Men walk past a residential building damaged by shelling in the city of Chernihiv on March 4, 2022 (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)
A Kremlin-backed media outlet masquerading as a left-wing news source has spent the last week racking up likes and shares on its viral content designed to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine.If you’ve spent much time on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram over the last week consuming content about the war in Ukraine, you’ve probably come across a map showing locations of airstrikes around the world.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
The map, which shows Europe, parts of the Middle East and Africa, highlights airstrikes over “the last 48 hours” in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. The post warns viewers not to forget about wars happening elsewhere in the world: “Don’t let the mainstream media’s Eurocentrism dictate your moral support for victims of war. A human life is a human life. Condemn war everywhere,” it reads.
Posted just hours after Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine last week, it quickly went viral. Over the next few days, the post was shared by thousands of accounts across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.Left-leaning accounts that visibly support progressive causes like Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights were the majority of those sharing the image. All of them ignored the obvious issues with the map, like the fact Russia played a significant role in bombings in Syria. Instead, they earnestly urged their followers not to forget about wars happening in parts of the world that are not Ukraine.What none of them pointed out, and likely none of them even knew, is that the image had been created by the Kremlin.The image was first posted on Feb. 24 (the day Russia invaded) by Redfish, a Berlin-based media company that uses the tagline “Objective, but not neutral.” It brands itself as a community-based organization standing up for the little guy. A scroll through Redfish’s social media feeds for the last week shows a series of images and videos clearly designed for sharing by a left-wing audience; posts about African refugees stuck at the Ukrainian border, video footage of the Kyiv TV tower being hit by Russian missiles, or a video of students in Texas yelling “Fuck these fascists!” at an anti-trans candidate for the state House, make Redfish look like this is just another progressive media company pandering to liberals.
But, as the Daily Beast first exposed in 2018, the company is actually just another front for the Kremlin’s propaganda division. It’s staffed by former employees of the state-run outlet Russia Today (RT), which also broadcasts most of the company’s longer-form video output. (The production company that runs RT American shut down and laid off all its employees on Thursday.) Despite this exposé, and even though social media companies have labeled it a Russia state-controlled entity, Redfish has continued to grow in the last four years, with over 1.4 million combined social media followers and a string of viral hits to its name.“Some experts call this media outlet a revolutionary way of doing propaganda, and in some ways, I agree with this assessment,” Lukas Andriukaitis, the associate director at Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told VICE News. “Not only is the propaganda politically ideological on one side, coherent, subtle, and rather well-produced, but it is also not openly showing any direct links to the Kremlin.”Scratch the surface of Redfish’s social feed and you’ll see more posts like the airstrikes map described above. There’s the supercut of Western TV journalists saying how terrible it was that a “civilized country” like Ukraine was being invaded rather than, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. While there’s no doubt that the journalists making those comments were wrong, Redfish’s aim in producing the video—which has been viewed 400,000 times on Twitter alone—was the same as that of the “Airstrikes” map: to deflect criticism away from the Kremlin.
“That Redfish [content] is everywhere and really forming the backbone of many people's opinion toward Ukraine,” Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst who tracks disinformation and extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News. “This tactic can be very effective as it conceals who is behind the content, the information it contains, and the perception it’s trying to create. In this instance, the [‘Airstrikes’ map] was a classic case of ‘whataboutism.’”Whataboutism, the tactic of bringing up the crimes or misdeeds of one group by reminding people about the crimes or misdeeds of another, is a tactic Putin himself employed back in 2014. During racial justice protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Putin directed his state-run media to highlight police brutality toward Black Americans in order to deflect criticism of his human rights record from U.S. lawmakers.It’s a tactic that Russia routinely rolls out, according to Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling and author of a forthcoming book about the war of narratives in Syria.Ahmad told VICE News that what Redfish is doing is tapping into people’s desire to have their preconceived notions about how the world works reinforced.“What skillful propagandists do is find people’s prejudices and leverage them to advance their own message,” Ahmad said. “In most cases, the propagandized individual is an inadvertent carrier of such messages. But even where they know, they are often willing to be dupes, because they think they are sharing something that they believe anyway.”
And what makes this tactic so successful is that the injustice it refers to is often not imagined.“The hypocrisy being alluded to is often real, and can trigger righteous fury in the audience,” Ahmad said. “But they are duped because the aim is not to generate greater sympathy for a different conflict but to deflect attention from the one at hand.”And that deflection has results: Since Redfish originally posted its Airstrikes maps across all its social channels on Feb. 24, the likes and views have poured in. On its Instagram account, which has 480,000 followers, the post has already racked up over 450,000 likes and almost 4,000 comments. There are multiple other versions of the map image being shared on Instagram currently, some of which have thousands of likes.On Facebook, where Redfish’s page has over 800,000 followers, the post featuring the map image has 1,000 shares, and over 1,500 likes. While these metrics are nowhere near as high as the post on Instagram, a search on the Facebook-owned analytics tool Crowdtangle for keywords like “airstrikes,” “48 hours,” and “condemn every war” shows that the image has been shared by hundreds of different accounts. In total, Crowdtangle data shows that over the past week, these posts have been shared and interacted with hundreds of thousands of times.Those sharing the image range from the Libertarian Party of Kentucky to a fan page dedicated to Norman Finkelstein, the American Jewish scholar considered one of the world’s leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the political legacy of the Holocaust.
AsoOmii Jay also shared the post. Jay has 410,000 Facebook followers and describes herself as “a Canadian Muslim public figure, cancer survivor, and entrepreneur, who is known for her humanitarian work in refugee camps around the world.”Jay did not immediately respond when VICE News asked if she knew that the post she shared came from a Kremlin-backed entity.The map has also been shared widely on Twitter, and even when the image itself is not shared, users have taken the contents of the post and tweeted; many of these tweets include the hashtag #condemneverywar. The map has also been shared widely on Tumblr, Reddit, and TikTok, where several videos featuring the map have tens of thousands of views.And just like Facebook and Instagram, the accounts that are sharing it appear to be real—not bots or Russian trolls—and are overwhelmingly accounts signalling their left-leaning political viewpoint.According to social media analytics tool Social Blade, the Redfish Instagram account has gained over 50,000 new followers in just three days after it posted the “Airstrikes” map.Still, the consensus that has emerged in recent days is that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin are losing the information war over Ukraine. Russia’s efforts to stage false flag operations to create a pretext for war have been easily debunked by a ready-and-willing open source community that is debunking disinformation in real time.
Elsewhere, big tech companies are finally getting around to censoring Russia’s state-backed propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik, though only after the European Union effectively forced them to do so.But, despite the social media companies’ steps to restrict Kremlin-backed disinformation, Redfish has continued to grow and has seen its content shared widely by its followers. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram did not immediately respond to VICE News’ requests for comment on what steps, if any, they were taking to stop or slow the spread of such viral content.The three platforms have all labeled Redfish as a “Russia state-controlled media” organization and users who click on a link from their Facebook page or try and share one of their posts, are greeted with the following message: “This link is from a publisher Facebook believes may be partially or wholly under the editorial control of the Russian government.”If you try to Like the page, Facebook tells you: “This Page has shared posts that violate our Community Standards.”But Redfish continues to thrive. The company told VICE News that it would only agree to respond to questions if we guaranteed we would publish the answer in full. When VICE News explained we could not make that guarantee before seeing their response, Redfish co-founder Hüseyin Dogru did not respond further. In an update posted Wednesday night, the company warned it was expecting further restrictions being put in place. “YouTube just banned our page within Europe. This is a blatant attack on freedom of speech that sets a dangerous precedent. Instagram has already shadowbanned our account, and we expect a full ban on all platforms soon. But remember how it ended last time for totalitarianism in Europe.”If the company is kicked off mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where it has a cumulative total of 1.45 million followers, it will be left to rebuild its audience on platforms like Telegram, where it currently has only 2,500 followers. Redfish also just launched a new TikTok page, which has only a few hundred followers.So far, Redfish has managed to stay under the radar by hiding in plain sight, pretending to be a progressive media group. This type of organic, grassroots campaign where real people are pushing a narrative created by the Kremlin is incredibly effective and, at the same time, difficult to counter.“Stopping this is a tough challenge as this kind of coverage is often based on real events,” O’Connor said. “It’s essential that platforms continue to label state-affiliated news organisations as such, so that at least users can be aware that the content they’re viewing or engaging with may originate or be linked to government agencies, including content that may aim to deceive or mislead users—though when a report [or] graphic goes viral outside the main account, this itself becomes a challenge.”Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.