Facebook has suspended three video-centric pages run by Maffick Media, a company mostly owned by Ruptly, a subsidiary of the state-run RT (formerly Russia Today) network, CNN reported on Friday.
According to CNN’s report, Facebook said it would reach out to the owners of the pages, who it said did not properly disclose where the pages were managed from or their affiliation with the Russian government. (Maffick Media hires contractors in Los Angeles but is registered in Germany, not the U.S.)
That Ruptly is a state-owned service is far from a secret, though that Maffick Media is 51 per cent owned by it seems to have been kept comparatively quiet.
CNN wrote that Maffick’s chief operating officer, J. Ray Sparks, claimed it was “standard business practice” for the operators of a Facebook page to not acknowledge their ownership:
“People connecting with Pages shouldn’t be misled about who’s behind them. Just as we’ve stepped up our enforcement of coordinated inauthentic behaviour 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 business practice” not to disclose ownership of a Facebook page. “The general audience never is interested in these things and the standard practice is simply not mention them, because the audience is not interested,” he said.
Facebook also suspended a page belonging to In the Now, another RT-funded operation designed to appeal to younger audiences and that Sparks said Maffick Media was originally created as a holding company for, according to the report.
Like RT and Ruptly, CNN wrote, Maffick Media appears to have offered audiences in the U.S. coverage that was critical of the U.S. government and media, though within the bounds of what is generally considered to be mainstream rhetoric. According to CNN, the pages included Soapbox, a current-affairs page, the environmental channel Waste-Ed, and historical channel Backthen — collectively having over 30 million video views in a short period of time.
As CNN noted, Facebook’s policies do not require that pages list information about their ownership, nor does it require they run disclaimers on content advising that it is state-sponsored. However, the social media giant has come under immense pressure to crack down on alleged foreign interference on its platform, and in 2018 it started requiring some large pages to disclose where they are run from through an “authorization process.” Only the Waste-Ed page included any information about where its operators were based, CNN wrote.
According to corporate documents obtained by CNN, the remaining 49 per cent of Maffick is owned by its chief executive officer Anissa Naouai, a former RT presenter who is said to be close with RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan.
While Sparks told CNN that Maffick Media is editorially independent from RT, the U.S. intelligence community wrote in a 2017 report that it believes the Kremlin closely oversees and coordinates state-funded outlets to push ideologically friendly narratives.
For example, one element of the alleged Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 elections was promoting the idea Donald Trump was facing an unfair amount of criticism from media outlets while relentlessly attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton, the report argued.
Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow for information defence at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told CNN that while Russian state-backed outlets claim to be editorially independent, “they routinely boost Kremlin narratives, especially those which portray the West negatively.”
Nimmo said the tone of Maffick’s pages is “broadly anti-US and anti-corporate. That’s strikingly similar to RT’s output. Maffick may technically be independent, but their tone certainly matches the broader Kremlin family.”
Other questions surrounding Maffick Media include whether it should have registered as a foreign agent under the FARA Act, as RT’s production company T&R Production was compelled to do in 2017. Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein attorney Joshua Ian Rosenstein told CNN that a foreign agent registration could be required, even though it is registered in Germany.
“If they are doing work in the US with the aim of accomplishing Russian interests and are financed by an arm of the Russian government, then FARA registration could be justified,” Rosenstein told CNN.