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What's a Russian Propagandist Doing in Brooklyn?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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There's a start-up in New York that I'm not sure I want to see succeed, even though it's based on a sound idea. It's called Babo, and allows citizen journalists to send videos from their smartphones to news organizations and get paid for it.

Its founder, Ashot Gabrelyanov, 26, is the son of Aram Gabrelyanov,  who aspired to be Russia's Rupert Murdoch until he put his tabloid empire at the service of President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine. Gabrelyanov senior's company, News Media, is 50 percent owned by the media holding of Yury Kovalchuk and Gennady Timchenko, two of Putin's billionaire friends who are now the target of U.S. sanctions imposed in response to Russia's depredations in Ukraine. 

Ashot learned the business from his father. In 2009, Gabrelyanov Jr. started the tabloid news site Lifenews.ru, and in 2013, a noxious cable channel grew out of it. The ambition was to propel News Media from crime reporting and paparazzi scoops into the realm of serious news, and Lifenews looks slick and professional. You'll never hear criticism of Putin on it, and its slanted coverage of the Ukraine crisis has made it the most hated news outlet in Kiev, resulting in the persistent harassment of its reporters there. 

"We cover everything, but we make a mass product, and the mass audience votes for Putin," Ashot Gabrelyanov explained  in a 2013 interview. "We cannot go against the audience's opinion."

Last fall, Ashot quit his father's company to try to make a success of Babo. The app started as a Lifenews project, and Gabrelyanov says the channel bought 1,000 amateur videos through it last year. News Media, however, didn't want to commercialize the platform, and Ashot bought it from the company. Now, Gabrelyanov says, he's marketing Babo to news organizations that want user-generated content. An editor could even use geolocation to commission a video from Babo users close to, say, the scene of a major crash.

It's not a bad idea, though it's not particularly original. A company called Rawporter, based on the same principle, attracted venture funding and ran its consumer apps for two years before selling the platform. Other citizen journalism platforms, such as Meporter and OpenWatch, center on self-publishing, not on selling content to professionals. Clearly, TV stations and news sites want exclusive footage fast. 

Ashot is now promoting his app in New York, where he moved in January. He lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and goes to rooftop parties, though he "doesn't like all the hipsters," as he recently told Mashable

Meanwhile, Gabrelyanov senior keeps doing his patriotic duty for Putin. On the Lifenews website today, the top story was "Donetsk People's Republic's Militia Prevents Takeover of Shyrokine and Horlivka," two Ukrainian towns that have recently endured increased shelling by the pro-Russian militants in clear violation of the truce now in force in Eastern Ukraine.

Technically, there's nothing wrong with the setup:  the Gabrelyanovs aren't under sanctions, and there's no legal reason that U.S. news organizations shouldn't buy into Babo. The app's pedigree shouldn't matter. After all, a lot of technology on the Internet grew out of porn sites.

There is something distasteful, however, about a service used by Lifenews and the state-owned Russian propaganda outlet RT hitting the U.S. market. After all, Gabrelyanov could have tried marketing his app to Russian news outlets -- if they hadn't declined in recent years, squeezed by Putin's government to clear the way for Lifenews-style propaganda. My problem with Babo and its young, good-looking, charismatic founder boils down to my belief in karma, or perhaps just to squeamishness. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net