A Russian missile destroyed a Ukrainian residential complex, killing dozens of people. Pro-Russian propagandists offered a cunning counter-narrative that shifted the blame from Moscow — using pseudo fact-checking as a tool misinformation.

Since beginning its invasion a year ago, Russia and its supporters have tried to aggressively distort Moscow’s role in Ukraine with what experts call a very powerful weapon in their arsenal – misinformation companies.

Global fact-checkers debunked a blizzard of lies that seek to divert attention from Potential war crimes by Russia or defamation of its adversary, the task is complicated by fictitious “fact checks” that risk undermining the credibility of their own work.

Last month, at least 46 people were killed when a residential building in the city of Dnipro was hit by a Russian Kh-22 cruise missile, which Ukrainian officials and experts, including the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, claimed.

Consequences of the Russian missile attack on the Dnieper on January 14, 2023.
State Service of Ukraine for Emergency Situations

The destroyed nine-story building became the epitome of one of the deadliest attacks in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

But a website called War on Fakes, which spreads what experts call Russian propaganda, claimed “exclusively” that the building was destroyed by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile.

Like a professional fact-checker, he used visuals with the word “fake” emblazoned in bold red, as well as open-source material, including dashcam video and graphics that used complex trigonometry.

“Since then The Russian invasion, the ‘War on Counterfeit’ initiative has become a force for the spread of false revelations,” Roman Asadchuk of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory told AFP.

“Effective remedy”

War on Fakes, whose Telegram channel has hundreds of thousands of subscribers, calls itself “objective” and “unbiased” and claims to be fighting an “information war waged against Russia”.

It does not name its authors and it remains unclear who is behind the project, launched last year shortly after the invasion, but its boosters include pro-Kremlin actors, including Russian ministries and embassies.

“It is an effective tool of state propaganda and disinformation,” Asadchuk said.

“This works primarily because fact-checking usually serves as an ‘authoritative’ source for readers to find ‘objective information.’

Similar pseudo-fact-checking campaigns have appeared on Russian state television, which hosts a series called Antifake, as well as on a pro-Moscow Telegram channel called Graveyard of the Fake.

They and other pro-Russian campaigners have used pseudo fact-checking to discredit Western media reports, including AFP, about multiple incidents in the conflict.

Among them are the killings in the Kiev suburb of Bucha, where hundreds of bodies were found after the expulsion of the Russian army last March, and the shelling of a maternity hospital in the port city of Mariupol, which was captured by Moscow after a long siege.

The civilians of Buchi were apparently killed by Russian soldiers.  Ukrinform TV (CC BY 3.0)

The civilians of Buchi were apparently killed by Russian soldiers.
Ukrinform TV (CC BY 3.0)

States including Russia Martin Innes, director of Cardiff University’s Institute for Innovation in Security, Crime and Intelligence, told AFP.

“Not just sowing disinformation, they are usually used to try to refute the claims of an adversary or cast doubt on the veracity of the claims they are making.’

“Undermining Trust”

The hijacking of the fact-checking format has intensified what analysts call an information war surrounding the intrusion, creating new challenges for real whistleblowers misinformation.

“Fake fact-checking risks undermining trust in credible media and legitimate fact-checking institutions,” Madeline Roach of the watchdog NewsGuard told AFP.

“They can also distort ideas about Ukraine and the West and make it seem like it is impossible to get facts about the war.”

The city of Mariupol is occupied by Russia.  Wanderer777 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The city of Mariupol is occupied by Russia.
Wanderer777 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pro-Russian actors are trying to fill the information landscape with many conflicting versions of the story to make it difficult to decipher the exact truth, analysts say.

The War on Fakes often publishes a series of fact-checks on the same topic, sometimes with multiple contradictory statements that leave readers stunned.

It publishes “so many false claims that fact-checks often contradict each other,” the US-based Poynter Institute said.

“The goal is to confuse the audience, to overwhelm them,” Jakub Kalenski, a senior analyst at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, told AFP.

“The ideal outcome would be a consumer who ends up saying, ‘There are too many versions of events, it’s impossible for me to know where the truth is,'” Kalensky added.

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