Images of the pregnant young Ukrainian woman wounded in a Russian airstrike on a hospital in Mariupol earlier this month soon went viral. And news that the woman had later passed away spread like wildfire.
To counter the story, Russian mouthpieces worldwide began claiming that the woman was actually a paid actress and the images of her being carried on a gurney were staged. There was no airstrike, they claimed.
FakeReporter, an Israeli disinformation watchdog, says that no fewer than 20 posts by Russian embassies promoted the link on their official Twitter, Facebook and Telegram accounts, pushing out the story claiming to debunk what was labeled a Ukrainian hoax.
The link came from a news outlet called War on Fake, which the watchdog says is the latest weapon in Russia’s information warfare arsenal: a website that promotes Russian disinformation through the pretext of combating disinformation. The supposedly anti-fake news site, which was set up at the beginning of March, was the first to publish claims that denied the airstrike’s existence and said that so-called crisis actors were being employed by Ukraine.
The link, an analysis by FakeReporter reveals, was then spread throughout the internet, on both social media platforms and closed messaging services.
The War on Fake website maintains an extremely active presence on the Telegram messaging app that is popular in Russia: its main channel has over 18 million viewers and the link was posted there as well as to at least 150 other groups linked to the Russian anti-disinformation site. It also has an active presence on TikTok and Reddit.
According to FakeReporter, War on Fake has become a local powerhouse: it maintains a dizzying array of local channels on Telegram, each linked to specific cities in Russia. These have become the de facto source of information for many Russians, who are increasingly disconnected from the world due to a crackdown on independent media and Western social media sites by the Kremlin, as part of its attempt to control the flow of information as the death count mounts on both sides in Ukraine.
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War on Fake’s reach is wide: the Russian news channel RRussiaNews has based all its reporting on the website’s purported fact-checking. An analysis of the link that claimed to debunk the death of the pregnant Ukrainian woman also shows that its reach is not limited to Russia: pro-Trump, neo-Nazi and QAnon channels also shared the story.
The link was even shared in Japanese on Twitter by Russia's embassy in the country, showing what FakeReporter called Russian disinformation’s “multilingual reach.”
Even wider than the link's reach are the group’s underlying claims: that war events were being staged by Ukraine as part of a wider ploy to hoodwink the world.
Much like QAnon, this new type of disinformation latches on to a wider conspiratorial narrative – one that Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev has described as a world in which “nothing is true and everything is possible.”
This logic was clearly on display in Russia’s efforts to describe the Mariupol attack as fake, as well as the support it received from the American alt-right. On Telegram, for instance, the neo-Nazi persona “Eric Striker” claimed that the images from Mariupol were “staged.” He asked, “Haven’t we seen this before?”
Within what FakeReporter calls the “American QAnon echo chamber,” such statements also help support Russian claims regarding Ukraine being overrun by Nazis. Echoing Putin’s “de-Nazification” claims, “Striker” and others on the U.S. alt-right posted that the hospital was in fact a base for the far-right, neo-Nazi Azov battalion.
Some accounts on Facebook echoed these claims, which all originated from the War on Fake report. “The maternity hospital has not worked since the beginning of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine. The doctors were dispersed by militants of the Azov nationalist battalion,” a suspected Russian account posted to a group of 10,000 Ukrainian expats.
In Russia, the narrative was also widely amplified on YouTube, with TVNZ – a Russian-language channel with over 400,000 subscribers – posting a video asking, “Was there an airstrike” at Mariupol and adorned it with the hashtag “#fake.”
FakeReporter is an Israeli nonprofit that monitors social media for disinformation. Initially, the group started out by focusing almost exclusively on Israeli media and disinformation being spread against protesters leading the anti-Benjamin Netanyahu movement, garnering international attention and even an FBI probe. However, in the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the organization and its group of volunteer, open-source investigators found themselves uniquely placed to track global disinformation efforts as well.
Many of the tactics they saw in use in Israel are now being employed as part of the Russian disinformation effort.
The most prominent example is Russia’s use of so-called “superspreaders” – large, official accounts belonging to the Russian government, senior officials or state media that serve to cast doubt on Western claims and establish an initial narrative that is then pushed out through smaller “influencers.”
Bots, made famous during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, play only a minor role compared to the accounts of Russian embassies or websites like Sputnik and War on Fake.
The analysis conducted by FakeReporter showed how disinformation about the Mariupol hospital airstrike was pushed in sync by dozens of official Russian embassy accounts, leading Facebook to take down posts.
FakeReporter’s findings also demonstrated the wider infrastructure that is supporting Russia’s disinformation effort: from websites like War on Fake to a rich history of conspiracy theories from which old narratives can be revived – and even allies in the form of China or far-right, U.S. conspiracy theorists.
The group's yet-to-be-published report, whose findings are being published here for the first time, show how disinformation that originated in the 1980s is now being repurposed in the Ukrainian context.
In fact, the widely circulated false claim that the United States is operating a system of secret biolabs in Ukraine has already been used in the not-so-distant past: In 2009, the exact same claims were made with regard to Georgia, which Russia had invaded the previous year, and more recently as part of disinformation campaign regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
The biolab narrative can trace its origins to a KGB disinformation campaign from the ’80s known as Operation Infektion, or Operation Denver, which claimed that HIV/AIDS was created by the U.S. Army as part of a secret biological warfare project at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The claim was first published in 1983, based on a tip from a U.S. scientist, and appeared in a newspaper in India called The Patriot, which the KGB had set up in the ’60s to spread disinformation.
The claim’s narrative, and even some of its details, are identical to claims that the United States created COVID-19. In fact, both China and Russia have made that claim during the pandemic – even in the context of Ukraine. For example, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official tweeted in English in April 2021 that “the US bio-military activities are not transparent, safe or justified. In Ukraine alone, the US has set up 16 bio-labs. Why does the US need so many labs all over the world? What activities are carried out in those labs, including the one in Fort Detrick?”
At the beginning of March, after the Russians had launched their invasion of Ukraine, the same official made the same comment. “This Russian military operation has uncovered the secret of the U.S. labs in Ukraine, and this is not something that can be dealt with in a perfunctory manner,” AP quoted Zhao Lijian as saying.
Throughout the first week of the invasion, countless Russian embassies posted statements about the biolabs in Ukraine. For example, the Russian mission to India posted an infographic detailing some 30 such labs.
And a journalist who has been accused of spreading misinformation about biological arms tweeted in 2018 that there are more than 10 secret U.S. labs in Ukraine. The website they write for provided the link that has spread online in subsequent years.
In 2020, others were already directly linking the claim to COVID-19 and Ukraine and Georgia, showing how such disinformation stories are interlinked and help form a web of doubts on a wide array of topics.
After the invasion began last month, attempts to debunk the biolabs story were also utilized by Russia’s superspreaders. A senior Russian diplomat shared a tweet claiming that details of the biolabs were being deleted online. When a journalist tried to call him out on the claim, the official doubled down on the need to ask “legitimate” questions.
The Russian Embassy in Japan tweeted after the invasion that there were attempts to “cleanse” Ukraine of traces of the biolabs.
Much like War on Fake, such tweets feed a wider narrative according to which the “truth” is being concealed. The full force of this logic was on display today, with Russian officials distributing a presentation that claimed that "the distribution of pathogenic biomaterials from Ukraine to European countries can lead to death of people and the creation of a hotbed of epidemiological instability, the scale of which will be comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic."