By Paul Siksnis
AT THIS POINT, we’ve all probably seen at least one piece of Russian propaganda material. When we think of it, we most likely visualize Vladimir Putin’s speeches, a news report made by one of the Russian state-owned media companies, a song made by a Kremlin-backed singer, or something else along those lines. In other words, Russian propaganda is often perceived as something that can easily be detected and judged for what it is. However, that’s hardly the case, as it alongside its “traditional” formats has developed into a more sophisticated, subtle phenomenon. To illustrate this, we’ll look at two social media companies that have connections with the Russian government: Soapboxstand and Redfish.
A short overview of Soapboxstand and Redfish
Soapboxstand is a media production project owned by the Los Angeles-based company Maffick Media. It has a presence on Instagram (@soapboxstand) with 83,8 thousand followers, as well as a Facebook page (SoapboxStand) with 630 thousand followers. The content posted on both social media platforms is clearly meant for a leftist audience – hefty doses of criticism of U.S. “imperialist” foreign policy, praise of the achievements made by various socialist figures with strong anti-American stances, such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and explanations of the various connections between capitalism and colonialism. Also common is homage to prominent black leftist activists such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others. Most of the account’s posts are vocal about the loss of human life which comes as a result of U.S. interventions in, for example, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Redfish is a similar case. Like Soapboxstand, it’s also a media production project, which is owned by Ruptly GmbH, a video news agency that is also the major shareholder of the aforementioned Maffick Media. It has gained popularity on Twitter with 182.5 thousand followers, on Instagram with 449 thousand followers, and on TikTok with 39,6 thousand followers. Both pages share similar content – honoring leftist, socialist, and communist politicians such as Amilcar Cabral, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and others. Posts
honoring communist philosophers and revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Marx, and others are also quite common. Like its counterpart, this account is also very critical of the foreign policies made by the U.S. and its European allies, and is covering left-wing protests and social movements across the world. While the accounts for sure have clear political positions, it doesn’t seem on the surface that they are working in the interests of a particular political actor. After all, there are many right and left-leaning social media pages that are producing content for a specific audience. However, these two are quite “special” cases, as we will see in the next section.
Redfish, Soapboxstand, and the Kremlin
This is where Maffick Media and Ruptly GmbH come in. While Redfish and Soapboxstand actively deny any connections to the Russian state, a closer look at their owners’ history and financial filings reveal the opposite. Both Maffick and Ruptly are heavily intertwined with each other. According to registration documents for Maffick Media, Ruptly, its major shareholder, is a major and openly acknowledged Berlin-based subsidiary of the well-known media company Russia Today (RT), which is owned by the Russian state. The company’s minor shareholder is Anissa Naouai, a former employee of RT and current CEO of Maffick. Ruptly, the major shareholder of Maffick (which is the owner of Soapboxstand,) is the sole shareholder of Redfish, as Redfish’s registration documents indicate.
Both Soapbox and Redfish are currently labeled on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as Russia state-controlled media, which both productions actively deny and assert that they are independently owned. On February 28, 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Anissa Naouai terminated Maffick’s service agreement with Russia Today. On the day when the war started, Soapboxstand posted two photos on their Instagram account, which stated “F**K WAR” and “NO TO PUTIN.” The latter post was a slideshow containing 7 screenshots of tweets condemning the war, comparing the invasion to various foreign policy maneuvers made by the West, and highlighting the supposed “Ukrainian shelling of the Donbass” and
using hashtags such as #NoToNATO. Redfish, however, continues sharing posts on Twitter and Facebook.
The underlying danger
While Anissa Naouai’s decision to terminate Maffick’s service agreement with RT seems like a decent and brave decision, it still remains quite convenient that she decided to cooperate with an open Russia state-controlled media organization and only stopped the agreement after the full-scale war began. Furthermore, Maffick’s final post, while condemning the war, seems disingenuous, because it still finds room to repeat the same tropes that the Kremlin uses in its propaganda – the “evil West” are pretending to promote democracy and freedom while destroying less developed countries and are conspiring with Ukraine to shell the civilians of Donbass.
Maffick and Redfish constantly repeat Russian talking points in their posts – condemning NATO’s Eastern expansion and labeling it as a form of imperialism, claiming that the “prominence of Nazis” in Ukraine without any context or further explanation, and giving criticism of American foreign policy a central role, while not talking about Russian imperialism or the crimes committed by the Soviet Union.
And yet, such posts are part of an otherwise progressive feed of ideas. They are posted alongside tributes to influential and important left-leaning civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, thoughtful posts about how the oppressive policies of European empires have impacted their former vassal states, and so on. This, I would say, is the reason why accounts like these pose a danger to our collective thinking – the owners of Maffick and Ruptly and their Kremlin partners are aware of the fact that many young people (especially those from the Gen-Z) who are active social media users and are in touch with current political affairs, tend to take a left-leaning stance and be more critical of the West.
Therefore, it is apparent that their tactic is to secretly and quietly integrate Russian-state propaganda points in a series of otherwise very progressive posts, so that their Kremlin supervisors are satisfied and the followers of their pages think that these dramatically different sets of ideas share the same values. And, given the substantial following that Redfish and Maffick have, it’s fair to say that their tactic has worked.
Now, of course, both of these pages are now labeled “Russian state-affiliated media” on all social media platforms, but who knows how many intelligent young people have consciously or unconsciously dismissed Russian war crimes and imperialism due to these posts? Therefore, don’t forget – always check your sources!
By: Paul Siksnis
Photography: Tom d’Arby