A few weeks after it became a viral sensation around the world, a Russian video supposedly showing a woman dousing men in bleach for taking up too much space on the subway was revealed to be a fake — one with conspicuous ties to Russia’s propaganda machine.
The video, first published by “In the Now,” an arm of the Russian propaganda outlet RT, quickly went viral and was highlighted by outlets ranging from Fox News to Vice to Vocativ. And understandably so. The clip appeared to show a Russian activist named Anna Dovgalyuk dumping bleach on the laps of unsuspecting men to punish them for “manspreading,” or spreading their legs too wide while sitting on the subway.
This Russian student threw bleach on men’s crotches to stop their ‘manspreading’ on trains pic.twitter.com/fp0pdbABJM
— Vocativ (@vocativ) September 26, 2018
The first hints that the video may have been staged — and that the men were actually just doused with water — came a few days after it started to spread around the internet, with the Russian Rosbalt news agency suggesting the video may have been faked. Dovgalyuk denied the initial charges, claiming her “action is absolutely real.”
Then over the weekend, “EU vs. Disinfo,” an outlet dedicated to combating Russian propaganda efforts, highlighted a write-up from the Russian “Bumaga” outlet. As Bumaga found, one of the men supposedly drenched in bleach was paid for his efforts. The actor wrote on his VKontakte page that he came to the shoot “with two spare pants and [left] with a salary.”
Rather than a viral moment of outrage captured on video, the clip now appears to be little more than the latest output of an ongoing disinformation campaign spearheaded by the Russian government. This time, the target was feminists — but the ultimate goal was to stoke the same type of social division fake Russian Facebook and Twitter feeds pursued around the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
New fakes, old strategies
There are several key red flags regarding the authenticity of the manspreading video. Not only has Dovgalyuk admitted she supports Russian President Vladimir Putin, but she has participated in separate pranks in the past. And as independent Russian outlet Meduza found, the production company allegedly behind the video, called My Duck’s Vision, has its own conspicuous links to the Kremlin.
Foremost among the video’s conspicuous connections is the fact that “In the Now,” the outlet that initially popularized the post, is directly funded by the Russian government (something it goes out of its way to avoid mentioning).
“In the Now” posts little information regarding its financial ties to the Russian government. It doesn’t have any RT branding on any of its social media accounts, nor on its videos.
As a video project of RT’s Anissa Naouai, “In the Now” specializes in precisely the type of content viral markets eat up: clever, short, memorable clips designed for mass appeal. It’s also grown remarkably popular, at least on Facebook, with nearly 3.3 million followers — significantly more than RT America’s 1 million.
But as the Atlantic Council’s DFR has found, “In the Now” has followed in RT’s steps when it comes to conspiracy theories writ large
From spooky stories of George Soros — a new favorite of the American far-right — to claims that Hillary Clinton stole State Department furniture, to widely debunked assertions that Google was censoring anti-Clinton content, the output at “In the Now” is no different from regular RT fare. The only difference is the slick, bite-sized packaging and the lack of any obvious RT branding on “In the Now” content. (The revelations about the video came alongside a separate fracas involving RT’s Washington correspondent Sameera Khan, who spent the weekend praising Stalin before deleting her Twitter account.)
And then there’s the fact that the video, at its core, was designed to stoke social tensions, just as the fake Russian Facebook and Twitter feeds of 2016 (and beyond) attempted to do. The target this time: discourse around feminism. And in that sense, the video was a resounding success.
While the original video has since been removed from YouTube, look at the top comments on the “In the Now” post — which remains live and uncorrected:
“This is not a protest, it’s assault. Maybe someone should pour bleach water on her for sticking her breasts out. Same thing.” “Not cool. And with bleach added. Aggression is not protesting. Most men sit this way for a reason, it’s not directed at you (unless you’re conceited? and think they all want you?) I will not ‘share’ this–no need to promote her message.” “But it’s ok for her to wear short skirt and push up bra showing her femininity? Do they have any logic or capacity to think for themselves?” “If I saw her do that to my husband she wouldn’t be standing for long.”
Anger, vitriol, frustration, misogyny — all there, prominent in the comments section. All because a handful of actors, a production studio, and a Russian propaganda machine decided it would be worth the effort.
Some of the outlets that originally and uncritically shared the video have since issued corrections, like Vocativ.
CORRECTION: Since publishing, this story has been shown to be false. The so-called bleach was in fact water, according to St Petersburg-based publication Bumaga, who reported that one of the men involved in the video, Stanislav Kudrin, was a paid actor. “They poured water on us,”
— Vocativ (@vocativ) October 9, 2018
But many of the other outlets, including Fox News and “In the Now,” have ignored the revelations and left the material up uncorrected. All of which means future audiences can access the video without any information regarding its origins, and can react exactly the way its creators, and the propagandists behind it, hoped.