Spotting Disinformation: Top /r/Russia Reddit Mod Admits to Owning Russian Marketing Agency
Reddit's cleaning house. Putin's best mouthpiece on the site just got quarantined. 

Spotting Disinformation: Top /r/Russia Reddit Mod Admits to Owning Russian Marketing Agency

Daniel Sobey-Harker
Daniel Sobey-Harker

When Russia invaded Ukraine, /r/ukraine was a flurry of helpful posts providing guidance and assistance.

The mods rose to the occasion by highlighting critical news while dispelling rumours & disinformation. /r/Russia, on the other hand, decided to ban all political posts & comments.

Imagine being a moderator of a subreddit representing a country in a war of aggression

This ban was short-lived due to community outrage so instead they then began posting pro-Russian views and talking points. Articles parroting Putin's narrative that his nation should determine the rights of another rose to the top.

A poll was posted with "Do you think Russia is justified with concerns of NATO imperialism?" with the only two answers being "Yes" & "Yes".

It almost seemed like a tasteless joke about Putin's suspicious polling results. After all, Putin's methods for taking votes are at odds with European Union methods.

Reddit has since stepped in and quarantined the subreddit.

'Quarantine', on Reddit, is process that makes a subreddit invisible to the frontpage and clear that the content within is spurious or false, stopping it from broadcasting the idea that every Russian alive supports the invasion. We have seen the protests in Russia and that many are simply caught up in Putin's ambitions.

Embedded from mentioned article - Dmitri Lovetsky/AP 

Russian Marketing Agency Ownership

The conflict of interest here is bigger than Zelenskyy's balls.

In a now deleted comment by moderator /u/bagration44:

Any idea of good real estate agents that can cater Russians or eastern Europeans?

My wife is Romanian/Russia. She is looking to move there with our two daughters. It would be long term. She is planning to manage our marketing firm there. I will stay in Russia.

We are base[d] in Far Eastern Russia
This comment has since been deleted to hide his slip up. (source)

Who is /u/bagration44? Who cares? Doxing is potentially dangerous and that's not why we are here. It's the personal admission of what he does that is important.

As you can see he's a rule-setting mod. While there has been speculation that /r/russia was managed by some kind of agency, this statement confirms it. Unfortunately he hasn't disclosed which agency this is - I'd be incredibly interested to learn who they take contracts from.

Reddit has long had a problem with counter subreddits that pop up and pretend to give an 'alternative view' of more popular or established ones. Quite often these innocently spring from disgruntled Redditors disliking new changes or poor choices by an existing moderation team. Which is good. If the disastrous /r/antiwork interview and subsequent reformation is anything to go by you occasionally need to clean house.

However, sometimes it's just self-interested parties trying to figure out how to get clicks or spread certain messages. With marketing agencies buying Reddit accounts to post with it's not surprising there's also subreddits under control by bad actors too. We're well aware of the tricks companies employ to try and control a narrative. It's why we pointed out VPN companies buying VPN review websites.

But trying to push shitty products is one thing. It's another to tout state sanctioned propaganda like that found in /r/russia or in /r/sino. To try and convince people that these horrific events either aren't happening or even that they are justified.

Alternate subreddits can be attractive to escape the noticeable bubble-effect you will see with Reddit talking points in larger subreddits. It's because of this I understand completely why people are compelled to seek out alternative views or places that may house them. Honest debate when taken in good faith is healthy and can lead to self-reflection.

Disinformation Subreddits.

Doing to Zoomers what Facebook did to Boomers.

Jokes aside, any age can be susceptible to false information. Especially if it echoes personal sentiments. Every site with an audience has its fair share of problems with fake news or disinformation campaigns. That's why we encourage use of ad-blockers or, ya know, turning R.O.B.E.R.T on. Give them less to work with.

Luckily some of these disinformation campaigns are easy to spot.

It's why I mentioned /r/sino as an earlier example. I feel absolutely confident in my assessments having spent 3 years in China before and during COVID-19.

You can use it as a weathervane for CCP wind. It's a perfect example of a disinformation subreddit done badly.

I mean it's just so overt it's almost satirical. During the initial outbreak, it would quickly flop between whatever flavour-of-the-month CCP determined enemy nation was. Almost scarily in-sync with the articles being pushed onto my WeChat newsfeeds while in China.

It's a subreddit that denies the genocide of Uyghurs and other serious crimes committed by the CCP.

