Viral video of feminist pouring bleach on manspreaders debunked as Russian propaganda

When a viral video of a Russian woman pouring bleach on male commuters came across producer Nikolay Nikolov's desk, he was immediately suspicious.

Clip widely shared by mainstream media allegedly used paid actors

A video that shows feminist activist Anna Dovgalyuk squirting what she claims is diluted bleach onto the laps of male commuters was viewed millions of times, but may not be what it appears. (YouTube)
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When a video of a Russian woman pouring bleach on male commuters came across Mashable.com video producer and reporter Nikolay Nikolov's desk, he was immediately suspicious and advised his colleagues not to publish it.

It turned out to be the right instinct.

The video — which shows activist Anna Dovgalyuk squirting what she claims is diluted bleach onto the crotches of men who spread their legs on public transit — appears to be Russian anti-feminist propaganda.

EU versus Disinformation, a site that debunks pro-Kremlin disinformation, reported that the video went viral after being published by In The Now, an English-language social media channel owned by the Kremlin-funded Russia Today. The group declined an interview, citing a need to protect the anonymity of its researchers. 

One of the men who appeared in the video also told St. Petersburg-based online magazine Bumaga that it was staged, and the victims were paid actors.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to the London-based Nikolov about the apparent hoax and how Russia harnesses viral videos to promote disinformation. Here is part of their conversation.

What kind of online reaction and comments has this video provoked?

Before people figured out it was a fake video, it received quite substantial coverage in terms of Western media.

I just opened Google and I wrote "viral manspreading video" and I just wanted to see which articles are going to be first and actually, you can still see that the majority of the articles in the Google search [are] the videos that don't know that it's actually a staged, fake protest.

Search results for 'Russian manspreading video' still bring up several videos from individuals and media outlets treating the story as if it were accurate. (As It Happens)

How do you know it's fake?

The female blogger [has] been known in Russia to do this in the past. But unlike this particular video, she has brought up serious issues like, you know, upskirting and other forms of sexual assault that women in Russia tend to face. 

What struck me about this video is that the tone was very different. 

Once the article on the EU Disinformation site came out, there was a much more concise sort of proof posted there about why it was fake and the reason why it was bait.

The evidence that they give for it being fake is that it was actually published by an outlet that's owned by Russia Today, which is, you know, a media outlet that's directly owned by the Kremlin. 

Anna Dovgalyuk is known for making popular videos about feminist issues in Russia. (YouTube)

How did we come to know that these were online actors who were paid?

There's an online magazine in St. Petersburg called Bumaga and they've posted some interviews with one of the men who appeared in the video who said that he was actually paid.

And subsequently, other testimonies of people, of men in the video, were posted online on social media saying that they appeared in this video and they were ... paid actors.

Once the investigation got a little bit deeper, it turned out that potentially this video was filmed by a studio that is known to have worked with RT and with the Kremlin in the past.

So the connections become, you know, more and more clear the deeper you look.

Why would this be of interest as Kremlin propaganda? This seems like not a large issue for the state government. Why would they help to fund something like this?

The only goal is to stir anti-feminist sort of [sentiment] in people around the world — particularly people in the West.

Once this goes back to Russia ...  it's a talking point where they can go back and sort of stir support in the more conservative parts of the country.

There was one politician ... from Putin's party who said really nasty things about this activist and about feminists in general. So it allows them to use a piece of content  to actually bring back certain points about how important it is to keep a conservative society and how we shouldn't be misled by liberal or radical, liberal ideas like feminism.

The video was covered extensively last month by Western media outlets, including the Sun, the Independent, Fox News and the Daily Mail. (As It Happens )

Do you think that there is a point now where it doesn't even matter if it's true as long as it's effective?

As reporters, particularly as video producers, I think we need to do more in terms of our due diligence.

When we try to cover things that go viral, there's always a sort of a push to be the first and you're always trying to get the most views.

But when you have so many different outlets covering the same story and you have so little time and a lot of people are just not necessarily very aware of the cultural nuances, it's just easy to just go for something that's right in front of you that can guarantee you some hits on your website.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Ashley Mak. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated the video was first published by RT's In The Now social media channel. In fact, In the Now was not the first media outlet to cover this video.
    Oct 16, 2018 1:07 PM ET

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