Proper Gander: The Great Russian Fake Off
Tread carefully if you venture onto YouTube to find out about left-wing ideas. While there are plenty of interesting and lively short films produced by leftists of all persuasions, you can also stumble across mean-spirited uploads from their opponents. A video with a title like ‘triggered snowflake cringe compilation’ or ‘social justice worker fail’ isn’t likely to provide a nuanced, balanced critique of left-wing views. There are dozens of videos like this, posted by smug right-wing outlets, intended to show the left, and especially feminists, as naively misguided. They tend to be selectively-edited clips from vlogs, interviews, and interventions featuring leftists with weak arguments or whose emotions overshadow the point they’re making. Just one example is the uploaded footage of a mostly incoherent heckler at a University of Massachusetts Amherst lecture. When the heckler was nicknamed ‘Trigglypuff’, a meme was born and the video quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of views, shares and (invariably negative) comments.
Something different and more unsettling was going on with a more recent viral video, though. This one showed a woman ‘activist’ pouring diluted bleach over the crotches of men who are ‘manspreading’ while sitting on a Russian tube train. The video provoked thousands of online responses, with many saying that her actions were more of an assault than a protest. But then it was exposed as a fake. One of the men shown getting his trousers soaked told the St Petersburg-based online magazine Bumaga that he and the others were actors hired by a film company, suggested to be one with links to the Kremlin. The video was first posted on In The Now, an English-language social media channel owned by Russia Today, itself state-funded. It might have originated in the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg. Despite its bland-sounding name, this is a ‘troll farm’, which produces propaganda for the Russian state to be spread across social media. Another product of the farm was reportedly the ‘Saiga 410K Review’ video, which caused controversy for apparently showing an American soldier shooting bullets into a copy of the Quran. A BBC investigation in 2015 concluded that the footage was faked, as the uniform wasn’t genuine, and the ‘soldier’ was most likely a St Petersburg barman.
Why would the Russian government produce and distribute staged videos? ‘EU Vs Disinformation’, an anti-Kremlin website run by the EU, claimed the bleach stunt was designed to stir up people against feminism. Its aim would be not only to show feminists in a bad light, but also to increase divisions between people and groups through their responses to it. Similarly, the ‘Saiga 410K Review’ video was made to incite Muslims against America. The filmed acts were seen as extreme, and led to the extreme reactions the producers intended.
This kind of tactic isn’t only linked to the Kremlin. In 2016, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism website reported that the American military had commissioned a British Public Relations firm to produce bogus Al-Qaeda videos. CDs of these were planted by soldiers operating in the Middle East, not only to spread disinformation about Al-Qaeda but also to track where the CDs later turned up.
Making fake propaganda is a dirty enough trick, but a technique allegedly used by the Kremlin to influence the American Presidential Election is even more devious. Their approach here was apparently to create propaganda supporting both Democrats and Republicans, as well as other groups ranging from white supremacists to Black Lives Matter activists. For example, in May 2016, two competing rallies were held in Houston, Texas to protest against and defend the recently opened Library of Islamic Knowledge. Both were organised through Facebook groups later revealed to be accounts from the Internet Research Agency.
This method follows the approach of ‘Political Technologists’, such as Vladislav Surkov, a close ally of President Putin. In Russia, Surkov sponsored fascist groups, anti-fascist groups, and even groups opposed to Putin. Then he let it be known that he was doing this, so that no-one could tell how genuine these organisations were. By simultaneously backing opposing ideologies, the intention isn’t to boost support for any particular one of them, even whichever is more consistent with state policy. Instead, the aim is to stir up confusion and also mistrust, not only of particular groups, but of what’s real. Political Technologists want to manipulate political debate by undermining it. So, exposing the bleach footage as phoney can’t even be seen as a loss for the Kremlin, as this just lays on another layer of cynicism. Cheekily, the video itself includes the caption ‘some say it’s all staged’. If anything, the trend for fake videos can be a useful lesson, a reminder that it pays to be sceptical.