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How Russia is using fake fact-checks to spread disinformation about Ukraine

One of the tools used against false news online is being weaponised to spread the very thing it was designed to fight against.

FACT-CHECKS, ONE of the first lines of defence in the fight against disinformation, are now being weaponised to spread false news about Ukraine.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, fact-checkers across the world (like us at The Journal) got to work verifying a constant deluge of photos, footage and claims circulating on the internet about the war.  

False news including denials of civilian bombings, claims of bio-labs and incorrect allegations about the President of Ukraine’s links to neo-Nazis have been well-documented and dispelled. 

The fact-check and debunk format means records can be corrected quickly and in a highly shareable way.  

On social media feeds which are often flooded with conflicting information, big red stamps on images declaring things as ‘FAKE’, ‘DEBUNKED’ or ‘FALSE’ stand out.

Audiences can get the correct information without even clicking into the story, allowing disinformation to be countered on the fly.

On March 9, reports that a hospital containing a maternity ward had been hit by a Russian artillery strike began to filter in, with major new outlets such as the BBC verifying videos of the attack.

A day later, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted a photo of a bloodied pregnant woman being helped from the rubble of a building with a red rubber stamp marked ‘Fake’. 

The Russian tweet claimed that the images did not show that a maternity ward and hospital in Mariupol had been hit by its country’s artillery, but instead that “the maternity house was long non-operational” and “used by… the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion”. 

Subsequent Russian tweets identified the injured pregnant woman as Marianna Podgurskaya, a Ukranian beauty influencer and claimed she “played roles of both pregnant women” in photos taken by “a famous propagandist photographer”.

Multiple fact-check organisations later verified that Marianna was indeed pregnant and, according to the Associated Press, she gave birth two days later.

The woman photographed being carried out by a stretcher, while not formerly identified, was shown not to be Marianna. The Associated Press reported that she and her baby died days after the attack. 

Twitter responded to Russia’s false ‘fact-check’ by removing the tweets, citing a violation of the platform’s rules as the reason for doing so. 

“Specifically, our Hateful Conduct and Abusive Behaviour policies related to the denial of violent events,” a spokesperson said at the time. 

While this might have been the most-publicised use of fake ‘fact-checks’ by Russia to deny evidence of its military aggression against Ukrainian civilians, it wasn’t the first instance of this happening.  

Early in the conflict, Spanish fact-checkers at identified a ‘debunk’ which claimed that images of shelled apartment blocks in Chuguyev, southeast of the city of Kharkiv, were actually old photos of a gas explosion in Russia. 

The ‘debunk’ relied on the same methodologies as open source intelligence investigators and fact checkers, using side by side images of buildings to ‘prove’ that they were images of an old event.

But as Maldita and AFP proved, the images of the damaged apartment block were timestamped to the first day of the Russian invasion, not in 2018 as the fake fact-check claimed.

Response to journalists

At first, genuine fact checkers noticed that the fake fact-checks were coming from individual users on Twitter and Facebook, usually in replies to posts by journalists reporting on the ground in Ukraine. 

But soon, official Russian Twitter accounts like the country’s Ministry of Foreign of Affairs website began tweeting links to a website named

What the site lacked in imaginative naming, it made up for with the vast number of fact-checks it posted daily.

These fact-checks are typically made up of screenshots of images, videos and foreign news reports with a signature red and white ‘FAKE’ stamp graphic laid on top. 

After there were reports that the death toll from a Russian strike on a theatre in Mariupol had climbed to 300, WarOnFakes declared this narrative “FAKE”. 

“This provocation was carried out by militants of the Azov nationalist battalion, who blew up the building they had mined,” fact-check claimed.

“Apparently, they expected to pass it off as a Russian air strike.” 

Screenshot 2022-03-25 15.10.53 declaring a theatre sheltering civilians was not bombed by Russian forces and instead blown up by a Ukranian group.

Fact-checks on the website are occasionally based on truth. For example an article refuting that Lego had created a Volodymyr Zelenskyy figure to raise money for Ukraine is accurate: it was a Chicago artist who created the toy, not the official company. 

The website’s manifesto promises: “We don’t do politics”.

“But we consider it important to provide unbiased information about what is happening in Ukraine” because of  “an information war launched against Russia”, it says. 

While the founders and operators of the website are not named, it claims that they are “the owners and administrators of several Russian non-political Telegram channels”.

According to the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, an unnamed “group of experts and journalists” are behind the debunks.

Domain information website reveals the website is registered to a PO box address in Moscow with the name of the registrant hidden under “Protection of a Private Person”.

The website includes the ‘fact-check’ denying that pregnant women were injured during the airstrike on a Mariupol hospital, with the information available in five languages other than Russian.

‘Available to western audiences’

While the fact-check format has been co-opted to spread Pro-Russian disinformation before, Tom Southern, a director at the Centre for Information Resilience says that this time, it might be spreading wider. 

“It’s more available to western audiences,” he told The Journal

“It’s something we’ve seen before but in a more analog format.”

In 2017, Russian news sources ‘debunked’ reports of sarin gas attacks in Syria and claims filtered through to western audiences.

Australia’s Media Watch found at least two Australian academics repeating the narrative with one tweeting “even the guys fixing my floors today wore better masks than the White Helmets”.

Southern noticed that the debunk format has adapted since the Syrian conflict which he says was “more targeted to bolster Al-Assad”.

“They didn’t have to do it on the scale they are now. They’re definitely using these fact checks more,” he said.

According to Southern, the website WarOnFakes “isn’t the best work” of disinformation spreaders but it’s not intended to do the heavy lifting of  pushing false fact-checks. 

Instead, screenshots and links to the website are intended to be posted on social media getting around the ban on websites like Sputnik or Russia Today. 

“If you want to push lots of media content in lots of places, it’s a cheap way of doing it,” Southern said.

But does weaponising the ‘fact-check’ format to spread double-disinformation work?

Not especially, says Southern, because even ‘true’ fact-checks have their limitations fighting disinformation. 

Although they do work, it has to be in a very certain context. “The only way a fact-check works if it’s reinforcing something you believe,” said the disinformation expert. 

For example, if people are aware that fake fact-checks exist before they encounter them, they will be more able to recognise them. 

People are also less likely to believe fact-checks from a website they’ve never heard of, proving that context is key. 

Dr Kirsty Park, who tracks disinformation with DCU’s Institute of Future Media, Democracy and Society, says that getting local audiences to believe individual dodgy debunks might not be the end goal. 

‘The Russian strategy is to cast doubt in general about news and footage from Ukraine so they assume it’s disinformation,” she said.

Park also maintains that while “they’re happy to sow discord internationally”, the Russian priority is “to keep the narrative in their own country that what the Russian people are experiencing like the reality of sanctions isn’t from the invasion of Ukraine”.

Whatever the end goal is, creating Inception-like layers of fact-checks aimed at fact-checking other fact-checks is likely to melt even the dedicated truth-seeker’s heads. 

According to Southern, this means the fact-check format has to adapt. 

“If the bad actors are producing more interesting content on the platforms people are on and it’s designed better they will win out every time,” he said. 

“The only thing fact-checkers can do is play the game better than the bad actors.” 

While fact-checking needs to be detail oriented, it doesn’t have to be dry, says Southern. 

“There’s good evidence of humour being the thing that works. It can be quite apocalyptic when Russia is targeting and talking to you, so taking the piss works.”

He added that more long-term government funding to fact-check organisations could also help sustain efforts to sieve fact from fiction online.

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