Popular Viral Video Firm Sues Facebook Over Russian Propaganda Label

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Above photo: Antonio Cabrera.

The company behind In The Now, Soapbox and Waste-Ed is taking on media giant Facebook, who it claims is falsely labeling it as Russian state-controlled propaganda.

An online media company is suing social media giant Facebook for falsely smearing it as a Russian state-controlled propaganda outlet. Maffick, the owner of In The Now, Soapbox and Waste-Ed, has filed a lawsuit against Facebook in a Northern California district court for defamation, intentional interference and violating section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, unjustly causing them economic and reputational harm, claiming that Facebook’s actions represent unfair competitive practices.

Go to any of the Maffick-owned Facebook pages, including In The Now (4.9 million followers), which focuses on light-hearted news and social justice issues, Soapbox (320,000 followers), featuring politically opinionated videos, or Waste-Ed (216,000 followers), with content on environmental topics, and you are greeted with a warning from Facebook: “This publisher is wholly or partially under the editorial control of a state.” Maffick strenuously denies this, noting that its sole owner, Anissa Naouai, is a U.S. citizen living in California. “In doing all of these actions, Facebook has acted fraudulently, with actual malice and in reckless disregard for the truth,” the complaint alleges.

MintPress reached out to Naouai for comment, but, for legal reasons, she was hesitant to speak about the case specifically. Rania Khalek, who makes videos for Soapbox, however, was far more forthcoming. “Facebook has a list of criteria they came up with for what constitutes state-controlled media. We don’t meet any of the criteria on that list. But they still labeled us that way. And this comes after a couple of years of being relentlessly attacked by U.S.-government backed think tanks like the Atlantic Council…who have been trying to get us censored,” she told The Katie Halper Show.

Why is Facebook targeting Maffick? In the past, it was indeed majority-owned by Ruptly, a subsidiary company of RT, which receives funding from the Russian government. Naouai also previously hosted a show on the network called In The Now, further complicating things. However, the lawsuit claims the company has been completely owned and controlled by Naouai for over a year. Nevertheless, for many living through a climate of heightened concern about foreign-sponsored fake news, this is doubtless enough to raise suspicions, if not to condemn the project completely.

For their part, Facebook is not buying the new changes in ownership, a company spokesperson telling MintPress today that, “We want people to know if the news they read on Facebook is coming from a publication we believe is under the control of a government and we’ve made public the criteria we use to make this determination. This lawsuit is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously.” MintPress also contacted the attorneys for Maffick, but as of the publication of this article, they have not responded.

The effect on Maffick’s business has been considerable, with the company taking hits on revenue, engagement and viewing figures. Future partnerships with other brands are also in doubt. Who would want to do business with a Russian propaganda outlet? “This is a slippery slope,” said Khalek, “Because if Facebook can just label our page ‘Russian state-controlled media’ when it is not true — it is a factually false claim to make, what can stop them from labelling any page anything they want to label it?”

“I have put my whole life into building Maffick,” Naouai told MintPress. “I won’t let Facebook destroy my business because of politics. We play by the rules and deserve a fair chance to monetize our content which has been devastated by this false disclaimer.”

Et tu, Twitter?

Twitter has also affixed a warning to Maffick’s pages, describing them as “Russia state-affiliated media.” Last week it announced new labels for government and state-backed media accounts. “In 2019, we banned all state-backed media advertising and political advertising from Twitter. Today we’re expanding the types of political accounts we label,” they wrote.

Many users immediately noted, however, that the new warning notices were only being applied to Russian media like RT, and not other government-funded ventures like the BBC, France 24, or Voice of America. Furthermore, journalist Ben Norton exposed how Twitter is still taking money from the U.S. government to constantly promote Voice of America Farsi content into Iran in an effort to foment anti-government sentiment.

Twitter had a response to some of the criticism: “We believe that people have the right to know when a media account is affiliated directly or indirectly with a state actor. State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the U.K. or NPR in the U.S. for example, will not be labeled,” it wrote.

Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman, Assistant Professor of International Journalism at the United International College in Zhuhai, China, was not particularly impressed with the response. “In an effort to show they’re trying to do something, anything to combat ‘fake news’ or ‘disinformation’, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are going after the lowest hanging fruit: media owned or affiliated with governments. It’s much easier to add a label saying ‘state funded’ and wash your hands of the whole situation than to deal with the fact they are the central battlefield in a modern information war,” he told MintPress.

Others were more cynical. “Twitter is insulting the intelligence of its users. Or perhaps its executives really believe what they wrote about the BBC — which would itself illustrate the ideological uniformity of western media,” said Joe Emersberger, a media analyst who writes for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Emersberger noted that academic studies had found the organization to display the strongest pro-war bias, while for decades it actively collaborated with British intelligence services, vetting all important appointments to ensure leftists were not hired.

