“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” -Voltaire
Long time readers and Russia watchers know that one of the most odious pro-Kremlin sites in existence is Russia Insider. Rather than create original content, most of their articles consist of material reprinted from other sources, typically Kremlin media outlets but also including sites featuring ideological racism and Holocaust denial. What better sources for a site that still uses the “Kiev Nazi junta” trope?
As if that weren’t bad enough, when they reprint something they usually tack on this commentary at the top, to make sure you get the message they want you to get. In this way, if an author doesn’t sufficiently espouse their line the RI staff “corrects” them. The effect of this is that the reader can be prejudiced against the actual ideas contained in the article, or miss them entirely thanks to someone else’s creative “interpretation.” Of course the most ridiculous thing about all of this is that Russia Insider tells us to be “media skeptics” and claims it is countering Western propaganda with real journalism. Sure. In Fantasy Land that’s happening.
Well guess what- it looks like the Russia Insider debacle is on its last legs. Peter Lavelle of RT, an initial supporter of Russia Insider, has apparently blown the whistle about Russia Insider’s funding. It began with a simple Facebook post, but then another pro-Kremlin bullshit factory, Fort Russ, went even further and examined the accusations in detail.
The “investigation” is led by Joaquin Flores. If you’ve never heard of him, here he is in a video explaining with confidence that there’s plenty of “evidence” that MH17 was the same plane that disappeared earlier that year (MH370), and there is “evidence” that Ukraine shot it down with a Buk or an air-to-air missile. As such, we can pretty much dismiss Mr. Flores as another armchair crank, but what he has to say about Russia Insider seems mostly plausible. It’s amazing how quickly some people will become critical thinkers when they realize they’re getting screwed out of money.
In Bausman’s defense, I doubt that he really set out to defraud people, though is true that con-men tend to target communities with fringe views. It seems to me that Bausman probably sincerely believed in his idea, but may not have thought the whole thing through or organized it properly. Apparently the idea was to build up a big audience and then either rake in ad revenue or somehow sell the site for a large amount of money like in the case with The Huffington Post. On that note, one can definitely fault Bausman of asking people to work for free, but then again working for free is becoming more and more popular in Russia these days.
Truly Bausman’s “crime” in this case was trying to get people to write for free (and apparently succeeding at it). To be sure, he was promising the writers rewards once the site hit it big and sold, and by so doing placed himself slightly above Ariana Huffington, but he was still acting like an “unfinanced entrepreneur.” He should have at least offered a piece rate. I know some of my readers might ask why I should care about Putin-worshiping fanboys writing for free? Well first of all there’s basic principle, and secondly, it doesn’t seem to me like any of these people had any real writing talent. See the reason the writer or artist should always get paid is that they have this thing called craft. They make it look easy but they spent years refining whatever it is that they do. So when you want to tap that talent or free it’s an insult to them. On the other hand, if you’re just going to publish any word salad consisting of key phrases such as “BRICS alternative, Kiev Nazi junta, Western MSM, color revolution,” and “neocons,” who cares if you pay or not? You don’t charge your kid to pin their “drawing” to the fridge, do you?
No I think Bausman basically had an idea, one which he thought was a good but which just fell apart for one reason or another. Yes, Bausman’s hopes seem to be very unrealistic and his efforts a bit incompetent, but that only argues towards his “innocence.” Take a look at this screen cap from the Russia Insider site, which supposedly explains where the money goes:
Yes, that graph is laughable to anyone who’s ever read Russia Insider, but that’s just the point- if he wanted to just con people, we should expect something more convoluted. Or not. I don’t have experience in the con game. Still, to me it seems like Bausman really wanted to account for every penny, but foolishly said that it would be 100% for the journalists. He could have killed two birds with one stone and paid his “journalists” piece rates per article while saying that the rest of the donations would go toward site maintenance and maybe expanding capabilities or features. I don’t really think your avid Russia Insider donor really expected much more.
