Chris Pavlovski, the Canadian founder and CEO of social media platform Rumble.Handout

Russian state media RT is boosting its presence on a Canadian video-sharing site after major social media companies blocked or limited content from the Kremlin-controlled network.

Since March 1, RT has more than quadrupled its subscriber count on Toronto-based Rumble Inc., a YouTube competitor that markets itself as a “neutral” platform committed to defending free speech. On Twitter, RT recently encouraged followers to subscribe to his Rumble channel. “They can block social media, but they can’t block the truth,” reads the tweet. (Twitter calls RT a media outlet affiliated with the Russian state and has taken steps to reduce the visibility of these tweets.)

Western governments largely view RT as a Russian propaganda outlet. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, YouTube first blocked access to RT in Europe, then later extended the ban to include Russian state-funded media globally. YouTube also has a policy prohibiting content “denying, minimizing or trivializing well-documented violent events” in connection with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Meta Platforms, owner of Facebook, restricted access to RT in the European Union after receiving requests from numerous governments and globally downgraded Russian state media content on Facebook and Instagram.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission also ruled in March that RT and its French version could no longer be legally broadcast by television providers, a decision backed by federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez. The CRTC said it was “concerned about programming from a foreign country that seeks to undermine another country’s sovereignty, demean Canadians of a particular ethnicity, and undermine democratic institutions.”

At least some viewers have turned to RT’s account on Rumble, where he’s been uploading content since March 2021. RT’s following is small, with 45,000 subscribers – he previously had millions of subscribers on YouTube – but he doesn’t only had about 10,000 subscribers shortly after the war started. RT also promotes his account on another alternative video site called Odysee, where he has 39,000 subscribers.

Invited to comment, Rumble screenshots posted emails from a Globe and Mail reporter to the company on Twitter and included a statement. “There’s a reason the public has turned dramatically against both corporate media (such as your outlet) and Big Tech: because you arrogantly claimed decision-making power for the public. what information he can and cannot hear,” the statement read in part.

Rumble added that it thrives because “we trust adults to make decisions for themselves about what ideas they can express.”

RT recently posted videos claiming Russian forces had ‘liberated’ a Ukrainian village, and another denying Russian links to civilian deaths in Bucha, where Ukrainian authorities have accused Russians of committing war crimes. . “Russia couldn’t have behaved this way,” a reporter says in the clip.

“The constant stream of misrepresentations pushed by RT and others is designed to blur the lines between reliable and unreliable information, helping to undermine Western solidarity,” said Imran Ahmed, director general of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a non-British Brit. profit. “Rumble does [Vladimir] Putin has great favor connecting his users to a constant stream of Kremlin lies and propaganda.

Rumble was founded in 2013 by Chris Pavlovski to compete with YouTube, but it remained a small player that featured mostly pet and baby videos. Beginning in 2020, he quickly developed a following with right-wing American politicians and commentators who felt that YouTube’s content moderation policies were biased against conservatives and overly restrictive. Some prominent Rumble figures have been banned from other platforms, such as former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Viewership has exploded since 2020, from around one million monthly active users to 44.3 million in March, according to the company. With its newfound popularity, Rumble has presented itself as a champion of free speech that only takes a lighthearted approach to content moderation. (Its terms of service note that the company filters out hate speech and content that promotes terrorism.) Rumble is currently merging with a special purpose acquisition company backed by Cantor Fitzgerald at a US$2.1 billion valuation and will be listed on the Nasdaq.

Since the start of the war, some Rumble users have posted videos reflecting Russian propaganda. An account owned by prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, for example, uploaded videos claiming that civilian deaths in Bucha were a “false flag” and that atrocities could have been committed by Ukrainian or Western forces to to demonize Russia. Stew Peters, another conspiracy theorist and popular Rumble personality, recently posted a video on his account in which guests play down the atrocities at Bucha and claim that Ukrainians are adopting Mr. Putin as their new leader.

“I don’t think moderation of political or ideological content will ever happen on Rumble because it’s not going to be profitable,” said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studies disinformation. . Rumble’s business model, he added, “is based on fringe groups spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation under the guise of free speech.”

The federal government has taken steps to strengthen oversight of certain aspects of major online platforms. Last year, the Liberal government held consultations on potential legislative and regulatory measures related to harmful online material, including child exploitation, terrorist content and hate speech, and appointed an expert panel to advise on how to incorporate comments.

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