MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 20, 2019: The President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin at the annual talk / press conferen with Russian people as seen in live broadcast on many screens.
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, a newly-launched fact-checking service called War on Fakes published a piece claiming to debunk the notion that Ukrainians were not waging an information war against Russians.
Not only were Ukrainians spreading “fakes, productions, and misinformation” to depict Russian forces in “an unpleasant way,” the story said, but they were also using professional actors and video editing software to stage images of dead Russian soldiers and destroyed Ukrainian cities.
The information war would intensify, the purported fact-check predicted. Hollywood producers were gathering in Poland and would cross into Ukraine to create more misleading footage. Even American actor Sean Penn was participating in making the fakes, the story claimed, using the filming of a documentary about Ukraine as his cover.
War on Fakes claims to be a fact-checking service. “We dissect fakes and give links to rebuttals,” says its description on Telegram. Its website says that it aims to “provide unbiased information” to counter “an information war launched against Russia.”
But a review by PolitiFact shows that its “fact-checks” are actually pieces of disinformation that use well-known techniques of Russian propaganda — incoherence, a high volume of claims, repetition, and the statement of obvious falsehoods — to confuse readers trying to understand what is happening in Ukraine.
War on Fakes employs a common strategy of Russian propaganda: It uses misleading information to produce noise that overwhelms readers, making them suspicious of official sources of information, and unable to believe — amid a multitude of false, deceiving, and surreal claims about the war — in the very possibility of objective truth.
The project does that through the hijacking of the fact-checking format. Readers who go to fact-checks expecting the ultimate truth are actually met with deception.
Little is known about who is behind the website. Its creators identify themselves only as “administrators of several Russian non-political Telegram channels,” and none of its writers are named.
Source code shows that it is maintained with nine user accounts: one belongs to an administrator, two include the word “editor,” and six are named with random letters.
PolitiFact reviewed more than 380 fact-checks published by War on Fakes in English from March until July and found that they are rife with falsehoods. They include:
- Claim: Russian forces allowed humanitarian corridors to function in early March and Ukrainians could safely leave cities that were under attack. (March 7) That is wrong. On March 5, Russian forces made it impossible for civilians to escape from Mariupol, according to the BBC. On that day, Ukrainian authorities had to halt an evacuation because Russians continued to shell the city despite a ceasefire agreement. And on March 6, Russian forces killed four Ukrainian civilians with a mortar as they tried to escape fighting near Kyiv, according to The New York Times.
- Claim: Ukrainian authorities used the same model to stage pictures of victims of the March 9 bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol. (March 10) False-flag claims about the bombing proliferated following the attack and were debunked by PolitiFact, Reuters, and USA Today. One of the victims accused of being a model confirmed that she was injured in the attack and that the other victim that was photographed was a different person, according to the Associated Press. The second victim accused of being a model later died along with her baby due to injuries suffered in the attack, also according to the AP.
- Claim: There were no bodies of Ukrainian civilians on the roads of Bucha after Russian forces left the area around March 30. Someone “laid out” the bodies to falsely accuse the Russians of killing civilians. (Both claims from April 4.) That is wrong. Satellite images reviewed by The New York Times show that bodies had been lying on the streets of Bucha since at least March 11, indicating that they were shot by the occupying Russian forces and not “laid out” after they left the area. Footage has since surfaced showing Russians executing civilians in Bucha.
- Claim: Bodies of Ukrainian civilians change position in different photographs of Bucha — more evidence that “bodies were arranged” to incriminate Russians. (April 5) The body of a victim does appear in different positions in images by AP and AFP (graphic imagery), and the body of a victim does disappear in different images by AFP and Reuters (graphic imagery). But that happens because Ukrainian soldiers were moving the bodies off the street, fearing that Russians might have mined them, according to the AP, and because Ukrainian authorities were burying the victims, according to The Washington Post.
- Claim: Russia could not have shelled a train station in Kramatorsk in early April, killing 52 civilians, because the Russian military is not using Tochka missiles in Ukraine. (April 8) War on Fakes uses the same false claim to deny Russian responsibility for bombings in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Melitopol, and Soledar. But Russia used Tochka missiles in Ukraine on February 24, according to Amnesty International. And both in the build-up to and after the invasion, open source researchers have found imagery showing Russian forces moving Tochka launchers near the border with Ukraine.
Lukas Andriukaitis, an expert in Russian disinformation and the Ukraine conflict at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said that War on Fakes fits into an overarching strategy of Kremlin propaganda: to convince its audience “that the truth is relative” and “that you can construct your own truth.”
He also said that the website seeks to show that “Russia is not the sole perpetrator” in the conflict in Ukraine, adding some relativism to a war that has been widely condemned by the international community as unprovoked and unjustified.
Many of the fact-checks published by War on Fakes do attempt to shift blame from Russia to Ukraine, and those accusations are often filled with false or misleading statements.
- Claim: In early March, Ukrainian forces stopped civilians from leaving cities under attack. (March 7) That’s misleading. Ukrainian authorities only asked civilians not to flee certain cities because Russian attacks made escape attempts too dangerous. Ukrainian officials postponed an evacuation in Mariupol and asked residents to return to shelters because Russians were not respecting a ceasefire, according to the BBC. And Ukrainian authorities asked civilians not to leave Irpin just until a ceasefire was agreed with Russia, according to The New York Times.
