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Fact check: fake news under false flags

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Pro-Russian propaganda is omnipresent in the Ukraine war. In some cases, however, it is well camouflaged: as alleged content from Western media such as BBC, CNN, or DW. What’s behind it?

“It looks like a DW report,” a Twitter user commented in Japanese on an alleged DW video about a Ukrainian refugee who is said to have blackmailed women. The video report shared on the Japanese-language Twitter network, makes serious allegations against a Ukrainian named “Petro Savchenko”. The Twitter user who commented on the video continued: “I want to see the original video. Please tell me the URL of the original video.” Doubts resonate between his lines – and rightly so. Because there is no original video, the video about the allegedly criminal fugitive is fake. More on that later.

This video is not an isolated case. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, fake, false claims and manipulations have been spread online on a daily basis. Media fakes play a special role here: videos, photos, and screenshots that are said to have come from international broadcasters such as CNN, BBC, or DW, but which are actually manipulated or even fictitious. Some of these posts even go viral, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. The goal: the dissemination of propaganda and mostly pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian, or anti-Western narratives that are intended to sow doubts about Western reporting – and at the same time probably damage the credibility of the established Western media.

Alleged DW video about a Ukrainian refugee

What happened in this case? A Japanese-language Twitter account focused on the war in Ukraine recently shared a video ( archived here ) reporting on an alleged criminal fugitive from Ukraine.

The refugee’s name is “Petro Savchenko” and is said to have blackmailed dozens of German women. He is said to have threatened to release “pornographic images” of them, recorded on a hidden camera, after meeting them in bars. The video also claims that the police are investigating Savchenko, who is now facing a prison sentence.

The video, which has only been viewed a thousand times, looks like an authentic DW video at first glance. In fact, minimal deviations are only noticeable on closer analysis: The font used does not correspond one hundred percent to that of DW, which is easy to recognize, for example, with the letter X. In addition, periods are set at the end of the sentence, which does not happen in DW videos. You should also be suspicious: the name “Petro Savchenko” does not lead to any corresponding hits when researching in search engines. No media reported on the alleged incident of multiple blackmail, neither in German nor in English or Ukrainian, which is unrealistic in such a case. In addition, the video does not provide any information as to where and when the crimes are said to have occurred.

Further research leads to even more inconsistencies: A reverse image search of the alleged perpetrator’s photo leads to a profile on the Russian website TopDB.ru, which according to the available data is said to belong to Pavel Poperechnyy. He comes from Sevastopol and according to his other social media profiles, he does not live in Germany. The allegations made in the video are all unsubstantiated and probably not unreasonably vague – a tactic used in previous fake news stories to make history more difficult to verify.

Fake BBC video of Kramatorsk missile attack

An alleged BBC video reached significantly more people than the false DW video: After the Russian rocket attack on the Kramatorsk train station, which cost many lives, a video circulated that was posted several times and viewed a total of half a million times. Shared on numerous pro-Russian profiles, it shows dead bodies in Kramatorsk and a rocket that crashed nearby. The text claims that the rocket came from Ukrainian troops and was fired at their own people.

Ukraine | Attack on Kramatorsk railway station
The rocket attack on the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk was accompanied by a Russian disinformation campaign

The BBC immediately contradicted and described the video as “fake”. BBC producer Joe Inwood, who reported on the rocket attack for the BBC, confirmed: The report is not real, but has BBC branding, which raises concerns that more fakes could follow. The video is documented ( archived here ) on a Ukrainian Twitter channel, which labeled the depiction as “fake”.

The clip, which seemed authentic at first glance, spread quickly: BR fact checker found posts in German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Indian and French in the first few hours alone. Cyberwar expert Sandro Gaycken, therefore, spoke to BR of a “concerted but urgent operation” of disinformation. Roman Osadchuk, digital forensic scientist and open-source expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, was more specific in an interview with DW: “In the case of Kramatorsk, it wasn’t just the fake video, it was just a small part of a whole campaign. Man wanted to convince people that Ukrainians are bombing their own people, which is absurd.” The video was accompanied by numerous posts in the Telegram messenger service and on other platforms.

Fake CNN tweets cause confusion

When tweets from what is probably the world’s most well-known news channel CNN are shared, this suggests a high level of credibility. But even here, not everything that looks like it at first glance is real: several fake tweets or even fake CNN accounts have been circulating since the start of the Ukraine war, forcing CNN to deny it. For example, when the alleged CNN Twitter channel “@CNNUKR” reported the first death of an American in the Ukraine war – a fake story, as our fact check showed. It was similar with a fake tweet about an alleged bombing of a hotel in Ukraine.

Screenshots from CNN accounts | fact check
Fake CNN tweets showed a fatality, which was not the case in either case

And supposedly screenshots from CNN live broadcasts spread false information. This post suggested that CNN had mistakenly sold images of a 2015 explosion as current. This representation is also wrong, as an AFP fact check proved.

No BBC nuclear attack special

This type of fake news in the best sense of the word is not new. In the past few years, there has always been false news that has been attributed to the established media. A particularly dramatic case: In a video, a moderator in a BBC News-like studio reported on a military incident between Russia and NATO and the explosion of a nuclear bomb in Brussels. The video is purely fictional and not from the BBC, the broadcaster clarified – and yet it continues to be shared, as Reuters reports.

Who is behind these disinformation attacks?

The trail to the actual authors of the fake videos, images, or tweets is not always immediately apparent. However, experts see evidence that the tracks lead to Russia. Josephine Lukito, a professor at the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, sees professional structures behind the fake productions. Much of the pro-Russian disinformation could be attributed to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll factory active since 2012. The IRA became known for attempting to influence the US presidential election campaign in 2016. Since 2014, numerous false reports attributed to the IRA have also been spread about Ukraine.

“The long-term goal of this disinformation emanating from Russia is to sow distrust in the media system,” said Lukito. In doing so, the credibility of news media is also exploited for their own purposes. This is a relatively new phenomenon of disinformation, in which allegedly legitimate news is published under false flags.

Ingo Mannteufel, head of cybersecurity at DW, emphasizes: “State or state-related actors are often behind this elaborate production of disinformation.” In the specific case involving DW, the authors of the fake video tried to use the DW design to “give credibility to the disinformation and influence opinion in the Japanese Twitter space in line with Kremlin propaganda.” This form of disinformation is called spoofing, in which digital identity is faked in order to gain trust and credibility.

How do the video counterfeiters do it?

As a rule, the media fakes are based on a replica of the respective station design. The digital forensic scientists at the Atlantic Council think tank also came to this conclusion. In the case of the fake BBC video, the BBC’s logo, inserts, and style were copied and transmitted to give the appearance of a genuine BBC video, according to researcher Eto Buziashvili. “They copied everything that makes up a BBC video and then created fake videos. They took the BBC’s entire template, including the title.” Such a replica is not too difficult to create but requires knowledge of video editing and appropriate programs.

Is the fake news successful?

The effect of fake news is difficult to measure, says Scott Radnitz of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, especially with regard to the war in Ukraine. “Due to the fact that most people already have strong opinions about the war in Ukraine, they are more likely to consume the news that supports their point of view and instinctively rejects what contradicts it.” Therefore, these “information warfare” actions are aimed more at those who are receptive to such news. In a way, Radnitz told DW that it was “an honor” when news channels like the BBC, CNN or DW became the target of the attacks because they were perceived as credible, relevant players.

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