In September 2018, Reddit users were able to trace a pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald back to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an infamous troll farm which was used to meddle with the US 2016 presidential race using Facebook and Twitter. The content posted on the subreddit mostly originated from two websites — brutalist.press and usareally.com. These sites were traced back to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian billionaire known as "Putin's chef", who was also in charge of the IRA. usareally.com did not even mind putting an origin location on its LinkedIn page.
r/The_Donald was under fire for a long time beforehand. In November 2016 Reddit prevented some of the "most toxic" posts from the subreddit from appearing on the website's aggregator page. The subreddit, however, happily exists to this day. On 26 June 2019, it was quarantined after "repeated misbehaviour that includes inciting violence." However, the subreddit can still be accessed and its operations were not hindered. Hence, the extra attention of the media might even bring more people to the page. Some even use botnet strategy.
As in any Russia-organised community, Ukraine came under fire on many occasions. Here are a few notable Ukraine-related posts in the subreddit (links to the original threads included):
Curators of r/The_Donald were going the extra mile to underline that Ukraine supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. At the same time, Ukraine is being positioned as a puppet state controlled by George Soros.
Even though Reddit has deleted "a few hundred accounts linking directly to known propaganda domains," the company is not willing to follow the path of Facebook and Twitter, both of which banned millions of Russia-originated pages, bots and troll accounts. "I wish there was a solution as simple as banning all propaganda, but it's not that easy. Between truth and fiction are a thousand shades of grey. It's up to all of us—Redditors, citizens, journalists—to work through these issues," Steve Huffman, CEO and founder of Reddit, also known as u/spez, posted on the social network.
While Huffman is trying to figure out how to tackle propaganda, Reddit continues to be a haven for Russian trolls and bots. As of March 2019, Reddit had 542 million monthly visitors, 234 million of which were unique users. Thus, the website ranks as the 6th most visited website in the U.S. and 21st in the world, Alexa Internet shows.
While Reddit.com is not even in the top 50 most popular websites either in Ukraine or Russia, it can be used to distort the image of Ukraine in the West. And that's exactly what Kremlin propaganda does. Here are a few notable subreddits where all sorts of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western messages can be found.
r/Conspiracy — 892 thousand subscribers
This one might seem a home of believers in flying saucers and Illuminati, but there are also many propaganda narratives. Sometimes it takes the form of memes. For instance, this meme about the U.S shooting down an Iranian passenger plane is in line with the Kremlin's favourite tactics --- whataboutism. It was posted shortly before the new report by Bellingcat on MH17 was published. The comments are all about the MH17 catastrophe with many commenters defending Russia.
There are also all kinds of anti-Western stories from Russia-backed websites being shared.
Both globalresearch.ca and zerohedge.com were previously identified as spreading Russian fakes and narratives.
This piece on mintpressnews.com was written by Whitney Webb who "made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik," as noted in the article itself.
r/worldpolitics — 790 thousand subscribers
"Reddit's free speech political subreddit - no agenda, few rules," subreddit's description reads. Surely, anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western messages can be found here.
Same old: there are Neo-Nazis in Ukraine, Euromaidan was a U.S. project. Globalresearch.ca made it in here as well.
r/Russia — 56 thousand subscribers
"Anything related to the country of Russia," the description reads. Basically, this means that there will be nothing good about Ukraine.
r/EndlessWar — 18 thousand subscribers
Subreddit's description speaks for itself: "This is a community that should discuss American policies and actions that promote what the Pentagon calls the "long war". It should include articles that show the politics behind the Endless War, the spending involved and the toll in human suffering and lives." The article about "Washington having problems with Ukraine's Neo-Nazis" and "Ukraine's Maidan being a U.S. project" from r/worldnews made it in here as well. They were published by different accounts.
There are also original entries:
Overall, this subreddit seems to specialize only in "war-related" propaganda.
All these entries might not have originated from Russia. In this case, these are "fellow travellers" who play the Kremlin's hand. This is another example of the weaponization of information. Russia uses Western freedom of speech and openness to push its own narratives and prove to ordinary citizens of EU countries and the U.S. that their governments are just as bad as Russia's — therefore, no moral choice can be made.
As the Internet becomes increasingly free and diverse, it is puzzling to see how enemies of freedom like Russia use and abuse existing freedoms to achieve their own goals. The big question is, however, how should these abuses be tackled without harming freedom itself?
This article was created with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.