Analysis of the avalanche of fake and unverifiable news

April 2023

As part of the Regional Initiative in Combating Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new analysis of fake news and disinformation narratives.

This week we are faced with the avalanche of fake and unverifiable news.

Instead of one leading topic, we are often splashed with a bunch of fake or unverifiable news in the pro-Russian and Russian media. This time we provide an overview of such news, marginalizing all the usual news dealing with the superiority of Russian weapons (these days the focus was on the UPAB-500 guided slide bomb weighting 500 kg), the inevitability of Russian victory in Ukraine, and the imminent economic collapse of the West.

In this week’s selection of misinformation from portals known to us, such as Webtribune, we single out a completely projected story regarding dissatisfied and abandoned soldiers of the 129th Brigade of the Ukrainian Army. According to the provided information, this troop was thrown on the front line without weapons, water and food. Since that was not enough, the mentioned troop was given thirty minutes to prepare for the fight with the Russian forces. As a cause for the given scenario, the authors from Webtribune state that all financial resources from the West are not enough for a war with Russia. In a similar manner, Russia Today reports the situation on the front citing an unknown civilian. This time, it’s about Ukraine soldiers looting its own people. Namely, in this statement it is said that Ukrainian soldiers simulate battles in towns and villages near Bakhmut, and then loot abandoned houses, stealing various house products and leaving syringes behind (meaning using drugs).

Statements such as these are common for disinformation narratives of this type. Both articles do not cite credible sources, nor can the civilian statements be traced, nor are there any documented statements. After all, it is barely needed to talk about the paradoxical theories and articles that come from the same portals, since they contradict themselves by saying that the Russian forces have completely occupied Bakhmut, and after that the Ukrainians are looting the same parts of the city.

In the following parts of analysis, we come across another unverifiable piece of information, based on the statement of a Russian official in the occupied Ukrainian territory, regarding the transfer of equipment from the war zone. The official of the Zaporozhye region, Vladimir Rogov, claims that Ukrainians are reselling and transporting expensive equipment from their factories, and he presents this as theft of Russian property. Primarily, it cannot be argued that the equipment is subject to transfer at all, given that the area is under Ukrainian control, but even if it is, Rogov is actually claiming here that it is unfair that the Ukrainian equipment is not left to the Russian forces who attempt to steal it while illegally invading the sovereign territory of Ukraine.

The Webtribune portal devoted a lot of attention to NATO and their “officers” this week. In line with that, two complete disinformation are being channeled regarding the killing of 160 NATO officers with Kinzhal hypersonic missile, as well as the NATO soldiers’ refusal to participate in war actions in Ukraine. The first story refers to an underground 100 meters deep bunker, where 160 NATO officers were located, and were killed by a Kinzhal hypersonic missile. This news is imaginary, and probably just as non-existent for the following reasons: first, Kinzhal missiles have cameras which usually record videos till reaching the intended target, which was not the case this time. Then, it is very questionable whether Kinzhal can penetrate 100m deep into the ground. Lastly, how did the Russian sources come up with the number of 160 officers, and how is the term officer defined within NATO in general? If there are well defined and competent positions, the relevant information would be the one that indicates exactly who is missing. An identical example is provided in a separate article, also without reliable sources, which is claimed responsibly by a “metro coordinator”. We can ask a series of identical questions, which are unlikely to be answered.

Such news projections often aim to increase the reputation of the military capabilities of the Russian Federation, while in reality they often show the opposite. The second story of the anti-NATO narrative is centered around NATO pilots refusing to participate in combat actions in Ukraine. This is also wrong on many levels. Principally, the thing such as NATO pilot does not exist in the literal sense. Furthermore, no NATO member state is sending its pilots to Ukraine, nor has there been any similar consideration. Finally, it is discussed about the decision of the Congress of the United States of America, which concerns NATO, which is completely incorrect information because the Congress does not have jurisdiction over such matters. NATO decisions are reached by consensus between states, the US Congress as such remains completely excluded from this sphere of decision-making.

