Russian propaganda became one of the main elements of the war in Ukraine. In some cases, it is qualitatively camouflaged as material from Western media such as BBC, CNN or DW. Who is behind the falsification?
“This looks like a DW report,” a Japanese Twitter user commented on a fake video allegedly from DW about a Ukrainian refugee who allegedly blackmailed women. In a video report shared in the Japanese segment of Twitter, serious accusations are made against a Ukrainian identified as “Petro Savchenko”. The Twitter user continued with the comment: “I want to see the original video. Please tell me the URL of the original video.” Doubts can be read between his lines – quite justified. But the original video does not exist, so the material about the refugee thief is a fake. More on that later.
This example is not an isolated case. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, fakes, false claims and manipulations have been spreading online every day. A special role is played by multimedia fakes: videos, photos and screenshots allegedly from international broadcasters such as CNN, BBC or DW, which are actually manipulations or even complete fabrications. Some of these publications even become, in media slang, “viral”, reaching an audience of hundreds of thousands. The purpose of such fakes is to spread propaganda and mainly pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian or anti-Western narratives, which aim to sow doubts about the coverage of events by Western media and at the same time undermine trust in authoritative Western media.
Read also: Journalists discovered many inconsistencies in the reports of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
Fake video “from DW” about a Ukrainian refugee
So, now more about the fake video with the “Ukrainian refugee” allegedly “from DW”, which got into the circulation of the Japanese segment of Twitter.
The refugee’s name is Petro Savchenko, and he allegedly blackmailed dozens of German women. For example, after a meeting in a bar, he threatened to publish “pornographic images” taken by a hidden camera. The video also claims that the police are investigating Savchenko, who faces imprisonment.
The clip, which has only been viewed a thousand times, at first glance looks like a real DW video. A closer analysis, however, shows some inconsistencies: the font used does not correspond 100 percent to the DW font, which is easily recognizable, for example, by the letter X. In addition, there are periods at the end of the sentence, which is not practiced on DW. Even more suspicions should appear if you search for information about “Peter Savchenko” in search engines. Nowhere in the mass media, neither in German, nor in English, nor in Ukrainian was there a case of alleged mass blackmail reported. If such events had really taken place, they would most likely have been reported by others. In addition, this video does not contain any information about where and when the alleged crimes were committed.
Further analysis leads to even more significant contradictions: a search for a photo of the alleged criminal leads to the Russian site TopDB.ru, which, according to available data, belongs to Pavel Poperechny. He is from Sevastopol, and judging by his other social media profiles, he does not live in Germany. All the accusations in the video are unfounded and probably intentionally vague – a tactic used by fake news writers before to make fact-checking difficult.
Read also: How a “fact-checking” website spreads Russian propaganda on the Internet
Fake video of rocket attack on Kramatorsk “from BBC”
Another video, now passed off as a BBC product, managed to reach a much larger audience than the fake under the guise of a video from DW. After the Russian missile attack on the Kramatorsk train station, which claimed many lives, a video was shared many times, which managed to be viewed by half a million users. The distribution was mostly from pro-Russian accounts. It depicted corpses in Kramatorsk and a rocket that fell nearby. The text claimed that it was released by Ukrainian troops against its own people.
The BBC immediately issued a denial and called the video a “fake”. BBC producer Joe Inwood, who covered the Kramatorsk rocket fire for the BBC, confirmed that the video with the BBC logo was fake. He expressed concern that such a case may not be the last. The video, marked as “fake”, was documented by the Twitter channel of the Belarusian opposition project NEXTA.
The video, which at first glance could appear to be real, quickly went viral: fact-checkers of the German media company BR found references to it in German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Hindi and French. That’s why cyber warfare expert Sandro Gaycken, in a conversation with BR, called it a “coordinated but hasty operation” of disinformation. Roman Osadchuk, an expert in digital expertise and work with open sources at the Atlantic Council think tank, gave a more specific assessment in an interview with DW: “In the case of Kramatorsk, it was not just a fake video, it was only a small part of a whole campaign, the goal of which was to convince that Ukrainians are bombing their people, which is absurd.” In addition to the video, according to him, numerous messages on this topic were also distributed in the Telegram messenger and on other platforms.
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Fake social media posts “from CNN”
When posts from CNN, perhaps the most famous news channel in the world, are shared on Twitter, it is done to show that it is a serious source that can be trusted. But even here, not everything that looks real at first glance is so: with the beginning of the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, several fake “tweets” and fake accounts of CNN also spread, which forced the TV channel from Atlanta to come up with refutations. For example, CNN’s Twitter profile called “@CNNUKR” allegedly reported the alleged first death of an American in the war in Ukraine. But as our fact check showed, it is a fake. The same applies to the fake message on Twitter about the alleged bombing of a hotel in Ukraine.
Also, fakes are spread through alleged screen copies taken from “live broadcasts” of CNN. One of the posts indicated that CNN had mistakenly presented actual footage of the 2015 explosion. Fact-checking by the AFP agency also revealed falsehoods.
No BBC special about the atomic attack
This type of fake news is not new. In recent years, there have been many similar fakes attributed to reputable mass media. For example, a presenter in a studio similar to BBC News reported on an alleged military incident between Russia and NATO and the explosion of a nuclear bomb in Brussels. The video is a total insinuation, and it was not released by the BBC, the broadcaster clarified, but it continues to circulate on the network, Reuters reports.
Read also: Purchased likes of pro-Kremlin accounts: DW investigation
Who is behind these disinformation attacks?
The trail and path leading to the real authors of fake videos, photos or tweets is not always traceable. However, experts find indications that the traces lead to Russia. Josephine Luquito, a professor at the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that professional structures are behind the production of fakes. A significant part of the pro-Russian disinformation can be attributed to the authorship of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian “troll factory” that has been operating since 2012. The IRA gained notoriety for its attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Since 2014, numerous false reports have also been spread about Ukraine, attributed to the IRA.
“The long-term goal of this disinformation from Russia is to sow distrust in the media,” Luquito said. At the same time, trust in mass media is also deliberately exploited for its own purposes. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the field of disinformation, when supposedly serious news is published “under a false flag”.
DW’s head of cyber security Ingo Mannteufel emphasizes: “The state or state-related actors are often behind this sophisticated production of disinformation.” As for the fake video with the DW logo, its creators tried to use DW’s corporate design to “instill credibility in disinformation and influence opinion in the Japanese segment of Twitter according to Kremlin propaganda,” the expert said. This form of misinformation is called spoofing, where digital identity information is faked to gain credibility.
Read also: “Fake news” in times of coronavirus: why do people believe fake news?
How do video fakes work?
As a rule, media fakes are based on a copy of the design of the respective broadcaster. Researchers from the Atlantic Council think tank also came to this conclusion.