One year of misinformation on the war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine, about to turn one year old, has been accompanied by a fierce disinformation battle, conducted in particular by pro-Russian agitators seeking to distort and shift blame for many of the atrocities on the ground, portray the Ukrainian side as Nazis, or suggest that Western support for Kiev is evaporating.

Check out some of the top narratives, false or misleading, that have been checked over the past year by AFP’s digital verification teams.

  • All an act? –

Russian authorities themselves have propagated the idea that some of the worst atrocities – such as the massacre of civilians in Bucha, not far from Kiev, in April 2022 – were staged. In this case, two poor quality videos were used to imply that people were just pretending to be dead, which AFP was able to disprove thanks to its professionals on the spot.

Many other videos were widely circulated on social media with similar claims that some of the horrific crimes were staged. But the images turned out to be completely unrelated, like a rap clip, a science fiction movie and a Russian TV series.

  • Press in the crosshairs –

Many of the accusations point the finger at the world’s leading media organizations. Numerous screenshots have been shared on this topic, for example, claiming that CNN used old footage completely unrelated to the war in Ukraine in its coverage.

Other internet users attacked the television channels, accusing them of broadcasting images of bandaged and bloodied people only pretending to be injured. In fact, they were real victims of Russian attacks.

  • Ukraine accused of Nazism –

A flurry of false statements online echo Moscow’s narrative that Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky was the head of a gang of “Nazis” or “drug users.”

Thus, social media posts were shared around the world, saying that a man covered in Nazi tattoos was a police chief in Kiev or that Zelensky had been photographed wearing a soccer jersey emblazoned with a swastika.

Drug-related accusations circulated alongside doctored footage of questionable quality on the grounds of proving Zelensky’s cocaine addiction.

  • Anti-refugee narrative –

Ukrainian refugees were also targeted, especially in neighboring countries like Poland and Slovakia. Manipulated or misleading photos and videos proliferated online, seeking to show refugees as neo-Nazis, criminals, or the cause of trash trails on public transportation.

Other misleading messages, shared in several European nations, claim that Ukrainian refugees receive more in social benefits than retirees or veterans in host countries.

  • Betrayed by your allies? –

Another recurring theme is the alleged betrayal of Ukraine by its neighbor and ally, Poland. Thus, weather maps are manipulated to suggest that Poland wants to annex part of Ukrainian territory, or documents are falsified to show that Warsaw is planning to establish a protectorate in western Ukraine.

Other posts on social media suggest that support for Kiev is not as solid as the West would like to believe. There are altered images of anti-refugee posters in Prague and Warsaw; manipulated photos of anti-Zelensky street art in major cities around the world; and fake pages from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Ukrainian leader.

  • Sanctions and energy crisis –

Disinformation also focused on energy issues in the face of Western sanctions against Russia and high oil and electricity prices.

In addition to numerous incorrect claims about prices or supplies, posts claimed that the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, wants to ban heating homes above 17 degrees Celsius.

A huge campaign has emerged in Europe in which major news sites – mostly from Germany, but also from other countries – have been imitated to propagate pro-Moscow messages.

The website of Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, for example, appeared to feature an article about a boy killed in a bicycle accident in Berlin after the lights were turned off at night while Europe’s largest economy was facing an energy crisis. But the website and the article were false.

False fact-checks attempt to camouflage Russia’s role in the war

Since the beginning of its invasion a year ago, Russia and its supporters have tried to distort Moscow’s role in Ukraine with a weapon that experts consider a very potent one in its arsenal: disinformation campaigns.

Fact-checkers around the world have unmasked a series of ‘fake news’ (fake news) created to divert attention from Russia’s possible war crimes or otherwise defame its opponent.

A task made more complex by false “fact-checking” that threatens the reliability of this work.

Last month, at least 46 people were killed when a residential building in Dnipro, Ukraine, was hit by a Russian Kh-22 cruise missile, Ukrainian authorities and experts reported.

The attack on the nine-story building became one of the deadliest in Ukraine since the Russian offensive began. However, pro-Russia propagandists possessed a clever counter-narrative to deflect blame away from Moscow.

The “War on Fakes” website – disseminator of what experts call Russian propaganda – claimed in an “exclusive” that the building had been destroyed by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense missile.

Like the fact-checking agencies, the portal used images with the word “fake” stamped in bold red letters, along with open source, video and graphic material – which used complex trigonometry to make the case.

“Since the Russian invasion, the ‘War On Fakes’ initiative has become a source of false checks,” Roman Osadchuk of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab told AFP.

  • “Effective tool” –

“War On Fakes,” whose channel on Telegram has hundreds of thousands of members, calls itself “objective” and “impartial.” It claims to fight the “information war launched against Russia.”

Launched last year shortly after the Russian offensive, the site does not say who the authors are and still does not make it clear who is behind the project. However, among its amplifiers are Kremlin supporters, including Russian ministries and embassies.

“It is an effective tool of state propaganda and disinformation,” Osadchuk said.

“It works mainly because fact-checking generally serves readers as an ‘authoritative’ source for ‘factual information’.”

Campaigns similar to pseudo ‘fact-checking’ have appeared on Russian state television, which airs a segment called “AntiFake,” as well as a pro-Moscow channel on Telegram called “Fake Cemetery.”

These and other supporters of Russia have used misleading fact-checks to discredit Western media reports, including AFP, from the various incidents in the conflict.

This includes the killings in the Kiev suburb of Bucha, where hundreds of bodies were discovered after the Russian army was expelled last March. In addition to this, there was the bombing of a maternity hospital in the port city of Mariupol, captured by Moscow after a long siege.

Some states, including Russia, have a “long tradition of using fact-checking techniques as part of their propaganda efforts,” Martin Innes, director of Cardiff University’s Institute for Security, Crime and Intelligence Innovation, told AFP.

“Rather than just sowing disinformation, they are typically used to try to disprove an opponent’s claims or to cast doubt on the veracity of claims made by them.”

  • Undermining trust’ –

The hijacking of the ‘fact-checking’ format has intensified the information warfare – naming by analysts – surrounding the Russian offensive, presenting new challenges for real fact-checkers.

“False fact-checks risk undermining trust in trusted media and legitimate fact-checking institutions,” Madeline Roache of the watchdog organization NewsGuard told AFP.

“They can also distort perceptions of Ukraine and the West, and make it appear that facts about the war are impossible to obtain.”

Pro-Russia actors try to saturate the news landscape with varying and conflicting versions of a story so that it becomes difficult to decipher the exact truth, analysts suggest.

“War on Fakes” often publishes a series of fact-checks on the same topic, sometimes with conflicting claims that overwhelm readers.

The site publishes “so many false claims that the fact-checkers often contradict each other,” says the US-based Poynter Institute.

“The goal is to confuse the public, to overwhelm them,” added Jakub Kalensky, a senior analyst at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, in an interview with AFP.

“The ideal result will be a consumer who ends up saying ‘there are many versions of facts, for me it is impossible to find out which is the truth,'” Kalensky says.

*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI team ***

By admin