The supplement to this agenda was shaped by an additional article on the US decision to withdraw support to Ukraine. Apparently, the reason for such decision is the failure on the front, as well as Ukrainian counter-offensive, which by the way has not even started. According to the author, this decision will produce a domino effect in Europe, and a series of withdrawals of support for Ukraine. The so called domino effect is frequently mentioned in Russian disinformation channels, and by now it is almost part of a daily readings. However, the reality is that support for Ukraine would remain unchanged (regardless of the USA administration in charge) in the context of a Russian invasion, despite the various mentioned theories deriving as a consequence of multiple economic and political reasons.

While analysing the Guardian article, Webtribune creates its own story regarding the war in Ukraine, where the solution to the conflict comes in the light of signed agreement, whereby Ukraine will give up part of its territory. The Guardian actually quotes the opinion of a few journalists, one of whom mentions the signing of a peace treaty as a potential option, which is still far from any realistic considerations, and even further from some kind of “Western decision” as Webtribune states in the title. At the very end, the non-existent news is cited that the Pentagon has announced that Ukraine will be defeated in the war, which haven’t happened since the beginning of our analysis, seizing back to February last year.

Similar to this projection comes from the portal Russia Today, having the non-existent statement of the Pentagon deputy director in headline of their news. The article quotes and then analyses the statement “In Ukraine we are preparing for war with China.” The fabricated statement served as a springboard for a whole series of misinformation that will follow in the text.

„Washington’s aggressive policy creates an increasing risk of direct conflict with Moscow.“ This opinion is expressed by Vladimir Yermakov, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. He states that in such an atmosphere, START (nuclear weapons agreement) has a sad future. What neither Yermakov, nor the article mentions, is that the Russian Federation decided to end its participation in the START program, based on Vladimir Putin’s decision from February 21, 2023.

Although we rarely comment on the statements of high-ranking officials, this Medvedev’s interview as a whole deserves a deeper analysis. Medvedev refers to the potential division of Ukraine between Poland, Romania and Hungary, as these states have been lurking for years to seize part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. It is needless to say that comparing the 18th century circumstances with today’s situation in Europe is a non-sense. In the same context, he also mentions the potential creation of a Confederation between Ukraine and Poland modelled after the one from the 16th century. In this regard, he argues it to be a better option than the entry of Ukraine into NATO, and a new world war. Of course, Medvedev, as in similar statements, does not provide any evidence when he says this, except that he presents such narratives as a generally known state of affairs.

In the second part of his presentation, Medvedev comments on the secession of the US states, specifically California and Texas. Such statements fall under the domain of science fiction at the given moment. Finally, he concludes the presentation by asserting that all European countries are under the complete control of the USA. If there is rationale behind at his jumping from topic to topic, perhaps we can assume that Medvedev is trying to say that Europe and certain American states are trying to break away from the US control.

As for Texas independence itself, it mostly debated by a small number of Republicans who have channelled their dissatisfaction with the Democrats by calling on the US state legislature to approve a measure that would provide voters with a say on the issue. Even if it was possible to gain a say on this question, it is questionable whether it would be supported by the majority, and if it gets so, it remains a matter of the Federal authorities who have the final say. Nevertheless, it has already been mentioned that such a secession would be illegal due to the historical and legal framework of Texas within the United States.

For the very end, we singled out the Webtribune article discussing Elon Musk seeking asylum in Russia. The article talks about the potential assassination of the entrepreneur, and billionaire by the deep state, due to his comments that often expose the US neoliberal agenda. In the context of the imagined scenario provided by Oleg Metveichev, a member of the Russian Duma, he would seek asylum in Russia. Musk is often mentioned in disinformation streams as his views are characterized as conservative, however, even as such they represent liberal values comparing to the Russian political and moral compass. Beyond doubt he is often subject of abuse by the pro-Russian media outlets due to contemporary state of affairs, so this time too, he found himself in the place of the anti-USA agenda.

Authors: Đorđe Terek, Tanja Plavšić