Russia’s propaganda games continue to escalate, parallel to its on-the-ground activities in Ukraine. Amorphous tactics of deliberately faking, distorting or skewing information are designed to make detection more difficult. For example, Russian media scaled down their misuse of photographs from Chechnya, Syria and other parts of the world as images of Ukraine, since those fraudulent representations are easily refuted. Propagandists resorted to altering images – for example, adding swastikas to Ukrainian flags and so on. Nonetheless, that technique was also easy to debunk. Therefore, the Russian media machine evolved to staging entire “events” and “demonstrations,” in order to produce original imagery and video recordings that would be considerably more difficult to dispel.
Russia’s propaganda incubators also continue to use fake experts, blogs and social media commentators as their “original sources,” stretching the limits of plausible deniability. For example, Sputnik posted a preposterous article, entitled “Putin the Best Thing Happened to Russia in Hundred Years – US Officer.” The sole source for this propaganda piece is Scott Bennett (aka Scott Allan Bennett), described by Sputnik as “a former US army psychological warfare officer and counter-terrorism analyst.” In reality, Bennett was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for posing as an active duty military officer and other related offenses. Bennet was an Army reservist, “not a psychological operations officer,” who served in a strictly civilian capacity as a former finance analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton. Bennett’s LinkedIn page claims that he is currently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton as a “Psychological Warfare/counterterrorism analyst”, but the company officially refuted this allegation. Bennett was fired by Booz Allen in 2010.
Another “expert” frequently featured on RT is Eric Draitser. He is introduced as a “geopolitical analyst,” but is in fact an automobile insurance salesman for the New York Automobile Insurance Plan. Several dubious “experts” and “reporters” frequently used by Russian propaganda outlets have been investigated and exposed by The Interpreter, StopFake, Ukraine: War Log and other publications.
Russian mainstream media tends to mistranslate, misattribute or completely invent quotes from foreign publications, in order to create an appearance of unintentional “mistakes” once those tactics backfire. Currently, the BBC is a popular target of Russia’s propaganda, being cited as the source of reports that the network never aired or published. Troll bot farms echo the topics of Russia’s mainstream outlets, in an attempt to monopolize the content of social media and search engines in their coverage of newsworthy themes.
Another propaganda technique that continues to gain momentum involves dissemination of information allegedly obtained by various hacker groups. This tactic provides plausible deniability, since the data is supposedly produced by nameless, faceless hackers. It pollutes the information space and can be more time-consuming to refute.
Terrorist formation in Eastern Ukraine, functioning as a self-proclaimed ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ (LPR/LNR) claimed to have located a cache of American-made weapons in the Lugansk airport. This “news” was reported by RT, TV Zvezda, RIA Novosti, LifeNews, Vzglyad and others. However, the video produced by hapless militants reveals that the ‘Stingers’ they proudly displayed were obviously fake. They were missing key components, displayed in irregular transportation containers and empty shells of purported ‘Stingers’ were crudely soldered together. Numerous markings were inconsistent with standard markings on real ‘Stingers’ and were grossly misspelled (“Rainer” instead of “Trainer,” “Louded” instead of “Loaded,” “Re usable instead of “Re-Usable” or “Reusable”).
This ridiculous fabrication turned out to be even more laughable. The virtual Stinger model in the game “Battlefield 3” bears the markings of “Tracking Rainer” (instead of “Tracking Trainer”). The serial number is a dead-ringer for the one emblazoned upon a virtual Stinger in another game, “Operation Flashpoint” (terrorists used “566721,” the virtual version – “366721”). It’s painfully obvious that the LPR/LNR terrorists modeled their shabby fake Stingers after modified virtual weapons from popular video games.
Russia’s numerous mainstream media outlets, including Komsomolskaya Pravda, REN TV, MKRU (Moskovskiy Komsomolets), Regnum and TV Zvezda reported that independent journalist Margarita Valenko was shot to death in Kyiv, Ukraine. They elaborated that Valenko was a stringer for Russia Today and a vocal opponent of the alleged “Nazi direction” in which Ukraine is supposedly moving. Russian mainstream media claimed that Valenko was repeatedly threatened by Ukrainian “radicals” for her “pro-Donbas” stance. Russian media outlets reported that the entrance to Valenko’s apartment building was immediately flooded with candles and flowers from all who knew and loved her. No photos were provided. To the contrary, the photo that was used to illustrate this story was actually that of the NTV reporter Inna Osipova.
Russia Today denied ever working with any reporter by the name of “Margarita Valenko” and the original source of this dubious posting (Yury Kot) claimed that it was posted on his Facebook page by “a friend.” Kyiv police confirmed that this deadly shooting never took place. The story turned out to be an outright fabrication.
