approach in labeling Ahí les Va’s profiles as Russia state-affiliated media, and in identifying other offshoot Russian accounts as they arise, to effectively crack down on disinformation and mitigate the risk of Russian state-sponsored information operations targeting the Spanish-speaking population.