Three online video channels designed to appeal to millennials have collected tens of millions of views on Facebook since September. But the pages pushing the videos do not disclose that they are backed by the Russian government.
The pages are run by Maffick Media, a company whose majority stakeholder is Ruptly, a subsidiary of RT, which is funded by the Russian government. Although Maffick Media has hired contractors and freelancers in Los Angeles in recent months, the company is not registered in the US, it is registered in Germany.
Facebook suspended the pages on Friday, saying it would reach out to the people running them to ask that they disclose where the pages are run from and their affiliation with their parent company in order to get back on the platform.
The move was an unusual one for Facebook. The company does not require users to provide information about parent companies, but it is rolling out ways to try to increase transparency about who runs popular Facebook pages, and it has been taking aggressive steps to tackle covert government-backed information operations on its service. In 2016, a Kremlin-linked troll group ran a network of pages designed to look like they were operated by real American activists.
The Maffick Media pages appear to have fallen into a gray area for Facebook. The pages do not include information about their links to the Russian government, but they were not previously required to.
“People connecting with Pages shouldn’t be misled about who’s behind them. Just as we’ve stepped up our enforcement of coordinated inauthentic behavior 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.
CNN spoke to representatives from Maffick before Facebook suspended the pages. Maffick’s chief operating officer, J. Ray Sparks said Maffick is editorially independent of RT and claimed that it was “standard industry practice” not to disclose ownership of a Facebook page. “The general audience never is interested in these things and the standard practice is to simply not mention them, because the audience is not interested,” he said.
In a statement posted to its website on Sunday, Maffick said, “We did not violate any of Facebook’s policies whatsoever. None of our content promotes disinformation or fake news.”
On Monday, Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, pointed out that Facebook didn’t seem to have an issue with the pages until CNN asked about them.
Asked by a Russian journalist to comment on the CNN report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said RT “has to stand up for its rights.”
In a daily call with reporters. Peskov expressed optimism that the pages would be restored. “Regarding this specific case, I wouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, we first need to get clarifications,” he said. “I think of course RT has to stand up for its interests and receive explanations regarding this particular company and what the reasons were. We know that they’ve repeatedly succeeded in restoring their rights and I hope this is going to be the case here as well.”
Like RT, Maffick’s videos are generally critical of U.S. foreign policy and the mainstream American media, while largely avoiding criticism of the Russian government. Much of its content, like much of RT’s in the US, fits comfortably within fairly mainstream American politics, especially on the left.
A typical tactic of Russian information operations in the US over the past few years has been to try to exploit existing divisions and tensions in the country. When covering and broadcasting in the US, RT has typically not injected some new line of criticism about the country into the discourse; instead it has reflected criticism of the US and the US government’s actions at home and abroad that already existed — and that some people argue deserves more attention from the mainstream media.
“Working for In the Now, or working for Soapbox, or Maffick, is not an endorsement of the policies of its sponsors, just like working for CNN is not an endorsement of the pharmaceutical companies or weapons companies that play advertisements on CNN. Or just like working for the BBC or Al-Jazeera is not an endorsement of the policies of the British government or in Al Jazeera’s case, Qatar’s absolute monarchy,” Rania Khalek, an American commentator who presents some of Maffick’s videos, said in an interview with CNN.
Maffick runs three Facebook pages, Soapbox, which focuses on current affairs, Waste-Ed, an environmental channel, and Backthen, a history channel whose focus includes what it views as western imperialism. Together, the three pages have more than 30 million video views, though they’ve only been operating for a few months.
Since last September, Maffick has hired up to a dozen contractors and freelancers in Los Angeles, where they operate out of a shared WeWork office in Hollywood, according to two people familiar with the company.
Company records in Germany show that 51% of the company is owned by Ruptly. The remaining 49% is controlled by former RT presenter Anissa Naouai, who is Maffick’s CEO. The records were first reported by the German outlet T-online and later by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which brought it to CNN’s attention. The Alliance for Securing Democracy is part of the German Marshall Fund, which receives funding from the US, German and other governments. The Alliance for Securing Democracy says that while it is part of the German Marshall Fund, the ASD itself does not receive any funding from the GMF, and gets its money from private family funds and grants but not from government funding.
Sparks told CNN that Maffick started out as a holding company for another millennial-focused channel called In the Now.
In the Now was originally a television show on RT, hosted by Naouai. It has more than 3 million followers on Facebook and its ties to Russia have previously been reported. Sparks sent CNN a list of stories he said In the Now had covered that did not portray Russia in a positive light.
Facebook also suspended In the Now’s page on Friday.
RT is considered the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet,” according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
RT’s production company in the U.S. says its role is to “inform, not influence.”
Sparks told CNN in an email last week that although Maffick receives funding from RT’s Ruptly, “There is no top down editorial structure coming from further up in the corporate structure.” Sparks said editorial control lies entirely with Naouai.