Since 2017, redfish has dedicated itself to reporting from the perspective of people around the world who are oppressed by the capitalist system in the Global North and South and all its features: racism, war, imperialism, patriarchy, ecocide and extreme inequality. Looking back, we are immensely proud of all we have accomplished over the past five years but the reality of developments around redfish this year has forced us to make a hard decision: redfish is closing.
The relentless campaign of smears by mainstream media, academia and think tanks; social media censorship and now state-sanctioned harassment have made it impossible for us to continue. Here is what happened to us, how we have been used as one test case in the EU’s weaponization of “disinformation” to shut down critical voices, and why what we’ve been through is only the beginning of a crackdown that will impact everyone, including those who have encouraged and cheered the suppression of our work.
The recent Twitter Files have rightly brought a lot of attention to how entrenched the US military and intelligence apparatus is at the executive level of social media giants like Twitter, who control the information we have access to. Completely under the radar, however, the political heart of the EU in close collaboration with allied military institutions and those same social media companies, has developed its own strategy complete with a chilling array of tools to crack down on voices critical of the status quo of Western capitalist imperialism. In EU policy circles the threat is described as “undermining the European project”, and questioning the “democratic legitimacy of the representatives of Member States”. That is, in the eyes of the EU’s decision-makers, voices that publicly question the current political and socio-economic order in the West are no longer entitled to international and EU legal protection which covers the right to freedom of expression. On the contrary, we are to be treated as a threat.
The mainstream media has willfully ignored this draconian language which appears throughout the reports, statements and strategy documents of the unelected and unaccountable EU Commission, and in doing so, it has created a new moral standard whereby “our” repression is legitimate, but outrage hits every headline when violations of freedom of expression are committed by states like China, Russia or Iran, as proof of authoritarianism and repression of human rights. Not only that, but the mainstream media is colluding in this repression by normalizing the use of the buzzword “disinformation” which the EU vaguely defines as “false or misleading information” that “may cause public harm”.
The OHCHR has warned that ““disinformation” is an extraordinarily elusive concept to define in law, susceptible to providing executive authorities with excessive discretion to determine what is disinformation, what is a mistake, what is truth.” With that, a joint declaration which was co-authored by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression declared that “general prohibitions” on disinformation “are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression…and should be abolished.” Despite these damning warnings, the EU is using disinformation as a pretext, and the Russian bogeyman as the perfect cover, to justify a quasi-militarized crackdown on voices critical of Western governments.
The EU’s use of disinformation as a pretext to trample over our basic rights began in earnest in 2015 when the EU’s defense ministry, the European External Action Service (EEAS), created EUvsDisinfo to “challenge Russian disinformation”. This “flagship project” of the EU’s military body, is routinely quoted in the mainstream media benignly as an “anti-fake news agency”. While Russia has until now been the focus, the EU Commission makes it clear that this is just the beginning and that “state actors” from over 30 countries as well as “non-state actors” in EU states are also targets. While these targets are alarmingly vague and, as we have experienced, the criteria for coming under suspicion are both opaque and wildly flimsy, the EU is devoting vast resources to silence them.
Openly colluding with the EU in this crackdown are the big social media companies which the EU calls Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs): Meta, Twitter, Tiktok and Google, as well as the mainstream media, an approved “fact-checking community” (which will be dissected below) and military bodies including the EEAS and NATO. Together, these actors coordinate in identifying whom to target and how. Their measures range from slapping social media accounts with defamatory warning labels, “visibility filters” (commonly known as shadow-bans) and outright removal, to ensuring that information from “authoritative sources” selected by “fact-checkers” and “civil entities such as governments” prevail over those that have been designated as targets for suppression.
Prominent players in the EU’s approved network of fact-checkers who are given the authority to decide whom we can and cannot access information from are organizations like Spanish state-owned RTVE, DPA which is partially financed by German state-owned media companies, largely French state-financed AFP, state-owned France TV, you get the gist. So, if you report what the mainstream likes, they certify you a journalist, if you report something they don’t like they designate you a threat.
Clearly, those media and journalists who support this new regime against “disinformation”, fail to see the irony of being anointed by the EU authorities to work alongside governments, and the most powerful social media companies in the world, to crush our fundamental right to an authentically pluralistic media. Some of these journalists claim to be anti-racist, have been outraged by the control on our media wielded by billionaires like Elon Musk, and may even be critical of the West’s wars in the Global South. But by endorsing and participating in the EU’s campaign to silence voices that “undermine” it, they are also colluding to create a media landscape that is akin to an echo chamber. In their echo chamber, the narrative of the EU and its allies reigns supreme, a narrative which at its core is anti-worker, pro-big business, militaristic, and a narrative that defends a system that, without parallel in history, has killed, and is killing, millions upon millions of people: capitalist imperialism. Even publishing these facts may be judged off-limits by the EU Commission, which under its reasoning can be branded disinformation for causing “public harm” by questioning the legitimacy of Western governments.
