Fake News, Disinfo Abound in Russia-Ukraine Conflict

By John Friend

You can’t trust everything you see on television. Or Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or any other social media outlet or internet forum for that matter, especially in times of war where emotions are raging and propagandists are working overtime to influence and manipulate public opinion.

The amount of disinformation—fake or misrepresented imagery and testimony, images taken out of context, staged incidents and events designed for propaganda purposes—has reached levels perhaps never seen before. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine appears to be largely—although not exclusively—being waged in the information and public relations sphere.

Last Friday, images and video footage began widely circulating of a supposed Ukrainian fighter jet alleged to have targeted and blown up multiple Russian aircraft over the skies of Ukraine. The alleged heroic Ukrainian ace pilot quickly became known as the “Ghost of Kiev,” and clips of the pilot spread rapidly online.

The only problem: it was actually fake footage taken from a 2013 PC game called “Digital Combat Simulator: World,” according to Kotaku.com, a popular video game website and blog. The footage was taken from a YouTube video that explicitly stated that the imagery was taken from the video game, “but is nevertheless made out of respect for ‘The Ghost of Kiev,'” the uploader noted in the description of the video. “If he is real, may God be with him; if he is fake, I pray for more like ‘him.'”

Eagle Dynamics, the video game company that developed “Digital Combat Simulator: World,” confirmed to news outlets that the clip spreading all over social media was indeed from the video game. “We are not responsible for its distribution, nor do we endorse such content,” Matthias Techmanski, a spokesperson for Eagle Dynamics, told Reuters last week.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who has proven to be one of the biggest anti-Russian propagandists and war-hawks in the U.S. government, and others amplified and spread the fake story about the “Ghost of Kiev” on his official Twitter page.

Many more misleading and highly propagandistic stories emerged over the weekend, including an unconfirmed and likely false narrative of a group of Ukrainian soldiers defending an island in the Black Sea known as “Snake Island” who were allegedly killed after refusing to surrender to Russian forces last week. The 13 soldiers, border guards stationed on the island, supposedly cursed at a Russian military commander who had asked them to surrender under threat of an air and sea bombardment.

“This is a military warship. This is a Russian military warship,” Russian commanders allegedly radioed to their Ukrainian counterparts. “I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”

The Ukrainians allegedly responded by telling the Russians to “go f—” themselves, resulting in their deaths. However, Russia has insisted the Ukrainians did indeed surrender and recent news reports from Ukraine also suggest the border guards are in fact still alive, despite Ukrainian President Zelensky announcing their deaths and stating they would all receive the title of “Hero of Ukraine.”

Supporters of President Zelensky himself have even gotten in on the action of spreading fake news and misleading photographs. President Zelensky has repeatedly portrayed himself as a heroic defender of Ukraine, vowing to stay and fight on the front lines against Russian forces. Photos of President Zelensky in camouflage, a flak jacket and and army helmet have been widely circulating on social media in an effort to portray the former actor as a brave leader standing on the front lines with his troops.

A Reuters fact check, however, discovered that the photos are several months old. “The images were taken on Dec. 6, 2021, and show the president meeting with service members in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine,” the international news agency reported.

“The Snake Island story was fake, the Ghost of Kyiv was fake, the photos of Zelensky in body armor were fake (they’re old pictures being circulated as new ones),” Pedro Gonzalez, a dissident writer and commentator, noted on Twitter. “Ukraine-Russia is World War Reddit.”

Glenn Greenwald, one of the most insightful commentators and media critics in the alternative, independent media, perfectly explained the propagandistic dynamics involved in the modern social media environment perfectly in a recent article.

“Any war propaganda—videos, photos, unverified social media posts—that is designed to tug on Western heartstrings for Ukrainians or appear to cast them as brave and noble resistance fighters, or Russians as barbaric but failing mass murderers, gets mindlessly spread all over without the slightest concern for whether it is true,” Greenwald noted. “To be on social media or to read coverage from Western news outlets is to place yourself into a relentless vortex of single-minded, dissent-free war propaganda.”

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