Many people tend to think of Russian influence campaigns as overt forms of messaging that are easily discerned by the well-informed audience. The truth of the matter is, however, Russian influence comes in many forms — and most often, from Americans themselves that share narratives that are in keeping with their own sense of political identity. Therein lies the strength of Russian influence: they don’t need to plant thoughts in the American psyche like in the film “Inception.” Instead, they need only to exacerbate existing ideological and cultural conflicts within the American people, bolstering minority opinions in an effort to sow discord among the American people.
Just like joining the ranks of Americans that watched “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and couldn’t stomach what they perceived to be political grandstanding, Russian operatives seek conflict on social media and then invest time and resources into deepening the divide those conflicts create. Americans are already primed to wage digital war with their fellow countrymen; all influencers need to do is stoke the right fires.
Last month, it was revealed that Russian trolls had joined the debate on social media regarding vaccinations, bolstering inflammatory messaging from both pro and anti-vaccination camps. Last year, it was revealed the Russian trolls had worked to advance racial divisions in America; organizing race-based protests and counter-protests in the same communities, on the same days, in hopes of helping social media conflict boil over into actual violence.
Now, it has become clear that Russian influencers are also keen to advance American divisions centered around gender lines as well.
A viral video that made the rounds on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms in recent weeks showing a young woman pouring a bleach and water mixture on the pants of men she claims are “manspreading” on the subway was recently exposed by a Kremlin propaganda watchdog known as “EU vs Disinfo” to be a hoax created by Kremlin operatives to advance social conflicts surrounding women in modern culture. Piggybacking on movements like #MeToo and responses to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Russia hoped to spur the outrage of men watching the video, and as a result, encourage social media users with aggressive gender-based beliefs to take their beef to social media.
The video and accompanying story, which was first published on “In the Now,” a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned propaganda outlet RT, shows “social activist” Anna Dovalyuk pouring bleach on men’s pants for “manspreading,” or sitting on the train with one’s knees spread far apart. Manspreading has become a common phrase among some feminists who see it as a form of chauvinism.
“This solution is 30 times more concentrated than the mixture used by housewives when doing the laundry,” she says in Russian in the initial video. “It eats colors in the fabric in a matter of minutes — leaving indelible stains.”
The video was viewed more than 6.9 million times on “In the Now” under the title, “Fighting Manspreading with Bleach!” as well as being released on YouTube and other platforms under a series of different names.
The man shown in the video having his pants stained has since admitted that the event was staged, saying in a Facebook post, “That feeling when you come to the shoot with two spare pants and leave with a salary.”
You can watch the original video here.