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  • Francesca Gentile

Indonesian News Outlet Promotes Russian Narratives on YouTube

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

By Francesca Gentile


A joint CIR investigation finds that last year’s YouTube award for the most-viewed news channel in Indonesia was handed out to a channel spreading pro-Russian dis- and misinformation.



CIR has redacted most links due to privacy concerns and to avoid amplifying harmful content. Upon request, CIR can share any relevant data.


In collaboration with Remotivi, Internews, Narasi and a team of researchers, the Centre for Information Resilience investigated how Tribun Timur, a popular Indonesian YouTube channel*, is spreading pro-Russian narratives and official Russian government content. Our work stems from an OSINT workshop organised by Internews and run by CIR earlier this year.


We analysed videos from Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel, posted between 1 June 2022 and 25 June 2023. Over 14,000 videos were collected from YouTube; however, to limit the dataset, only those with pro-Russian narratives in the title were analysed (approximately 8,000 videos). Additionally, further analysis was carried out on the comment section of the most viewed and engaged with video on the channel. Over 10,000 comments were downloaded, translated and analysed. The comment section was analysed because researchers noticed the presence of several comments written in Cyrillic, further amplifying pro-Russian and anti-Ukranian narratives.  


Our investigation found that:


  • Tribun Timur, a local Indonesian news outlet, shared videos with pro-Russian narratives. Most of the content (videos, images and screenshots of posts) was taken from pro-Russian Telegram channels, the accounts of Russian ministries, like the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), and also Russian news agencies or state-controlled news television networks, such as Ria Novosti and Russia Today (RT).

  • Preliminary research revealed that before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Tribun Timur rarely shared content related to Russia or geopolitical issues. Post February 2022, the news outlet provided regular general updates on the situation in Ukraine, in stark contrast to its previous content. 

  • Several months after the full-scale invasion, however, Tribun Timur started sharing progressively more content on the invasion, shifting the focus from normal updates to promoting Russian narratives. Between 1 June 2022 and 25 June 2023, more than half of the content shared on Tribun Timur’s YouTube consisted of videos on the war in Ukraine.

  • The most common themes among the videos featuring pro-Russian narratives were undermining the Ukrainian army and glorifying the Russian army. 


Who is Tribun Timur?


Tribun Timur is an Indonesian news outlet that is a subsidiary of Kompas Gramedia, the leading media company in the country. Although the Kompas Gramedia network consists of different news outlets, Tribun Timur posts considerably more pro-Russian content than other news outlets owned by Kompas Gramedia.


Tribun Timur owns a website, accounts on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook and Instagram, and also a YouTube channel — the latter is the most popular (calculated by viewership) and most engaged with (calculated by interactions) social media platform. On all of these platforms, Tribun Timur shares content solely in Bahasa, the national language of Indonesia. The content published across these different platforms differs in nature. The articles published on the website are mostly related to local and country-wide affairs as well as some general updates on the Russia-Ukraine war. 


On X (formerly Twitter), the Tribun Timur account shares quasi-daily posts to its 215k followers. The content is normally in relation to local news, with links to articles on the website. Similarly, content on Russia and Ukraine will consist of a caption and a link to the article on the website. Videos from its YouTube channel are very rarely shared on X (formerly Twitter) and despite having over 215k followers and sharing daily content, the engagement on X (formerly Twitter) is extremely low. Posts rarely receive more than 10 likes and occasionally receive more than 1,000 views. 


On Instagram, Tribun Timur’s account has over 209k followers and more than 23,000 posts. The account usually shares reels on the videos that are published on YouTube, with very similar descriptions of the videos as well. Compared to YouTube, however, the engagement on Instagram is low, with posts rarely reaching more than 50 likes. The news sites’ Facebook page has more than 1.5 million followers and over 796k likes. It shares daily posts on local matters as well as the reels found on its Instagram account. 


Of Tribun Timur’s social media accounts, the one that receives the most engagement is its YouTube channel. The following sections of this report will cover the content shared on YouTube, the types of Russian narratives being promoted through the videos, the original sources of the videos shared on the channel and the comment section for the most viewed video within the dataset (featuring comments in Cyrillic).  


Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel


Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel (screenshot below) has over 7 million subscribers and more than 50k videos. The channel releases daily videos with Russian narratives and shares local news.


Figure 1: a screenshot of Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel, showing a couple of videos on local news and one related to Russia’s full-scale invasion. 


Preliminary research revealed that before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, very little pro-Russia content was shared on Tribun Timur’s social media pages. Following the invasion, the news outlet started to share videos and articles on Russia; however, the content mostly provided general updates about the invasion. 


This investigation identified a total of 8,421 videos with pro-Russian narratives that were shared on Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel between 1 June 2022 and 25 June 2023. During this period, only 6,183 videos were published on local news issues. The graphs below show the volume and relationship between the videos published on the war in Ukraine and those on local news issues between June 2022 and June 2023. Overall, more than half of the content shared on YouTube consisted of videos on the war in Ukraine (57.7%), while only 42.3% was on local news issues.


Figures 2 & 3: (left) graph showing the relationship between the volume of content shared between June 2022 and June 2023; (right) graph showing the percentages of the type of content shared on Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel. 


The total number of views is also significantly different. Within our dataset, videos on the Russia-Ukraine war received more than 1.4 billion views in total, while videos on local issues only 440 million views. This demonstrates that videos with pro-Russian narratives are more viewed than videos on local news matters.

 

Pro-Russian narratives on YouTube


The two most common themes among the videos featuring pro-Russian narratives focused on undermining the Ukrainian army and glorifying the Russian army by using emotive language. For example, some of the videos mentioned the Russian army “beating Ukrainian soldiers in combat” or “Ukrainian soldiers running to avoid Russian attacks” or the “heroic actions of Russian soldiers during the war”. 


In the examples below, the captions, written in Bahasa, use emotive language when talking about the Russian army. In figure 4, the video’s caption translated literally reads “Make Goosebumps! Explosion of Russian Grenades Kills Ukrainian Soldiers Lying around”. By using the term ‘Bikin Merinding’ (or making/giving goosebumps), Tribun Timur is emphasising to its viewers that this event is noteworthy. 


In figure 5, the video’s caption, when translated literally, reads “The Ukrainian military lost heavily in Bakhmut, a number of soldiers were no longer able to fight”. The Bahasa word for ‘heavily’ has emotive connotations and by using it, Tribun Timur glorifies the Russian army and undermines the Ukrainian one. 


Figures 4 & 5: (left) video taken from Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel that reads “Make goosebumps! Explosion of Russian Grenades Kills Ukrainian Soldiers Lying around”; (right) another video taken from Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel that reads “The Ukrainian military lost heavily in Bakhmut, a number of soldiers were no longer able to fight”.


Most of the videos shared by the news outlet on YouTube show explosions carried out by the Russian army and military equipment. Below are two more examples of the types of videos shared on YouTube. While the video on the left describes how Ukrainian tanks are powerless against Russian ones, the video on the right talks about the greatness of the Russian Air defence system and how it has not yet been used in Ukraine. Once again, the aim of Tribun Timur is to glorify Russia and undermine Ukraine. 


Figures 6 & 7: (left) video taken from Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel that reads “The Battle of Russian vs Ukrainian Tanks, Ukrainian Tanks are Powerless Against Russian Tanks”; (right) another video taken from Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel that reads “The Greatness of the S-400 Russian Air Defence System, but not yet used in Ukraine”.


Russian sources & disinformation


Most of the content within Tribun Timur’s videos has been copied and pasted from other social media accounts, most notably Telegram channels. The original source is sometimes provided, either explicitly in the video — for example, their watermarks are visible, as seen from the examples below — or cited in the video’s description. 


By analysing the sources, this investigation revealed that the content comes from: Russian ministries, like the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD); Russian news agencies or state-controlled news television networks such as Ria Novosti and Russia Today (RT); and other pro-Russian Telegram channels. 


Figure 8: an example of the sources that Tribun Timur uses in its videos


Tribun Timur shares content taken from Telegram without verifying the information, ultimately amplifying dis/misinformation. For example, whilst going through Tribun Timur’s pro-Russian videos, investigators found that the news outlet had amplified a video with an incorrect and misleading caption. 


