The BBC’s Disinformation Team can reveal that a UK-registered media company is spreading Russian state disinformation to millions of people in the Arab-speaking world.
Yala News claims to offer impartial news, but BBC analysis has shown most of its content directly mirrors stories on Russian state-backed media sites – and that it actually operates out of Syria.
Yala Group, the parent company of Yala News, has a strong social presence. It’s 20 or so Facebook pages are glossy and well-produced. Slick videos are uploaded every couple of hours, focusing on stories likely to be of interest to its three million Arabic-speaking followers: celebrity interviews, comedy sketches, and global politics.
The reviews on Yala News state its impartial, independent credentials. But look closely and there’s a theme: stories with a distinctly pro-Russian angle, many virtually identical to those seen on Russian state media the same day.
Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its posts began to gain traction.
Here’s an example: on 10 March 2022, Russian state TV aired a bizarre, and completely fictitious, story claiming the US was using birds as bioweapons, to distribute deadly diseases as they flew into Russia. That afternoon, the story was translated and published on Russian state-backed networks Sputnik Arabic and Russia Today (RT) Arabic. Two hours later, it was posted as a video on Yala News’s Facebook page – with some of the wording identical.
The bio-bird story is just one. Working with disinformation specialists over the course of a year, the BBC monitored Yala News’s most-viewed videos and found that nearly all of its stories could be traced back to Kremlin-owned and pro-Kremlin news sites. These include fake stories claiming the Bucha massacre was staged, President Zelensky was ‘drunk’ in a video addressing Ukraine, and Ukrainian soldiers have been fleeing the frontline. All of these originated in Russian state media, followed a few hours later by videos of the same stories on Yala News.
Belén Carrasco Rodríguez, who researches Russian influence operations for the Centre for Information Resilience in the UK, says Yala News is acting as a “Kremlin loudspeaker” in the Middle East.
She says the timeframe and similarities in their stories suggest Yala could be “information laundering” for Russia: pumping out propaganda through a third party so it doesn’t look like it’s from the Kremlin. It’s something Russia’s been known to do in the past.
“Because of Yala’s popularity [with] Arabic audiences, Kremlin-affiliated sources might be using it to spread their interests,” she says.
Ruarigh Thornton, from cyber security firm Protection Group International, says information laundering is becoming increasingly common, as people are more aware of Russian state-sponsored media.
“The idea is to ‘wash’ slightly inauthentic narratives into the mainstream. By hiring something like a digital marketing firm to produce this type of content for them, the information appears to be totally disconnected from Russia, and can then move organically in the real world,” he says.
Yala News is part of Yala Group, which describes itself as a “company working in the field of visual production on social networking sites”. But the rest of the operation doesn’t appear as slick as its social sites. Yala Group’s website consists mainly of dummy text and stock photos. Most of its five star reviews on Facebook look fake, written on the same dates by the same accounts from south east Asia, where paid-for Facebook reviews are known to be big business.
Two typical reviews describe Yala News as “neutral, objective and professional” and “a wonderful, honest, transparent and purposeful news platform”.
Moustafa Ayad, from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, disagrees: “It reeks of well-coordinated behaviour,” he says. He believes the fact that Yala News publishes so many bespoke videos every day, each following the same format, could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Yala Group is registered in the UK. Its address in Bloomsbury, central London, is shared with more than 65,000 other companies, 12,000 of which are active. But the company has no staff or physical offices there.
We suspected Yala was operating out of Syria, a country devastated by civil conflict, whose ruler Bashar al-Assad is a long-time ally of Russia. Russia has provided arms for pro-Assad forces during 12 years of civil war.
Using local knowledge and geolocation techniques, we sourced Facebook photos showing the team and its offices to a leafy Damascus suburb. Most of their social profiles say they’re based in the Syrian capital. A former employee confirmed it.
Yala’s clients include pro-regime Syrian celebrities and journalists. This picture shows state TV reporter Shadi Halwi, a client of Yala Group, posing with sanctioned Syrian businessmen, the Katerji brothers. Mr Halwi owns a radio station which is funded by the Katerjis.
Another Yala client is Sham FM, a pro-regime radio station that has aired programmes made by Sputnik Arabic, part of Russia’s state radio network.
Syrian media experts at BBC Monitoring say pro-government, private media outlets are “often owned by business figures with close links to the political and military establishment.”
Experts suggest the UK registration could be to avoid Yala being seen as run from a sanctioned country, which would allow it to build business relationships with platforms like Facebook’s parent company Meta.
In fact, the owner of one of Yala Group’s Facebook pages recently posted about becoming an official Meta ‘Business Partner’, meaning its social media marketing services come recommended.
When we approached Meta, they denied this. They said they requested that Yala remove all references to being a Meta ‘Business Partner’.
So, who is behind Yala News?
We tracked down Yala’s CEO Ahmad Moemna, a Syrian businessman living in Dubai.
“Yala Group is a UK-based company,” he told the BBC. “We have more than 500 clients including public figures, artists and talent. We do not have employees in London yet, but we could in the near future.”
We asked him about the pro-Kremlin videos on Yala News. He said: “Yala News content is not biased. Whether Syria or Russia or anything else, we respect impartiality.”
Then, we asked if his business received funding from the Russian or Syrian governments.
“I am the only funder and founder of Yala and no-one can influence me,” he said.
We asked Companies House about the UK registration. A spokesperson said they “don’t comment on individual companies” and have “no legal powers to verify or validate the information which is delivered.”
A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, said it works with third-party fact-checkers to fight the spread of misinformation on its platforms./BBC/