Alaska’s Arctic policy adviser falls victim to fake news — in Russia

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Craig Fleener at Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s inaugural ceremony in Juneau on Dec. 1, 2014. (Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News archive)
Craig Fleener, the Arctic policy adviser for Gov. Bill Walker, was at a conference in Russia at the end of March when he was approached by a reporter who asked him two questions: Do Alaskans today wish the state had remained under Russian rule? And did Fleener, a champion of economic expansion, believe that if Alaska had stayed with Russia, the state would be more developed?

Fleener was diplomatic in his answers to the reporter, whom he took to be Russian. He knew of no one in Alaska who had ever said they would prefer to be Russian instead of American. And while economic development would likely have been similar under both countries, he imagined that perhaps a Russian Alaska might have been more developed militarily given the state’s closeness to the U.S. mainland and close ally Canada.

He thought nothing of the exchange and was taken aback when he learned that some Russian media outlets had misquoted him and were apparently using the interview to glorify Russia at the expense of the United States on the 150th anniversary of the sale of Alaska.

“The Arctic policy adviser at the government of Alaska, Craig Fleener, said that the region could be developing better if it were run by the Russian government,” according to a report in Pravda.ru, an online news site spun off from the original propaganda publication of Russia’s Communist Party. “Moscow, Alaskan officials said, would protect the territory of the state and develop its natural resources better.”

At the bottom of the article is a video entitled, “Alaska and Hawaii to Pull Out from U.S.A.” Although both states are home to sovereignty activists, neither state is remotely close to seceding.

Then came the fuss

As the story spread, Fleener’s comments became fodder for a kerfuffle in Russian media over whose accounts were true and whose were bogus.

The Moscow Times, read widely by Western expats and other foreigners, taunted the “dozens” of Russian media outlets that misreported Fleener’s comments.

“It’s nearly April, but it might as well be Christmas morning in Moscow. Yes, on the 150th anniversary of ‘Seward’s Folly,’ a U.S. official today endorsed Alaska’s return to Russia,” the paper said. “That, anyway, is how the Russian state media reported it.”

The Times was fairly aggressive about straightening out the story behind Fleener’s comments and noted that RIA Novosti, the official state news agency of the Russian government, had modified its headline after publication.

“RIA Novosti changed the headline of its story, which was initially ‘In Alaska, Announcement That the State Would Be More Developed Under Moscow’s Control.’ The same article is now titled, ‘Advisor to the Alaska Government: We Value Our Ties to Russia,'” the Times wrote.

Critics outside Russia

The media dust-up over Fleener’s comments wasn’t limited to publications inside Russia.

The Euromaidan Press, a Ukrainian website named for the protests against that country’s pro-Russian president, ran a story about how Alaska most certainly would not have been better off under Russia as evidenced by the poor living conditions of the Russian North.

A social activist identified as Stepan Petrov told the news site that “the very worse (sic) conditions of life of residents of the northern countries are to be found in the North of Russia.”

Petrov then proceeded to describe what he understands to be the benefits enjoyed by Alaskans that would not have been available under the hypothetical Russian alternative: “developed private aviation,” “free food products,” and a “permanent fund which is made up of profits from oil there.”

“In a Russia Alaska, all that money would go to oligarchs and officials,” the article explained.

Tenuous U.S.-Russia relations

While U.S.-Russia relations haven’t deteriorated to Cold War levels, they weakened under the administration of former President Barack Obama and are in a tenuous place with last week’s bombing of a Syrian government air base by President Donald Trump. Russia is a close ally of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whose alleged use of chemical weapons on his own citizens reportedly prompted the U.S. attack.

Allegations that Russia engaged in fake news campaigns intended to distort elections in the U.S., the Netherlands and other countries have been verified by intelligence officials.

Fleener told Alaska Dispatch News in a phone interview that the most unlikely account of his comments that he heard “was that the U.S. just won’t let us go, implying we wanted to be let go, which isn’t even remotely the case. It went from me saying it was likely there would be natural resource development like there is today and perhaps more of a military presence (were Alaska still part of Russia) to things I hadn’t even said.”

He believes the flurry of news he created was the result of a language barrier.

“I had different folks from Russia news outlets coming up to me throughout the conference. I think something was just lost in translation,” he said. “I was told I was one of the most-searched names in Russia.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada – U.K. Arctic music & policy show looks to build bridges, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Arctic journalism – between ultimate freedom and ‘climate of oppression,’ The Independent Barents Observer

Denmark: Nordic information office suspends activities in Russia, Barents Observer

Norway: Expelled Barents Observer editor is on Russian sanction list, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia:  Report: Russia spread fake news and disinformation in Sweden, Radio Sweden

Sweden: Rural citizen journalism and fake news in the spotlight in North Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Affordable, high-quality broadband remains elusive in rural Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

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