Russian media cries censorship as RT-funded viral videos pulled from Facebook

Russian media cries censorship as RT-funded viral videos pulled from Facebook

19 February 2019

Social media giant Facebook has blocked viral video outlet In The Now from its platform following US media reports linking it to Russian government-funded news brand RT.

The online outlet, which targets left-leaning millenials with a mobile-friendly mix of social justice, niche science stories, and feel-good clips, is 51 per cent owned by Ruptly, an RT subsidiary. The other 49 per cent of the company, which had gathered roughly four million Facebook followers, is owned by Maffick Media, headed by former RT presenter Anissa Naouai.

While links between the two news brands are common knowledge in the media sphere, Facebook’s decision to ban the outlet coincided with a report by US heavyweight CNN, which spotlighted In The Now’s funding to a wider audience amid ongoing worries about Russian interference in the country’s 2016 elections.

Writing on Twitter, Naouai said that Facebook had laid down two conditions for the page to be reactivated, asking that the location of the page’s managers be made public, and for the page to change its description to disclose its Russian funding. She described the decision as “an attack on free speech.”

In a statement, Maffick Media said that they had been “singled out”, accusing Facebook of pandering to a “new McCarthyism.”

“Similarly to NPR, PBS, BBC, DW, CBC, AJ+ and many other media companies, Maffick is supported in part by government funding,” the statement says. “Likewise while we haven’t posted funding details on our Facebook pages etc, neither have any of our international peers. Yet on Friday February 15th Facebook took our pages, with literally millions of fans, off line. Why single us out? One reason and one reason only: The government that helps fund our company is Russia.”

Facebook rules do not require organisations to disclose information about their parent companies on their accounts — but the company said it was important that everyday users were not “misled” about who was behind certain pages.

“Just as we’ve stepped up our enforcement of coordinated inauthentic behaviour and financially motivated spam over the past year, we’ll continue improving so people can get more information about the Pages they follow,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

Facebook’s move follows an announcement on 17 January that the company had blocked 364 pages which also concealed their links to the Russian state. The company said that the accounts, which covered everything from sport to the weather across Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia, had presented themselves as independent actors, but were actually organised and managed by Sputnik, a subsidiary of another Kremlin-backed media group, Rossiya Segodnya. In its statement, Facebook said that some of the pages had “frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption.”

In The Now, which recently launched new Instagram and YouTube channels, generally steers clear of global politics, instead focusing on social problems across the US. Its sister page, Soapbox — which has also been blocked — often produces clips critical of Washington’s foreign policy, with some views echoing those held by top Moscow officials. Ongoing unrest in Venezuela and the Gillets Jaunes movement in France were both popular topics, with one post on 27 January suggesting that the United States had “ordered a coup” in Caracas.

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