And if you don’t buy my “incompetence not malice” theory and believe I’m “defending” Bausman because we’re both CIA operatives working a long operation to hobble Russia’s heroic information war forces, you can basically read a similar theory from Anatoliy Karlin, “Da Russophile” himself and an occasional past contributor to Russia Insider. Of course in that case, you could always allege that he’s a secret CIA/Soros agent too- nothing’s too far-fetched when you’re actively trying to keep reality from seeping in. Seriously though, it’s worth noting in passing that Karlin’s blog solicits donations, which he explicitly states go toward sustaining his site. That’s what I do when I solicit donations, and Bausman could have saved himself a lot of trouble by just saying the same thing.
Finally, Bausman’s own defense is to be found here. It’s basically flat out denial, with rather curious statement about having 15 paid staff people. This contradicts my information on the subject, and it’s possible he’s just pulling this out of his ass out of desperation. But again, this reaction doesn’t mean he deliberately set out to defraud people. I’ve had one experience with a definite con-man before, and in that case the dude basically avoided communication as much as possible, disappearing once it became clear that too many questions had been raised.
As for Bausman’s supposed idea itself, i.e. turning Russia Insider into a popular aggregator worth seven figures, he made one fatal mistake- it was about Russia. People make millions, billions collectively, off of viral “alternative” (AKA bullshit) media. Just ask Alex Jones. But in order to get that audience, Jones focuses on things that are most relevant to them, typically American issues. Your average disenfranchised fringe thinker will dabble in some Putin ass-kissing from time to time, but if Jones retooled his websites and his show so that Putin worship and the Russian foreign ministry’s line became 90-95% of his material, he’d lose all but that smaller fringe that puts all their hopes into Russia for their salvation. I know from personal experience that this is a very small group. I can’t believe I’m giving advice on something like this, but Bausman should have just copied other alternative news sites while working the Russian stories in from time to time.
The Kremlin Fan Klub is clearly up in arms over this bout of infighting, and naturally they’re upset that some outsiders are watching this little spat while presumably scarfing down handfuls of popcorn. Well as Bellingcat’s Aric Toler put it: It couldn’t have happened to a nicer site. Pro-Kremlin media from Russia Insider to RT in recent years has been engaged in numerous personal attacks against journalists who challenge their hero’s narrative. Their arguments are twisted and distorted, they’re labeled “Russophobes” even if they lived in Russia for many years or they are actually Russian, they’re lumped in with neocons, and of course they’re often said to be paid by some foreign intelligence service or the evil George Soros. Of course the inherent problem with communities of people who act this way is that they inevitably turn on each other. What is more, the paranoid way of thinking that is so common in such circles guarantees there will be more accusations and counter-accusations, because to people like these nothing happens by accident and nobody just makes a mistake. Everything is a deliberate plot.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I find it amusing and ironic that the person to kick this off seems to have been Peter Lavelle. Bausman solicited voluntary donations. Well okay, Bausman solicited the shit out of voluntary donations if you look at the main page of Russia Insider. But the key word here is voluntary, and as I understand he only managed to make something like $60,000 before these accusations arose. By contrast Lavelle is one of RT’s highest-paid foreigners, working in a state-owned company that is infamous for being the least transparent and the least accountable when it comes to how it spends its funds- funds it gets from Russia’s national wealth. The hypocrisy of Lavelle decrying Bausman’s lack of transparency is right up there with Putin talking about not interfering in other nations’ internal affairs or Kerry expressing concern over civilians being killed by airstrikes.
Sure, you can say Russia Insider is a crude, laughably ridiculous propaganda website which almost borders on self-parody. At worst, Russia Insider bilked donors out of small amounts of money and aspiring “journalists” out of their time. But whatever money Bausman raked in, it is mere pocket change compared to RT and Sputnik’s staggering budget, and needless to say, those donations were neither voluntary, nor were they given by people in highly developed nations who had sufficient disposable income to donate. These involuntary donors are Russia’s citizens.