A young woman walks up to a man in a subway train and pours liquid over him from a plastic bottle.
The scene is repeated a number of times with different men who all react with anger and bewilderment. We are told that they are being punished for “manspreading”, i.e. for sitting with their legs wide open.
The video went viral worldwide after it was published by In The Now – an English language social media channel owned by RT (Russia Today), which addresses international audiences. It has so far been seen 6,4 million times under the headline “FIGHTING MANSPREADING… WITH BLEACH!” and with the comment “This is a pretty extreme way to combat #manspreading.”
Click here to watch In The Now’s viral video.
The scenes have been recorded in the subway of St. Petersburg, Russia, and the female presenter, who speaks Russian in the video, is described as “social activist” Anna Dovgalyuk.
Titles in the video explain that the liquid in the bottle is “water mixed with bleach, leaving permanent stains.”
“Some say it’s all staged”
The video also tells that “some say it’s all staged,” and social media users have indeed questioned its authenticity.
As reported by the the St. Petersburg-based online magazine Bumaga, one of the men who appears in the recording told on his social media profile that he was paid for acting as a victim. The statement was later deleted.
TASS talked to the St Petersburg subway and the police where spokespersons said that no complaints or reports about such incidents had been registered, and that, in their view, the video was probably staged.
The Norwegian daily Aftenposten has also covered the case. The newspaper notes about Anna Dovgalyuk that “her Instagram account is full of model images, spiced up with patriotic tributes of Russia, the army, the diplomatic corps and the Orthodox church”, and the original aim, before In The Now picked it up, was to “lure millions of young Russians to her YouTube channel”.
Aftenposten concludes that “the video was produced by the Russian production company My Duck’s Vision, which pumps out viral videos that combine conspiracies, anti-propaganda, humor and ridicule of Russian community critics”. My Duck’s Vision denied its involvement, in spite of a number of Russian commentators pointing at them as the producers, according to Bumaga.
So, if the video is fiction, and if In The Now even openly states this – what is then the purpose of promoting the story to international audiences? What is in it for a Russian state media outlet?
Provoking a clash of extreme views
The key to a possible answer is found in the reactions the video has been able to spur.
In the comments section on Facebook, users express outrage against the alleged feminist activist, often in strongly misogynic language, with this comment as the most popular, gathering by now more than 14,000 likes:
In other words, the video stages extreme feminist activism and manages to provoke extreme anti-feminist reactions.
Troll factory modus operandi
A central element in the modus operandi of the famous “troll factory” in St. Petersburg has been to promote not just one, but different and opposing extreme views.
During the American Presidential election campaign in 2016, the goal of the operation was to sow discord in the political system, and address divisive issues via groups and pages falsely claiming to represent US activists. Messaging was e.g. not only pro-Trump, but also protesting against Trump, all to drive in wedges.
An investigation from 2017 by the independent Russian news outlet RBC found that “Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues”.
Echoing Russian state TV
The video and its reactions also echo negative messages about feminism, the MeToo movement and “political correctness” in the West, which Russian state television has repeatedly delivered .
On 5 November 2017, state TV host Dmitry Kiselev, who is under a personal EU sanction, compared the MeToo discussions in the West to Soviet repressions, claiming that they have led to a situation where “there is no such thing as human nature and no romantic adventures anymore”, and where “everything can be misinterpreted as dirty harassment”,
On 1 October this year, Kiselev lashed out at what he described as “malignant feminism” – accusations of sexual misconduct – in the West, an “infection” which, he said, is moving from the US to Europe and Russia.
In The Now is a social media project under the umbrella of RT (Russia Today). It specialises in distributing viral videos, only some of which have direct or indirect political messages. Like its sister project ICMY, In The Now does not clearly advertise its relationship to RT and thereby the fact that it is owned by the Kremlin.
As the “manspreading” video shows, In The Now successfully brings elements of Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaign to large international audiences. The majority of those who are targeted will not suspect that what they see and share is in fact Russian state propaganda.
Update (11 October):
The initial version of this article said that the Russian online magazine Bumaga had interviewed the man who confessed that he had been paid for acting in the video. As now indicated, the statement was made by the man not in an interview, but on his social media profile, and Bumaga included the statement in its article.
The update also added the paragraphs describing TASS’ and Aftenposten’s coverage.