State-backed media warns of state-backed media

What the discussion misses, however, is that massive platforms like Facebook and Twitter are themselves state-affiliated media. Facebook, for example, partners with the Atlantic Council, a Cold War-era NATO think tank, to help them cultivate the news feeds of its 2.7 billion worldwide users. The Atlantic Council’s board of directors is a who’s who of the most powerful American state officials, including notorious war planner Henry Kissinger, influential Bush-era operatives like Condoleezza Rice, James Baker and Colin Powell, virtually every living CIA chief, including Leon Panetta, Michael Chertoff, Michael Hayden and Michael Morell, and ex-military commanders like Admiral James Stavridis and General Wesley Clark. When an organization like this is deciding what the world sees, what else to call it but state censorship on a global level? Worse still, the Atlantic Council is at the forefront of pushing questionable RussiaGate narratives, publishing a string of highly dubious reports claiming that virtually every political party in Europe that is challenging the status quo from the left or right is secretly controlled or manipulated by the Kremlin. These are, in turn, used as justification for more political changes.

Meanwhile, Twitter works with Freedom House, a conservative organization that is overwhelmingly funded by Washington. In 2006, the Financial Times reported that the U.S. government hired Freedom House to perform “clandestine activities,” (i.e. regime change operations) in Iran. Even more blatantly, last year a senior Twitter executive with editorial responsibility for the entire Middle East region was exposed as an active officer in the British Army’s 77th Brigade, a unit dedicated to online psychological operations and propaganda. The news failed to garner any mainstream attention whatsoever, save for a single article in Newsweek. The journalist responsible for the story resigned a few weeks later, citing strong editorial pressure to toe a certain line.

“What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century,” wrote Google executives Eric Schmidt and Larry Cohen in their book, “The New Digital Age, “technology and cyber-security companies [like Google] will be to the twenty-first,” suggesting that big tech see themselves as leaders in a global information war. The book was heartily endorsed by Atlantic Council director Henry Kissinger.

Implicit in much of the discussion about media bias is that it is only state-owned media that has an agenda, with the corporate press being “independent,” “neutral,” or “objective.” This is not the case. While state-backed media’s agenda’s tend to be relatively straightforward, the complex array of financial interests corporate media has is often much harder to discern. All media, even alternative media, has an agenda, with writers wishing to propagate and spread their worldview. That is why until the 1940s all political content was called “propaganda,” until the word fell out of fashion, and began to be applied only to political enemies. Nevertheless, state-owned media is constantly assessed by the public as more trustworthy. A greater proportion of the public in the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Japan and Portugal trust their public broadcaster more than any private news outlet. Indeed, BBC America is the most trusted major news source in the United States as well, according to the latest edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

“They don’t want people to see anti-war content”

The net effect of all the concern over Russian-backed fake news has been to extend mainstream media’s control of the Internet, to the detriment of foreign and alternative media. As big companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Bing changed their algorithms to elevate “reputable” sources, high-quality alternative news sites suffered huge drops in traffic, throttling their influence and threatening their very existence. After Google changed its algorithm, for instance, Common Dreams traffic fell by 37 percent, Democracy Now! by 36 percent, and Truth-Out by 25 percent. Under the guise of fighting misinformation, anti-war sites have been hit the hardest. MintPress was essentially blacklisted for its coverage of Syria and Palestine, which did not fit the narrative Washington would like to project onto the world. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Venezuelan, and Iranian accounts have been removed from Facebook and Twitter on the grounds that they were spreading misinformation. But American accounts do not suffer the same fate.

Indeed, the U.S. government has sometimes directly involved itself with online censorship. Facebook announced earlier this year it would delete all positive mentions of the recently assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani across its many platforms. Soleimani’s organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was labeled a terrorist group by the Trump administration. According to polls, he was Iran’s most popular living figure. “We operate under U.S. sanctions laws, including those related to the U.S. government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership,” said a Facebook spokesperson, explaining the decision. Thus, President Trump himself was able to stop Iranians in Iran speaking in Farsi sharing a majority opinion online to other Iranians, because of the power the government holds over Silicon Valley.

For Khalek, the political message she is sharing explains Facebook’s latest actions against Maffick. “The main reason why we have been continuously attacked by these think tanks is because of the stuff that is produced at Soapbox…Soapbox is very progressive and has a very obvious, anti-war bent,” she said. “If they can do it to us, they can do it to anyone,” she warned. “they don’t want people to see anti-war content.”

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.