Russian media outlets disseminated claims that Ukraine’s President Poroshenko resigned. These allegations were echoed by separatist organizations and Russia’s numerous troll bots on social media. The BBC and its reporter in Ukraine, Tom Burridge, were listed as the original source of this claim. However, the BBC never released such a report and BBC reporter Tom Burridge denied it as well. This is one of many examples of Russia’s propaganda machine’s tactic that falsely attributes fictitious quotes to reputable media outlets, in order to give credence to their fabrications, while at the same time attempting to impugn the credibility of legitimate news sources.
RT proudly showcased anti-American protests in Ukraine, where protesters held up photos of Grozny, Chechnya after it was demolished by Russia. RT described these images as follows: “Some carried photos depicting the destruction and casualties in the country’s restive east, while others held signs reading “The blood of Donbass kids is on Obama’s hands.””
Curiously, the same images previously surfaced during another seemingly staged “demonstration,” where Grozny, Chechnya was identified as “Donetsk.” It should be noted that during both events, “protesters” were turning away from the cameras or covering up their faces with their uniformly-written signs, which is typical for paid “demonstrations.”
Russian media and Russia-funded separatist outlets claimed that Senator John McCain referred to the Ukrainian government as “morons” who “can’t be trusted with anything.” Without linking to the original source of this dubious quote, Russian media outlets attributed it to Zhanna Nemtsova’s interview with Senator McCain for RBK news agency. Both McCain and Nemtsova have long been targeted by Russian pro-government propaganda. Search of RBK archives reveals that they did not release any such “interview” with Senator McCain. Furthermore, after the murder of her father, Boris Nemtsov, Zhanna Nemtsova left Russia and is set to start working as a reporter for Deutsche Welle in August 2015.
Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article with a shocking headline, claiming that Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) permits the shooting of civilians on the territory of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). In reality, the article where the alleged information was supposedly located, states as follows: “A ride in a peaceful city with machine guns and assault rifles at the ready, to open fire, shoot-to-kill-propelled grenades in a peaceful town is unacceptable to anyone. You cannot shoot at civilians or law enforcement officials.” Komsomolskaya Pravda attempted to use the science of deduction as a wannabe Sherlock and failed miserably. There are no SBU rules that permit the military to fire at unarmed civilians, in or out of the ATO area.
Russian media attributed quotes to Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, claiming that he bemoaned lack of cooperation with the EU which “cannot be trusted” and exclaimed that it’s time to “turn towards Russia.” The source of these alleged quotes was listed as “Arutz 10,” with the link to Israeli channel Nana 10. “Arutz” means “Channel” in Hebrew and is not part of the actual channel name. Search of Nana 10 reports demonstrates that the channel did not post any such “interview” and rarely mentions Ukraine in its programs. President Poroshenko’s public announcements and postings show his ongoing commitment to moving forward Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU. The story published by the Russian media is an outright fabrication.
Russia’s fringe media outlets and Russia-funded separatist media attributed the following quote to the New York Times: “In Ukraine Neo-Nazi storm troopers merge with an Islamic terrorist group that identifies itself as ‘brothers’ of the Islamic State. These ‘death squads’ exterminate ethnic Russians in the Eastern Ukraine.” Several other bogus quotes were also credited to the New York Times. In reality, the article to which they purport to be referring does not contain any of the cited text.
Russian media outlets reported that the leader of the Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, was killed during the standoff in Mukacheve. This obvious fake is important not in terms of debunking it, since Yarosh clearly didn’t blow up on a landmine. What’s more notable in these fabrications is one of the current techniques of Russia’s propaganda machine, where their fakes are falsely attributed to reputable mainstream media outlets. In this instance, the BBC was cited as the source of this report. In reality, the BBC did not broadcast any such information. Articles that name the alleged source, without including direct links to the articles or video reports in question, should be given no credence.
Lifenews reported that the Ukrainian Security Service is planning to ban a number of broadcasters from airing in Ukraine. This information was based on the data supposedly obtained by the ‘Cyber Berkut’ hacker group. Included in this dubious list were the BBC and Voice of America. It should be noted that the BBC was listed with a misspelled web address “bbc.co.uk/riissian.”
Ukraine’s Minister of Information Policy Yuri Stets promptly refuted this report, calling the list an “utter nonsense,” while pointing out that e-mail addresses listed by the hackers do not belong to him or members of his agency. Far from being “banned,” the BBC was actually approved by the Security Service of Ukraine to be embedded with military regimens, enabling them to report from the frontlines of the ongoing hostilities as part of the new initiative, Embedded Journalists.
Russian media claimed that the results of the official international investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines (MH17) crash would be classified upon Ukraine’s insistence. Russian media intentionally conflated two separate matters. Ukrainian officials were discussing a pending criminal investigation pertaining to the downing of MH17. The Dutch Safety Board’s investigation into the MH17 crash will not be classified and is scheduled for publication in October 2015.
