Revolutionary Fake News: Redfish Media’s Support for the Palestinian Cause
By: Cat Haseman
Since the 2016 presidential election, a dominant narrative has pervaded the United States: Russian influence is bad. Until recently, I hadn’t given this assertion, nor efforts to counter Russian media machines, much thought. A few months ago, however, I learned that my favorite news outlet—one of the few consistent online sources of pro-Palestine coverage—had been labelled “Russian state-controlled media.”
redfish media is a digital production company that self-describes as “a platform for the people who are at the heart of their own stories.” Launched in 2018, redfish boasts a grassroots aesthetic, posting edgy, timely, and share-worthy content. The outlet creates original content in two main formats: twenty-five minute in-depth documentaries and faster-paced “on the ground” stories from around the world. As for its megapopular Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds, redfish tends to post a mix of historic and contemporary photos and videos depicting social unrest, resistance movements, and revolutionary leaders.
Several months ago, a viral post featuring Ghassan Kanafani’s lionized 1970 interview with Richard Carleton drew me and several friends to redfish’s Instagram for the first time. The page, replete with jarring videos of modern-day police brutality and decades-old photos of revolutionaries, racks up tens of thousands of likes and shares. Within minutes of scrolling, redfish’s anti-imperialist captions and anti-Zionist tinge earned my “follow.”
Call It Like You See It
Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, American big tech firms faced pressure to fortify their platforms against fake news and foreign manipulation. Late last September, Facebook, followed by other social media companies, updated its policies, pledging to label accounts associated with foreign governments. Immediately, hundreds of accounts bore a scarlet letter of sorts: a tag on the top of their profile pages that reads “State-controlled media.”
Aside from the obvious targets of this policy, like RT, Ruptly, and CGTN, many users were surprised to find an identical label attached to redfish’s YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter profiles. To redfish’s thousands of followers, the new epithet indicated that the so-called “media collective” might not be as independent, community-based, or activist-driven as its marketing suggests.
In fact, the Daily Beast found that much of redfish’s in-house reporters and producers previously worked for Russian government media outlets, like RT and Ruptly. Just before joining redfish, filmmaker Marcel Cartier, who has produced ten documentaries for redfish, worked for RT and Sputnik for the better part of a decade. Another of redfish’s contributors, Jelena Milincic, reported alongside pro-Assad forces in East Aleppo as RT’s Spanish-language correspondent. Despite these and other undeniable connections to the Kremlin’s various media arms, redfish scorned the “state-controlled” label, retorting it remains “100 percent editorially independent.”
The accusations against redfish seem to align with the findings of a 2020 Congressional report, which explains how Moscow has shifted away from the old tactics of the Internet Research Agency, like bots and trolls. Instead, the Kremlin has increasingly relied on English-language news sites to push out incendiary stories that can be picked up and spread by Americans themselves. These curated stories, while not necessarily fake, often strike at fault lines of American democracy. By forefronting topics like racial injustice and economic inequality, the report contends, Russia aims to widen societal rifts.
Under this logic, it seems it is not solidarity that fuels redfish’s pro-Palestine stance, but rather Russian efforts to exacerbate intra-American tensions. With progressive subsets of Congress increasingly challenging the formerly untouchable US-Israeli relationship, Palestine has increasingly become a partisan issue in American politics. Viral pro-Palestine content rousing internet debate, then, certainly fits Russian media’s modus operandi.
Palestinian Voices: Let’s Complicate the Narrative
The idea that the Kremlin might be using a purportedly “left-wing” cohort of journalists to erode trust in democratic institutions does not sit well. Neither does the fact that redfish’s brand of “anti-imperialism” has allowed the outlet to remain quietly supportive of Moscow and its dictatorial allies in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. Even so, many Palestinians and Palestinian Americans continue to like, share, and rely upon redfish’s consistently pro-Palestine content. The unique nuance of the Palestinian perspective serves to complicate the ubiquitous, two-dimensional understanding in the United States of Russia’s global media influence.
“I really like the way [redfish] covers Palestine,” Tasnim, a Palestinian-American activist, told me. “Their coverage is honest and detailed. They’re not afraid of discussing Zionism as a racist ideology, which is quite rare.” Ahlam, a Palestinian resident of Jordan echoed the same sentiment, explaining “redfish has done their part to change the homogenous conversation in the West about Palestine.” These two, along with several other Palestinians, voiced the importance of redfish’s anti-Zionist, liberation-focused content, regardless of the outlet’s alleged affiliations.
After noting that the “Russian state-controlled media” label does not appear when the account is accessed from within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT), Yousef, a Palestinian living in Ramallah, questioned the politics of labeling “fake news.” “It could very well be true that redfish is associated with the Kremlin,” he offered. “But do I care for Facebook’s opinion on what news is good and what is fake? Of course not. […] Palestinian voices are constantly shut down on social media for criticizing Israel. Meanwhile, Zionists can say whatever they want, even if it’s completely baseless.”
On the politics of labeling fake news, Tasnim asserted that all “harmless” media is bought and controlled. “Corporate media lets us hear what they think is acceptable,” she said. “Any independent news outlet presents a threat, and labeling them as such [state-controlled] is a way to prevent us from absorbing any left-wing media coming our way.” Rantia, a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, voiced a similar perspective: “In Palestine, socialism is not a dirty word, like it is in America,” she explained. “Their [Facebook’s] labeling is a modern form of dictatorship, of saying what is acceptable and what is threatening within the dominant system of power.”
Of the seven Palestinians and Palestinian Americans interviewed, each expressed that even while redfish may not adequately criticize Russia’s democratic shortcomings and human rights violations, the outlet still espouses desirable narratives and ideas. Despite redfish’s blindspot (Russia and its allies), redfish provides air time to important, under-reported topics, such as economic equality, the detriments of late-stage capitalism, empowerment of the working class, and righteous forms of resistance. “Every media organization has its slants,” Yousef told me. “But, if you read critically, [redfish] can be a solid source of news.”
Critical, Investigative Propaganda
Police brutality, state repression, indigenous dispossession, crippling income inequality, government corruption. There seems to be enough injustice in the world that the Kremlin can achieve its foreign policy objectives by skillfully determining which global outrage to allot airtime to, and which inconvenient other to quietly ignore. redfish might not be “fake news,” but it’s also not not propaganda.
It’s unclear whether redfish has always been outspoken about its intentional biases, or whether the outlet began embracing them after being labeled as “state-controlled.” Regardless, the redfish’s webpage states: “We don’t claim to be neutral: our team has a proven track record of both supporting and covering struggles which challenge the exploitative global system that enslaves humankind and is destroying our planet.”
On the list of change, redfish aims to catalyze is certainly an end to Zionist settler-colonialism and Palestinian dispossession. If we, too, hope for these outcomes, does it matter that the supporting content is produced by a Russian media machine? While I don’t plan to unfollow redfish, I do intend to apply an informed, critical lens when I approach their content in the future. Where the news comes from—who gathers it, who funds it, and who censors it—shapes the narrative we receive. Understanding the individuals and institutions behind a news source can allow us to benefit from the outlet’s strengths without succumbing to its manipulations.
It seems too simple, but maybe our next step needs to be calling out redfish for what it is, a combination of both its imposed label and chosen bio: “A Russian state-controlled media company that creates critical investigative short-docs aimed to inspire social and economic change.”