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Inauthentic behavior: SouthFront is the latest victim of the Facebook banhammer

Originally published: MintPress News by Rick Sterling (June 9, 2020)   | 

Where can you find daily news, videos, analysis and maps about the conflict in Syria?  Detailed reports about the conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Venezuela?  News about the rise of ISIS in Mozambique?  The original analysis of events in the United States and Russia? SouthFront is the place, or at least it was before recently being targeted by tech giants Facebook and Youtube.

Unique and influential and reaching a global audience of hundreds of thousands, SouthFront offers both editorials and factual news reports, both in text format and informational videos. As their website says:

SouthFront focuses on issues of international relations, armed conflicts and crises… We try to dig out the truth on issues which are barely covered by the states concerned and the mainstream media.

Censorship by Facebook and YouTube

A major disinformation and censorship drive against SouthFront was recently launched. On April 30, SouthFront’s Facebook account, which had nearly 100,000 subscribers, was deleted without warning or notice.

On May 1, SouthFront’s main YouTube account, boasting over 150,000 subscribers, was also terminated. The English language channel had 1,900 videos which racked up 60 million views over the past five years.

While the SouthFront website is still operational, the removal of its Facebook and YouTube accounts deprives it of important distribution channels that it so painstakingly built.

The censorship has been accompanied by a disinformation campaign pushed by government-linked think tanks. The move is part of a broader push by the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which has a direct liaison with Silicon Valley companies and teams focused on countering what it claims is propaganda from Russia, China, and Iran. The GEC operates with a current budget of $60 million per year.

In a March 2020 hearing, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn) lobbied for increased funding and more censorship, saying, It’s hard to chase one lie after another. You have to actually go after the source and expose the source as illegitimate or untrustworthy, is that right?” Lea Gabrielle, head of GEC, responded,

That’s correct.

When Murphy says, “it’s hard to chase one lie after another,” he is acknowledging that it’s often hard to prove what is a lie. Even more so when it is not a lie. It is much easier for authorities to simply dismiss a source as untrustworthy–or better yet to eliminate them altogether- as they have tried to do with SouthFront.

False accusations by Facebook

The elimination of SouthFront’s Facebook account was based on a Facebook sponsored investigation titled “April 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report.” The 28-page report claims,

We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate across our platforms… We view influence operations as coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation… This month we removed eight networks of accounts, Pages and Groups… Our investigation linked this activity to… two media organizations in Crimea–News Front and SouthFront. We found this network as part of our internal investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Yet SouthFront does not endeavor to “manipulate public debate,” they provide news and information which is difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere. It seems to be the censors who manipulating debate by shutting out certain voices.

SouthFront does not have “fake accounts,” they have a public website and, until recently, a standard social media presence on Facebook and YouTube. SouthFront also has no connection to NewsFront nor does it have operations in Crimea. NewsFront and SouthFront are completely different organizations. They share the name “Front” but that is irrelevant. Would Facebook conflate the New York Times with the Moscow Times?  After all, they both have “Times” in their name.

Facebook’s shuttering of SouthFront is based on little more than misinformation and smears.

False accusations by DFRLab

The  Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) was created by the Atlantic Council, a “non partisan organization” that claims to “galvanize U.S. global leadership.” The Atlantic Council has been at the forefront of efforts to dismiss alternative foreign policy perspectives as “Russian propaganda.” DFRLab claims to have “operationalized the study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news.” They reported the censorship of SouthFront in a Medium post titled “Facebook removes Russian propaganda outlet in Ukraine.” The report, which bore the no-so subtle subtitle, “The social network took down assets connected to News Front and SouthFront, propaganda websites supportive of Russian security services,” reported that SouthFront and News Front “demonstrated a close relationship by liking each other’s pages.” As anyone who uses Facebook is aware, it is common to “like” a wide variety of articles and publications, and the suggestion that “liking” a publication is tantamount to a close relationship is silly.

Bana Alabed promotes Bellingcat at an event put on by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Photo | Twitter

Bana Alabed promotes Bellingcat at an event put on by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Photo | Twitter

The DFRLab report claims that News Front and SouthFront “disseminated pro-Kremlin propaganda in an array of languages, indicating they were attempting to reach a diverse, international audience beyond Russia.”

First, NewsFront and SouthFront are completely distinct and separate organizations. Second, there is nothing unusual about a website trying to expand and reach different audiences, indeed it all publications do so. This is a tactic of the new censors: to portray normal behavior as sinister.