- Claim: The March 16 bombing of a theater that was sheltering hundreds of civilians in Mariupol, killing 600 people, was the result of an explosion from the inside by Ukrainian soldiers, not Russians. (March 17) That’s wrong. None of the survivors of the attack interviewed by the AP saw Ukrainian soldiers inside the building, and they denied that the explosion came from the inside. Experts told the BBC that the accuracy of the strike, which hit the exact center of the theater, indicates that it was carried out with a laser-guided bomb launched from an aircraft.
- Claim: The bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, which killed five people, was the result of a Ukrainian bomb — not a Russian airstrike — and the craters on the site were caused by buried explosives. (March 18) There is no evidence supporting this. Munitions experts told the AP that craters on the site were consistent with those produced by airstrikes and “the size of the hole and the visible effects of impact on the surrounding buildings leave no doubt it was an airstrike.” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov later said that the strike was justified because the hospital was being used by Ukrainian forces.
- Claim: Patients inside the maternity hospital in Mariupol did not hear any aircraft, further evidence that it was not a Russian airstrike but a Ukrainian bomb that destroyed it. (April 2) That’s misleading. Military experts told Meduza that it is possible not to hear an aircraft flying overhead before it drops a bomb, and AP reporters said that they heard a plane flying over Mariupol just before hearing explosions in the area of the hospital.
This is far from the first time that Russians have relied on a fact-checking format to spread misinformation.
In 2017, Russia’s foreign ministry launched a project called Unreliable Publications, a section of its website where it would publish fact-checks. A review by Ben Nimmo, at the time a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, showed that none of the 11 stories published in Unreliable Publications’ first month were credible.
“Its standards of evidence are non-existent, it misrepresents key facts, and it appears to make no distinction between falsehood, potential inaccuracy, and simple criticism,” Nimmo wrote of Unreliable Publications at the time.
Also in 2017, the state-controlled RT television network launched a project on its news website called FakeCheck. It also said it aimed to “debunk fakes,” but often broadcast falsehoods. According to another review by Nimmo, out of nine articles published in its first two weeks of existence, four contained “inaccuracies and possible bias with irrelevant or insufficient evidence.”
Russian-Controlled Media Amplifies War on Fakes Content
Russian ministries, embassies, propagandists, and news agencies often amplify content produced by War on Fakes. A review by PolitiFact showed that the official Telegram channels of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs together shared 29 stories by War on Fakes between March and July.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, and Vladimir Solovyov, the presenter of a popular Sunday show on state-controlled Russian television, have both shared War on Fakes stories on Telegram, as did state-owned news agency RIAN.
The War on Fakes operation has traits that experts have previously attributed to Kremlin propaganda. Researchers at the RAND Corporation think tank have found that Russian propaganda seeks to overwhelm its readers with quantity and repetition, and has no commitment to accuracy or consistency — all characteristics that can be found in the stories produced by War on Fakes.
Quantity: War on Fakes publishes an excessive number of fact-checks about the same topic, often with little variation. It released 21 articles about Bucha, five of them on the same day. It also makes multiple and conflicting statements within its stories. Claims in four articles about the Mariupol maternity hospital included that it was a military site, that it had no medical equipment, and that it was an ophthalmology ward.
Repetition: Instead of producing original content, War on Fakes often copies fragments of previous fact-checks. A piece about Bucha published on April 4 was split into shorter pieces and published over the following days, while another article, from April 7, gathered previously published articles.
Inaccuracy: War on Fakes publishes so many false claims that the fact-checks often contradict each other. A March 10 story about the Mariupol maternity hospital said that there were no pregnant women inside the building and that it was not being used as a maternity ward, but an April 2 story mentioned “pregnant women” in the “maternity ward.”
Inconsistency: The stories give inconsistent explanations for the same event. The reason Ukrainian soldiers allegedly bombed the Kramatorsk train station changes from one day to the next. On April 8, War on Fakes said Ukrainian forces wanted “to hit a position of our troops, but there had been a mistake in aiming.” On April 9, it reported that Ukrainians attacked Kramatorsk “to disrupt the mass exodus of residents from the city in order to use them as a human shield.”
Andriukaitis said that projects like War on Fakes serve as a source of “alternative facts” for people who support Russia and want to build their opinions about the war. These readers tend to fall on both ends of the political spectrum, share a common distrust of traditional media, and fall prey to conspiracy theories, Andriukaitis said.
War on Fakes makes any credible reporting on the war more difficult, he added. But the best way for Ukrainians to respond to this information war is by producing legitimate information and carry on “reporting on what is actually happening on the ground,” according to Andriukaitis.
Since they have “the truth on their side,” honest reporting “is an effective strategy that allows Ukrainians [to] have an upper hand in this information war” — and “is significantly easier than trying to convince others of lies.”
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Luiz Romero is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. He is a freelance reporter with stories published by CNN, Wired, and Al Jazeera, and a volunteer researcher at Bellingcat. He has worked for Quartz and for magazines in Brazil and Italy. Luiz studied journalism at Faculdade Cásper Líbero in São Paulo and international relations at Central European University in Budapest.