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

Russian state media outlet RT is growing its presence on a Canadian video sharing site after large social-media firms 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 bills itself as a “neutral” platform vowing to uphold free speech. On Twitter, RT recently encouraged followers to subscribe to its Rumble channel. “They can block social networks, but they can’t block the truth,” the tweet reads. (Twitter labels RT as Russian state-affiliated media, and has taken steps to reduce the visibility of such tweets.)

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

Meta Platforms, which owns Facebook, restricted access to RT in the European Union after receiving requests from numerous governments, and globally demoted content from Russian state media on both Facebook and Instagram.

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

At least some viewers have turned to RT’s account on Rumble, where it has been uploading content since March, 2021. RT’s following there is small, with 45,000 subscribers – it previously counted millions of subscribers on YouTube – but it had only about 10,000 followers shortly after the war began. RT is also promoting its account on another alternative video site called Odysee, where it has 39,000 subscribers.

Asked to comment, Rumble posted screenshots of a Globe and Mail reporter’s e-mails to the company on Twitter and included a statement. “There is a reason the public has radically turned against both the corporate media (such as your outlet) and Big Tech: because you have arrogantly claimed for yourselves the power to decide for the public what information they can and cannot be trusted to hear,” the statement reads in part.

Rumble added it is growing 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 could not have behaved in such a way,” a reporter says in the clip.

“The steady stream of false claims pushed by RT and others is designed to blur the lines between trustworthy and untrustworthy information, helping to undermine Western solidarity,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British non-profit. “Rumble is doing [Vladimir] Putin a big favour by hooking its users up to a steady drip feed of Kremlin lies and propaganda.”

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

Viewership has exploded since 2020, surging from about one million monthly active users to 44.3 million in March, according to the company. With its new-found popularity, Rumble has cast itself as a champion of free speech that takes only a light approach to content moderation. (Its terms of service note the company filters for 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 list on the Nasdaq.

Since the war began, some Rumble users have posted videos mirroring Russian propaganda. An account belonging to 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 in order to demonize Russia. Stew Peters, another conspiracy theorist and popular personality on Rumble, recently posted a video to his account in which guests play down the atrocities in Bucha and claim that Ukrainians are embracing Mr. Putin as their new leader.

“I don’t think that moderating political or ideological content will ever happen on Rumble because it won’t be profitable,” said Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University who studies disinformation. Rumble’s business model, he added, “relies on fringe groups who disseminate conspiracy theories and disinformation under the pretext of freedom of expression.”

The federal government has taken steps to bring more oversight to certain aspects of large 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 the feedback.

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