Another censorship tactic is to assert that it is impermissible to question the veracity of certain findings.  Thus DFRLab report says NewsFront posted “outright disinformation” when it published a story that “denied the culpability of Russian-backed separatists’ involvement in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines MH-17.” DFRLab suggests this proves it is Russian propaganda, and, by extension, false. However, the facts surrounding the downing of MH-17 are widely disputed. One of the foremost American investigative journalists, the late Robert Parry, concluded that the MH-17 investigation was manipulated and the incident likely did not occur as portrayed. Parry penned many articles on the event, undermining the notion that simply doubting the official narrative does not constitute “Russian propaganda.”

The Atlantic Council, one of the most influential of U.S. “think tanks,” appears to have created the DFRLab as a propaganda tool to disparage and silence sources of alternative information and analysis.

Disinformation by European Council “Task Force”

The goals and priorities of the European Union are set by the European Council, a non-legislative body that is also increasingly active in suppressing alternative information and viewpoints.

In 2015 the European Council created an East StratCom Task Force to “address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.” Their major project is called EUvsDISINFO, whose stated goal is “Using data analysis and media monitoring services in 15 languages, EUvsDISINFO identifies, compiles, and exposes disinformation cases originating in pro-Kremlin media.”

EUvsDISINFO has also taken part in the campaign of disinformation against SouthFront. In April 2019, it published an analysis “SouthFront–Russia Hiding Being Russian.” The report claims that SouthFront “attempts to hide the fact it is registered and managed in Russia.” The reality though is that the SouthFront team is international and includes Russians along with numerous other nationalities. Key spokespersons are the Bulgarian, Viktor Stoilov, and American Brian Kalman. Kalman and Stoilov do not hide the fact that the website is registered in Russia or that PayPal donations from readers go to a bank account in Russia, nor that SouthFront is hosted by a service in Holland. SouthFront is genuinely international.

EUvsDISINFO claims to have “exposed” something that is “hidden” when it is public information. There is nothing sinister about collaboration between nationalities, including Russia. EUvsDISINFO suggests there are sinister “pro-Kremlin networks.” In reality, SouthFront is a website run by a dedicated and underpaid staff and lots of volunteers. While the European Council gives millions of dollars to EUvsDISINFO, SouthFront operates on a tiny budget without government support from Russia or anywhere else.

False accusations by the Department of Defense

On April 9, Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense for Europe and NATO; Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, Laura Cooper, spoke at a press briefing where she identified SouthFront by name and accused them of “reporting that there actually was no pandemic and that some deaths in Italy might, in fact, have been from the common flu.”

The first accusation stems from a SouthFront article, “Pandemic of Fear.” In contrast to Cooper’s accusation, the article states that “The COVID-19 outbreak is an apparent threat which cannot be ignored.” It also discusses the much less reported environment of fear that has come to surround the pandemic.

Cooper, right testifies a House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Nov. 20, 2019, during a hearing on Trump’s alleged ties to Ukraine. Susan Walsh | AP

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper, right, and State Department official David Hale, left, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Cooper also makes a false accusation regarding the high death toll in Italy. SouthFront reported on findings from the Italian Ministry of Health which suggested the previous mild winter and flu season had “led to an increase in the pool of those most vulnerable (the elderly and those with chronic illnesses) that can increase the impact of the epidemic COVID-19 on mortality and explain, at least in part, the increased lethality observed in our country.” This is very different than saying the deaths were caused by the common flu. In any case, the findings came directly from Italian health authorities, not from SouthFront.

In the same press conference, Cooper said she wishes to “reign in malign actors that are spreading misleading disruptive information.” The censors claim the higher ground but engage in misinformation and falsehoods as they seek to silence discussion and debate.

A coordinated effort

There is a coordinated effort to manipulate and restrict what the public sees and hears in both North America and Europe. Under the guise of “fact checking” and stopping “Russian propaganda,” establishment has created private and government-sponsored censors to distort and diminish media that questions the official narrative. They label alternative media “Russian” or “pro-Kremlin” even though many of the researchers and writers are from the West and have no connection or dependency on the Russian government.

SouthFront is an example of media doing important and original reporting and analysis. It is truly international with offices in several countries. The staff and volunteers include people from four continents. The censorship and vilification they are face seem to be because they are providing information and analysis which contradicts the mainstream narrative.

SouthFront is now posting videos to a secondary YouTube channel called SouthFront TV. When that was also taken down on May 16, they challenged the ruling and won. The channel was restored with the acknowledgment, “We have confirmed that your YouTube account is not in violation of our Terms of Service.”

SouthFront is still trying to have its main channel with 152,000 subscribers, restored. Its Facebook account is still shut down and attempts to disparage their journalism continues. The censorship has only escalated during the COVID-19 crisis.


Editor’s note | A version of this article appeared on other websites before it was published by MintPress News.

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