Tribun Timur shared a video with the caption which translates to “Action, a pair of Russian helicopters caught fire on Ukrainian tanks” and described the video as being a “recording show[ing] a pair of Russian helicopters shooting at Ukrainian tanks” (screenshot below). 


Figure 9: a screenshot of the video shared by Tribun Timur.

The caption reads: “Action, a pair of Russian helicopters caught fire on Ukrainian tanks”


In the video description, Tribun Timur mentioned that the video “was widely circulated on Telegram”. Researchers were able to find the video posted by a pro-Russian Telegram account and discovered a post with a similar caption to the one provided by Tribun Timur (screenshot below).  


Figure 10: a screenshot of the pro-Russia Telegram account from which Tribun Timur copied the video and caption. 


By searching through Google Images, investigators were able to identify the original source of the video. The original video was posted in August 2022 by a user (who has over 102k subscribers) on his personal YouTube channel with the caption “Russian tank vs Apache gunship helicopter”. In the video description, the user mentions that the recording comes from a training exercise showing a Russian military tank being attacked by an Apache helicopter. 


In the original video, a military officer is sitting on a bench watching the demonstration — something that is not visible in the video shared by the Telegram channel and by Tribun Timur. This analysis reveals that the Telegram channel shared misleading information, which decontextualised the event and portrayed it as a plausible real incident, and was then amplified by Tribun Timur.


Pro-Russian comments under YouTube videos


Under most of the videos with pro-Russian narratives shared on Tribun Timur’s YouTube, comments glorifying Russia appeared in the comment sections. Many of these comments were written in Cyrillic instead of English or Bahasa. 


Out of the 8,421 videos collected with explicit pro-Russian narratives, the most viewed and engaged with video was further analysed by investigators in order to better understand the comments left by viewers. The video, titled “Intense Battle of Lisichansk, Ukrainian Troops Scattered Under Attack by Fighter Jets and Mortars”, was published on 23 November 2022 and has over 13 million views and more than 10,000 comments (screenshot below).


Figure 11: a screenshot of the most viewed and engaged with video on Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel. 


As seen from the graph below, over 58% of the comments were in Cyrillic, while only 40% in Bahasa or English.


Figure 12: graph showing the percentages of languages used in the comment section. 


Most of the comments mentioned pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian narratives, by glorifying and supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Below are a couple of examples of the type of comments found in the comment section of the video. 


Figures 13, 14, & 15: (above-left) screenshot of a comment that translated literally reads “God grant victory to our fighters. Glory to Russia”; (above-right) screenshot of a comment that translated literally reads “Fuck the ending! Glory to the Great Russian Empire!!!”; (below) screenshot of a comment that translated literally reads: “Glory to Russia. Victory is ours.” 


Conclusion 


This investigation aimed to look at the presence of Russian influence in Indonesia's information environment. By looking at the type of content shared by Tribun Timur, a local news outlet in Indonesia, this investigation identified several videos containing pro-Russian narratives. The videos shared by Tribun Timur seek to undermine Ukraine and glorify Russia. When sharing these videos, Tribun Timur is ultimately amplifying pro-Russian content on YouTube as well as strengthening and normalising pro-Russian narratives on the invasion. 


As mentioned throughout the investigation, more than half of the videos on Tribun Timur’s YouTube channel are on Russia and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In addition, videos with pro-Russian narratives are more viewed than videos on local news matters. Thus it comes as no surprise that in August 2022, Tribun Timur won the YouTube award for the most viewed news channel in Indonesia. Winning this award sets a dangerous precedent as it shows that YouTube did not review Tribun Timur’s content before handing out the reward.


Further research could be carried out in terms of exploring any potential connection between Tribun Timur and Russia as well as also looking at the consequences these videos have on the Indonesian population. 




Francesca Gentile is an Open-Source researcher at the Centre for Information Resilience, specialising in disinformation narratives, social media monitoring, information operations and far-right extremism.

 

*Additional research carried out by Remotivi has resulted in a different data sample. The overall analysis, however, remains the same between reports.



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