One that bans any counterpoint to the official CCP view. One that bans any discussion that hints all is not well in Ba Sing Se and has the fastest whataboutisms in the East.

Unfortunately, they're not always going to be that easy to spot.

What's Reddit doing?

Is this a fundamental flaw of Reddit's operating model?

With the quarantining of /r/russia these hold-out sources of disinformation may finally find their days numbered. Reddit seems to be taking steps to investigate how bad its fake news problem is. Hopefully, Tecent's stake in Reddit won't influence much.

It's not a Reddit-centric problem though. Facebook & Twitter still struggle with these issues. Twitter had a rough start but they seem to be actively doing something. Facebook is famously known to be complicit in utilizing fake news to increase user engagement. So we'll see how that goes... the social media landscape is ripe for seeding division among people. It's kinda its thing.

Reddit admins have always tried to play the "hands off" card with most communities. Typically to allow them to outsource the considerable amount of work moderating these communities can be.

It's a catch-22 because I know I wouldn't like a version of Reddit strictly controlled by the current admins either. I don't particularly like overhanded moderation and posting requirements myself. I feel they can often detract from a discussion or shape things to a limited fashion, neatly avoiding real analysis or critique.

Reddit's initial growth should be credited to the ideals of Aaron Swartz and the belief that the internet should be free. To embrace debate and critical thinking. To share and upvote the best of what can be found around the internet.

Reddit today is not the same beast it was but it certainly has some responsibility now in how it informs people. Especially as it has now shifted gears to go public. It knows people will seek to monetize and manipulate its audience. That by giving communities that have tightly controlled censorship such prominent positions, Reddit almost gives them some credibility. It almost endorses them.

The quarantine of /r/russia is a good start but it's hardly striking at the root of the problem. They need to stick to the ideals set by its founder. To make sure those moderating subreddits have a history of actions that support said beliefs. That moderators are simply there to keep things tidy and not determine what is seen or discussed. If a moderator is not fostering the spirit of free speech, discussion, and reporting in good faith then they should not be there.

It would be nice if Reddit was a perfect system of critically analyzed posts or links. One where people reviewed things before upvoting. If people read the article before commenting. That's not the reality.

21st Century Warfare

This is not new in 21st century warfare.

Russian bot farm found in Ukraine Feb 2022

The reality of the situation is that current events have led to propaganda and disinformation running rampant. We must be critical of all we read no matter where we read it, to determine for ourselves whether or not we have an accurate view of the truth.

Fake news is no longer just making people look stupid. It's risking lives or influencing decisions people need to be taking seriously. I refer you to my colleague's views on disinformation if you wish to read into that further.

Propaganda will be out in force for both sides of any conflict. Because of that you can't just dismiss everything you see. It's important for you to be able to discern the truth as best you can.

The truth sometimes holds importance for inconsequential things. The stakes here with the invasion of Ukraine determine the lives of millions. The stakes here demand for accurate reporting and critical thinking.

Mass censorship is often misused and rarely leads people to good places. But I also think we shouldn't have to tolerate the ramblings of a madman. One intent on acting out his Peter the Great fantasy at the cost of people's lives.

So go fuck yourself, Russian premiership.  Idi nahui to Putin and anyone else who uses tolerant spaces to preach intolerance, hatred, and persecution.

Thank you for reading, I'm sure if there's a super negative way to misconstrue my view opposing Putin's actions I'm about to learn it on Twitter. Tag me @sobeyharker. DMs are open if you need codes for Windscribe data.

Free Accounts + Data

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Additionally anyone can upgrade their data by 400%

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All accounts can claim 30GB data for free here to keep communication flowing.

If you are protesting in Russia (or anywhere with an authoritarian government) - you NEED to take steps to protect yourself. A VPN can't do it all but something is better than nothing. These are our competitors that we'd vouch for in case we don't cut it for you. Be mindful of the device you're using, the software on it, and who has access to it.

We have also added a couple of sites to our optional clickbait filter to combat disinformation. You don't have to use it. But it's nice to have in case you're sick of clickbait.

Ukrainian Charities

If you wish to support the citizens of Ukraine here is an excellent post by /u/get_that_ass_banned from /r/ukraine.

Want to support Ukraine? Here's a list of charities by subject from ukraine

Daniel Sobey-Harker
Daniel Sobey-Harker