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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Reduce, reuse, Russia state-controlled media

Take five minutes to think before you share

Anyone who has spent five minutes on Instagram has seen clickbaity infographics advertising the “real” truth about social justice issues. Often, whether they’re true or not, these stories will run their course across people’s stories for a few days before disappearing. These posts spread like wildfire, but have you ever considered who’s behind these pieces?  

Last year, as part of an initiative to combat misinformation and increase transparency on their platforms, Facebook began labelling state controlled media. This included a variety of news outlets, from Iran’s Press TV to Russia’s Sputnik News. This decision has been met with considerable backlash from the corporations affected. In fact, Maffick Media filed a lawsuit in California against Facebook to remove the label from their various accounts, which was promptly rejected in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. 

Waste-Ed, a sustainability account with 325,000 followers, is among multiple popular accounts labeled by Facebook as “Russia state-controlled media.” But what does this actually mean? Waste-Ed, along with at least two other popular accounts, are run by Maffick Media. The majority stakeholder in Maffick’s company is Ruptly, a subsidiary of RT (formerly known as Russia Today). RT is state-sponsored media from the Russian government. 

At this point, you might be wondering what the harm is in having an Instagram account that shares stories of environmental victories and emphasizes reducing plastic waste. This seems relatively harmless on the surface, and the message is hard to argue with. Despite this, critics of the accounts argue that they are part of an ongoing strategy by the Russian government to escalate the polarizing political atmosphere in the U.S.. Rather than directly spread misinformation, the accounts instead criticize American foreign policy and Western companies. Another part of this tactic is to provide a platform for fringe viewpoints or relatively un-reported media to discredit the mainstream media and American culture.

“The Russian objective is to create an illusion of deep-seated divisions between people like you and people who aren’t like you so that you won’t be able to agree on anything.The Russians don’t particularly care about the details of our social and political issues when they are trolling Americans,” said Merek N. Possard, a military sociologist, in a group Op-Ed in the LA Times last summer. “Their focus is to gin people up to be against one another regardless of their identity or political beliefs. That’s why Russia tries to infiltrate groups of both Black Lives Matter and white nationalists online.”

Despite these obvious tactics, some progressives argue that this isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it sounds. Funding to the media comes from a variety of sources, and in most cases, the messages aren’t necessarily untrue. Even if the criticism of various policies focus almost exclusively on the U.S., it does not mean that they aren’t valid. 

“Working for In the Now, or working for Soapbox, or Maffick, is not an endorsement of the policies of its sponsors, just like working for CNN is not an endorsement of the pharmaceutical companies or weapons companies that play advertisements on CNN,” said  Rania Khalek, an American journalist working for Maffick’s Soapbox in an interview with CNN in 2019. “Or just like working for the BBC or Al-Jazeera is not an endorsement of the policies of the British government or in Al Jazeera’s case, Qatar’s absolute monarchy.”

The U.S. has a long history of hysteria related to Russia, stemming from the American public’s fears of communism spreading abroad in the 20th century. Labelling leftist policies as communist is not a new tactic for conservatives, but this is a different situation. Russia state-controlled media is launching an effective propaganda campaign to intensify tensions between the left and the right. 

I’m not saying every infographic about social injustice is necessarily bad or some kind of Russian propaganda campaign to get you to argue with your neighbor. I’m just asking you to think carefully about what you are endorsing by sharing certain posts or articles. I know it’s tempting to repost anything, but doing your own research is actually important. So next time you’re mindlessly scrolling and work yourself into a fit about something, just take a moment and think. That’s all I’m asking.

Written by: Joe Sweeney — jmsweeney@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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