Russian propaganda evades YouTube’s flagging system with BuzzFeed-style knockoffs

On most days, ICYMI, a millennial-focused channel on YouTube, looks like a standard, BuzzFeed-style digital media knockoff.

There is, however, one distinct difference between ICYMI’s videos and any other two-minute news blast on YouTube: Host Polly Boiko’s monologues are part of Russia Today, the English-language media company known as RT and backed by the Russian government.

NBC News discovered the connection through registration information of ICYMI’s website, which lists the same entity as the registration for RT’s website.

Most of ICYMI’s videos have the same look. Boiko stands in front of a green screen with bright, bouncy graphics and a comic-book-style font as she speaks into the camera about various news topics. In one video, she recaps events including the Olympics and the Oscars. Other videos, labeled “quickies,” feature quirky stories, like marijuana dispensary security guards who claimed mice stole the company’s stash.

But in between those fun videos about internet oddities, the channel publishes diatribes from Boiko about international scandals, pushing the same talking points as those found on other Russia-backed channels such as Russia Today. In one video, Boiko discusses the poisoning of U.K. double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter — with users having no clear way of knowing about the video’s connection to Russia’s media efforts.

In another, Boiko, in a “Dark Side of the Moon” Pink Floyd T-shirt, complains that the West blames Russia for all of its problems.

Polly Boiko, clad in a “Dark Side of the Moon” Pink Floyd T-shirt, complains that the West blames Russia for all its problems. ICYMI via YouTube

Behind slick graphics and poppy background music, ICYMI has managed to evade YouTube’s new efforts to identify Russian propaganda for over three months. ICYMI is featured on RT’s “shows” page.

ICYMI showcases the increasing complexity of Russia’s efforts to spread its talking points across the internet, often in ways that make it nearly impossible to identify such channels as being backed by a foreign country. The internet-savvy content looks and sounds like many other popular, youth-oriented media brands, helping it avoid YouTube’s new policy of placing banners that denote acceptance of government funding while building up an audience.

In February, YouTube said it would start labeling videos created by the Russian government, like ones pushed by RT, with a disclaimer that says the channel “is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government,” along with a link to RT’s Wikipedia page. In November 2017, RT said it would comply with requests from the Justice Department to register as a foreign agent.

ICYMI does not have that disclaimer. NBC News reached out to YouTube about ICYMI’s ties to the Russian government, asking how the company went about identifying propaganda accounts.

“Unfortunately we don’t comment on specific channels,” a YouTube spokesperson said. The company did not respond to follow-up questions about the channel.

ICYMI launched on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in January, and its most recent Facebook video about Skripal’s poisoning drew more than 135,000 views in five days.

In that video, Boiko, a former RT reporter, falsely claims that U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had said Russia “definitely didn’t” poison Skripal. Corbyn has said he is seeking “incontrovertible evidence” that the Kremlin carried out the attack, but has made no definitive claims.

“This beardy pacifist says Russia definitely didn’t do it,” Boiko says of Corbyn and the Skripal poisoning in one video. “But do you want to believe someone who’s been fighting for human rights his entire life?”

Anna Belkina, deputy editor-in-chief and head of communications for RT, confirmed that ICYMI is part of RT and said that it takes issue with YouTube’s characterization of content on RT’s channels.

“ICYMI is prominently featured as a show on the RT.com website and is helmed by a well-known RT reporter,” Belkina wrote. “Although YouTube elected to add channel information to accompany videos from certain outlets that exist on their platform, it remains purely the choice of the platform to do this, and we don’t always agree with their selective classification of some channels with certain prejudicial language.”

Boiko declined to comment.

Russia’s backing

ICYMI’s website, ICYMI.tv, was registered on Jan. 15 to the same entity as RT’s official website. ICYMI.tv and Kub.media, a Russian-language propaganda site, were both purchased by the Russian propaganda network this year.

Clint Watts, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who testified before Congress about Russia’s disinformation campaign last year, called ICYMI a prime example of Russia “catching up” with the new rules created by tech giants to limit the reach of its propaganda.

“The idea with the most advanced actors is to play to the terms of service, to play within the new terms,” Watts said. ”They’re gonna keep adapting, and these companies are going to keep adapting to [the propaganda channels].

Polly Boiko discusses the poisoning of UK double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter — without users knowing about the video’s connection to Russia’s media efforts. ICYMI via YouTube

Watts called it an “exploit,” saying social media companies will have to be as creative as the propaganda outlets trying to find loopholes in their service.

“It takes a lot of research, but with the social media companies they’re going to have to chase this,” Watts said. “The most persistent information threats, like RT, are always going to identify the terms of service and then do what they can to get around them.”

This is not the Kremlin’s first shot at creating off-brand versions of popular online American news outlets.

In the Now, an imitation of popular startup NowThis News that has its own section of RT.com, stripped all of its RT branding from its channels in 2016. It also registered its website, InTheNow.Media, using RT’s domain registration address in 2016.

On Twitter, In the Now changed its username from @InTheNowRT to @InTheNow_Tweet in June of 2016. Its pages make no reference of the media brand’s ties to the Russian government.

Still, In the Now has managed to rack up over 3.3 million followers on Facebook, over 300,000 more than BuzzFeed News’s account. Unlike YouTube, Facebook does not flag any sites, including RT, In the Now, and ICYMI, as being funded by the Russian government.

In the Now and ICYMI make no mention of their Russian funding in their biography or in the “about” sections on Facebook or Twitter.

Mainstream praise

At last year’s Shorty Awards, which honors the “best people and organizations in social media,” In the Now won the audience honors award in the Facebook Presence category. In the Now’s Russian government funding had not been disclosed on The Shorty Awards’ website.

A video posted to In the Now’s Facebook and YouTube accounts last Wednesday captioned “Smells like WMDs” featured host Anissa Naouai pushing the Kremlin party line that Russia’s ally Syria was not responsible for this month’s chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Overt Russian government outlets like RT and Sputnik had been pushing the same theory in the past week.

Spreading doubt over Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people has been a staple of Russian media outlets over the past several years.

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