Russia-funded and hosted separatist media falsely reported that Ukrainian military opened mortar fire on Trasnistria. This fabricated “news” spread like wildfire on social media, due to Russia’s notorious use of countless troll bots. In reality, this was a complete fabrication, as Transnistria readily confirmed. Nonetheless, Sputnik bemoaned Transnistria’s fears, allegedly prompted by “the increased activity of the Ukrainian army and NATO forces near the border with Transnistria.” This is one of many examples of the way Russian propaganda foments unrest in various countries and regions, stemming from patently false “news reports.”
RT, Ruptly, TV Zvezda and other Russian publications claimed that “masked radicals” brutally attacked anti-government protesters in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. They further claimed that police stood by and took no action to intervene, when “radicals” beat up the protesters, causing injuries. Interestingly enough, the video does not show the police anywhere near the scene of the filming. This event has all the hallmarks of a staged production: namely, all posters are written in the same handwriting, participants are lackadaisical and disinterested, actors playing the parts of “radicals” don’t “beat up,” much less injure, anyone involved. The action starts on cue, when the car (with a convenient dash camera) pulls up to the scene, which is already being filmed by cameras from both sides of the road. In addition to being obviously staged, according to eyewitness reports and visible landmarks, this video was reportedly filmed in Kyiv, on Raduzhnaya Street at approximately 7 AM one day earlier and not in Dnipropetrovsk.
This example of shameless fakery also demonstrates Russian media’s maze of “source” references without accompanying links, which makes the task of tracking down the source of fake information all the more difficult. RT’s article about this event lists the UNN as their source, while RT’s logo is plastered on the video in question. RT fails to provide the link to the article by the UNN, which is located here. However, the UNN does not claim this “report” as their exclusive, listing Kommentarii as its source. There again, Kommentarii is not the original source either, attributing the report to 1news. Predictably, 1news does not name any of its sources, reporters on the scene or videographers.
Russian mainstream media accused the Ukrainian military of deliberately firing upon the Red Cross workers. RT aired a press conference of Eduard Basurin – self-appointed “Deputy Minister of Defense” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR/DNR), accusing Ukrainian military of specifically targeting Red Cross officials. Notoriously inaccurate Anna News went a step further, claiming that “Banderite forces” attacked the Red Cross in order to pin the blame on the terrorist republic. Regnum news outlet echoed those allegations, accusing Ukraine of creating a “provocation” – the term Russia frequently uses to shirk its own culpability.
The Red Cross refuted these accusations, stating that it was accidentally caught in the cross fire, without being specifically targeted. The Red Cross officials did not place the blame on either side.
Russia’s Defense Ministry’s media outlet TV Zvezda accused Ukrainian military of flooding civilian areas of Donetsk with multiple rocket launchers ‘Grad’ and ‘Uragan.’ However, the video used in an attempt to corroborate this claim of ceasefire violations was actually filmed over one year ago – it was uploaded to YouTube on April 13, 2014. The cover photo for the article, as well as the video posted by Zvezda, is a stock photo from the government website of Ukraine.
Russian Parliament’s head of Foreign Affairs Committee, Alexey Pushkov, publicly claimed that Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States “admitted” that the U.S. is “secretly” supplying Ukraine with lethal arms. In reality, Ambassador Valeriy Chaly specifically said that the U.S. is providing only non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, as Russia’s own media outlets have reported.
Russian mainstream media claimed that the newly proposed legislation by Ukraine’s Ministry of Health will legalize the wholesale of human organs to the U.S. and EU. To the contrary, draft of the new law contains a specific prohibition on the trade of human organs, contained in Article 19, which states in relevant part:
“Article 19. Prohibition on the trade of human organs
Entering into agreements that provide for purchase/sale of human organs and/or other profit-seeking activities with respect to organs or other anatomical matter of a human being, with exception of bone marrow, is prohibited.”
Russian mainstream media, including RT and TASS issued a number of urgent reports, claiming that the Embassy of Yemen in Kyiv was burning. In fact, there is no Embassy of Yemen in Ukraine. The diplomatic mission for Yemen in Ukraine is physically located in Moscow, Russia. The fire in Kyiv impacted office buildings and not embassies or consulates of any other country. This fake news was obviously designed to undermine the international image of Ukraine abroad.
Russia’s biggest mainstream media outlets, including RT, RIA Novosti and Sputnik News, disseminated a fake letter purportedly authored by Senator Dick Durbin. They’ve accused Senator Durbin of giving “direct orders to Ukrainian PM Yatsenyuk.” The phony correspondence was clearly not authored by a native English speaker and was promptly denounced by Senator Durbin, who referred this matter for investigation to the FBI and the CIA. Nonetheless, Russian media neither retracted, nor corrected their stories based on a clearly falsified document.
Russian media claimed that a Ukrainian retiree committed suicide, wearing traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt “vyshyvanka” and yelling “Glory to Ukraine!” to protest high utility rates. In reality, the victim was not wearing a vyshyvanka or shouting “Glory to Ukraine!” at the time of his suicide. He suffered from severe ailments and was dealing with stressful family issues. The victim’s relatives denied the allegations disseminated by the Russian media and said that the true reasons behind this suicide are not known.