While much of the EU’s disinformation regime has been adopted willingly and voluntarily by social media companies, now they can be mandated to do as the EU says when it comes to censorship under new laws which give the inherently undemocratic EU Commission the power to declare a “state of emergency”. A chunk of the EU’s gargantuan Digital Services Act which came into effect in October 2022, is dedicated to a “Crisis Response Mechanism” whereby the EU Commission can use crises like the war in Ukraine to impose a state of emergency across the bloc, giving it sweeping powers to repress critical media. During events the Commission designates as crises it can, for example, force social media companies to see to “the expeditious removal of, or the disabling of access to” content specified by the Commission. As digital rights group Access Now warns, this opens the door to serious violations of international and EU human rights law, the kind of violations the West condemns “authoritarian regimes” in the Global South for. Access Now says: “Based on empirical evidence, hastily adopted emergency measures ultimately lead to lasting human rights abuses that are difficult to remedy in the long term.”
It’s not just in the DSA where we see the militarization of the EU’s discourse around critical media. Apart from the fact that it relies on the EEAS and NATO in formulating its disinformation strategies, militarized language can be found throughout the bloc’s reports and action plans on disinformation, which speak of “information weapons” and disinformation as part of a “hybrid threat alongside radicalization and violent extremism” to European security. This approach to disinformation is analogous to the way the US government has become infamous for invoking “national security” to get away with all manner of crimes at home and abroad. While the EU pays lip service to our fundamental rights to freedom of expression and a pluralistic media, it is getting away with discarding them altogether. Meanwhile, the 2022 Code of Practise on Disinformation, which social media companies including TikTok, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Twitter and Vimeo, developed in collaboration with the Commission, makes it plain that censorship measures will be further developed and even rolled out to encrypted messaging apps.
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent.“ – Malcolm X
Redfish, without warning or recourse, has been subjected to all of the existing censorship tools that the EU has encouraged social media companies to deploy against “disinformation,” and because of the Twitter Files, we also know the U.S. intelligence agencies in particular have engineered. Many of these censorship tools we were subjected to before war broke out in Ukraine, including warning labels, social media account restrictions, constant arbitrary removal of content that abides by platforms’ terms & conditions, and shadow-bans, – nearly always without appeals mechanisms. But the war provided a golden opportunity to step up the suppression of our project. As sanctions were rolled out against Russia, redfish and our parent company Ruptly avoided being listed, but this did not stop the various institutions we rely on for our day-to-day business operations from doing everything to make our work impossible. Within weeks of the war starting, major German bank Sparkasse illegally froze our account, citing “sanctions”, which as mentioned above did not apply to redfish. After some legal pressure, our account was unfrozen. In the meantime, our tax advisor and insurance companies cut us off in violation of our contracts, and later Wise, a money transfer platform, began withholding the payments we had sent to freelancers, putting their livelihoods in jeopardy. Banks around the world increasingly began refusing to process payments to people who work with us which a source working in one of those banks confirmed to us was due to back-door pressure from Western governments. All have acted illegally and, so far, with impunity thanks to the current environment where anything goes against entities or individuals associated with Russia.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the restrictions on our social media accounts have been unprecedented, with not only the shadow banning of our accounts, but on Instagram, for example, those who click past the warnings against sharing our content, and do so anyway, find their personal accounts temporarily shadow-banned, literally penalizing our audience for refusing to submit to the layers of pressure not to engage with our content. We salute you!
The show may be over for us for now, but we urge everyone to stop sleepwalking into this crackdown and start fighting back against it. We urge especially those who have fallen for the propaganda and celebrated the illegal attacks on us, to pause and consider the fact that this is an attack on all of our rights which cannot be defended selectively. This will affect you one day, and when it does, even though we may disagree with your politics, we will put much more fight into defending your right to freedom of expression than all your efforts to have this right taken away from us. As Pastor Martin Niemöller, incarcerated for eight years in a Nazi concentration camp, said: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Under these Orwellian conditions, we are proud of everything we have achieved, including growing an online community with over one million followers, pioneering unapologetically radical left-wing story-telling to a global audience, becoming a household name for communities struggling against capitalist imperialism everywhere and winning a whole shelf of awards for our documentaries and digital story-telling innovations.
Some of our former team members are using the experience they gained at redfish and have been building a new, independent platform that you can follow on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube @redstreamnet or via its website.
A massive thank you to the redfish team past and present, to Ruptly for making redfish possible, and to our brave audience for your dedicated support, in the past, now and in the future.
“All over the world, wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers, to buy writers, to bribe, buy and fake “public opinion” for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.” – Lenin