YouTube ran advertisements featuring confession videos published by Belarusian authorities of detained journalist and activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, according to a number of people on social media. Protasevich and Sapega were captured by Belarus security officials on Sunday after their flight to Lithuania from Greece was intercepted. In a video released the next day — which Protasevich’s father said was clearly made under distress — the activist admitted to helping organize anti-government protests in Belarus last year. Government officials also released a similar video of Sapega.
The YouTube advertisements appear to have been purchased by a pro-government channel with less than 2,000 subscribers called “Беларусь – страна для жизни,” which translates to “Belarus, country for life.” The channel has published a number of viral videos about Belarus and its logo features the Belarusian presidential flag. Rest of World didn’t find specific evidence connecting the channel to the Belarusian government, which is led by authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Screenshots posted online suggest the ads displayed Protasevich’s confession video to viewers and directed them to a pro-government Telegram channel with almost 80,000 subscribers. At least one person on Twitter also reported seeing another ad from the same channel featuring Sapega’s confession tape. A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said the company had identified both of the ads and took action against them according to its inappropriate content policy.
“YouTube has always had strict policies around the type of content that is allowed to serve as ads on our platform,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We quickly remove any ads that violate these policies.” YouTube generally allows advertisers to run political ads, but its rules around inappropriate content prohibit those that “single out someone for abuse or harassment; content that suggests a tragic event did not happen, or that victims or their families are actors, or complicit in a cover-up of the event.”
The advertisements raise questions about YouTube’s ability to effectively moderate how its platform may be used to amplify questionable content in ads. YouTube has long struggled to rid its platform of videos that promote misinformation and hate, but it’s been less scrutinized for hosting advertisements that include such information. In 2019, the company was criticized for choosing to leave up a misleading ad purchased by the campaign of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief of NEXTA, the independent media organization Protasevich previously worked for, said on Twitter that Belarus officials have long used YouTube advertisements to spread propaganda. “Fun fact: for almost a year Belarusian state news agency BelTA has been using hostage videos like the one with Roman Protasevich as paid ads on YouTube with links to their network of pro-govt telegram channels,” he wrote. “We tried everything but YouTube says there’s nothing wrong about it.” Giczan did not immediately respond to repeated requests for comment.
Last year, several people complained online about YouTube advertisements promoting Belarusian government propaganda seemingly from the same channel. YouTube did not immediately answer follow-up questions about whether it had previously taken action against the “Belarus, country for life” account.
Protasevich, 26, has protested against Lukashenko’s rule since he was a teenager and was labeled a terrorist by the government last year. That summer, demonstrators in Belarus poured into the streets to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election, which was widely suspected to have been rigged in Lukashenko’s favor. Security forces violently cracked down on the demonstrations and disrupted access to the internet.
At the time, Protasevich served as the editor-in-chief of NEXTA, which Rest of World noted “was one of the only news sources sharing live footage from Belarus that remained accessible.”