Less than a week after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, a pro-Russian rebel appeared in a video on YouTube celebrating the invasion as a “war of good against evil.”
Pushilin and the Donetsk People’s Republic are on the U.S. government’s sanctions list, a designation that bars Americans from doing business with them and limits their economic activity. But they have powerful perches across American social media platforms, including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, where they’re helping Russia spread the false narrative that the war will protect the people of Ukraine and that the country welcomes its invaders. (YouTube removed the accounts on Wednesday afternoon following an inquiry from The Washington Post.)
Tech companies have taken unprecedented steps to crack down on disinformation about the war in Ukraine, banning Russian state media in Western Europe and adding labels to identify Russian government accounts. But more than a dozen YouTube and Twitter accounts tied to individuals and entities on the sanctions list espouse many of the same talking points as state-backed websites such as Sputnik and RT, largely unfettered.
Unlike other sensitive content, there are no labels that identify these accounts as being tied to entities targeted by sanctions. Multiple Facebook and Instagram accounts tied to individuals targeted by sanctions were identified by The Post this month.
These accounts underscore how people and groups blacklisted by the United States retain social media megaphones — even as platforms take more steps to crack down on state-backed propaganda.
Some of the accounts were first identified by researchers at Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts public interest research.
“The platforms — and other U.S.-based commercial entities — should not be sitting on the sidelines,” said Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy. “As the death toll in Ukraine climbs, and millions of Ukrainians are forced to flee their homes for safety, it’s imperative that every sector of our society contributes to pressuring Russia to end its brutal attacks and withdraw from Ukraine.”
YouTube, which is a subsidiary of Google, disabled several of the accounts identified by The Post on Wednesday afternoon.
“Google is committed to compliance with all applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws. If we find that an account violates our Terms of Service or our product policies, we take appropriate action,” YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said in a statement. “Since the war in Ukraine, we’ve terminated a number of accounts as part of our compliance actions.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Companies have faced backlash from Russia’s Internet censorship agency for efforts to restrict propaganda. YouTube removed the account of the separatist leader Sergey Aksyonov, one of the accounts identified in The Post’s review. On Thursday, Roskomnadzor, the Russian regulator, responded by accusing the company of “selective censorship” against Russian political figures and of violating “the key principles of the free flow of information.”
For years, sites such as Facebook and YouTube have faced questions about what limits to impose on leaders who are controversial or even facing sanctions, such as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran. These questions are more urgent in war. As bombs rain down on Ukraine, the proliferation of propaganda highlights a difficult task for tech companies, said Karen Kornbluh, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative, a public policy think tank.
“Social media platforms are caught in the middle of an information war,” she said. “While they’re taking steps to avoid profiting from providing information, and against state media, they’re not acting as aggressively to take down content — in part because they see value in providing access to information.”
As companies make decisions on accounts tied to those targeted by sanctions, they risk setting precedent, said Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, a think tank focused on international relations. If tech companies label accounts of people and groups targeted by U.S. sanctions, autocratic countries around the world could pressure the companies to label dissidents and civil society organizations on which they impose sanctions, he said.
The vast majority of the sanctioned accounts are posting in Russian, apparently directing their message at people in Russia or eastern regions of Ukraine. YouTube, which hosts some of the accounts, is one of the only major American social networks that can be accessed in Russia, after the country’s government has restricted Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sherman said that as companies seek to crackdown on propaganda, they should prioritize falsehoods spreading in the conflict zone.
“The most imminent harm from propaganda is not to a populace in a foreign country, as much as it is to people getting incited to commit violence in Ukraine against Ukrainians or Russians in Russia who are being told lies,” he said.
Sanctions experts say there’s been little government action to clarify what responsibility tech companies have to remove accounts or posts from people and organizations on the U.S. sanctions list, placing the subject in a legal gray zone. Limiting those communications could run afoul of laws to protect free speech. Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit that has represented former tech company employees and contractors, filed a pair of disclosures in recent months with the Justice Department and Treasury Department, arguing that it was illegal for Facebook parent company Meta to host such content. Those complaints could force the federal government to clarify its positions, especially as the U.S. government turns to unprecedented sanctions to punish Ukraine.
The Russian government and embassies have retained a broad number of accounts across social media platforms, especially Twitter. Twitter has begun labeling government accounts, and it removes individual tweets when they break their rules.
On Twitter, the DNR maintains at least four active accounts, a Post review found. One called @DNR_online_ with 3,600 followers has shared tweets in line with Russian propaganda about the war, referring to Putin’s aggression as “the struggle for independence” and an “operation to liberate Donbass.” The same group maintains at least two active accounts on YouTube.
At least seven individuals targeted by U.S. sanctions appear to have active Twitter accounts, and at least two maintained accounts on YouTube that the company removed Wednesday. Sergey Mikhailovich Mironov, a Russian government official who was sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2014, boasts a verified account on Twitter with more than 270,000 followers. On March 9, he referred to the war as a “special military operation to protect Donbass!” His Twitter page identifies him as a “media personality.”
Oleh Tsaryov, a separatist leader in Ukraine who was sanctioned in 2014, has a verified Twitter account with more than 68,000 followers. He tweeted on Feb. 25 that Ukraine was waiting for “DENAZIFICATION DEMILITARIZATION and DEMOCRATIZATION.”
Jones of Advance Democracy says the companies have a responsibility to label the accounts of sanctioned individuals as Twitter labels Russian government accounts. He said they also need to need to more aggressively monitor the accounts for violations of their terms of service.
“When these accounts spread disinformation or advance their commercial and political interests, aggressive action should be taken,” Jones said.
Craig Timberg contributed to this report.