Russian disinfo on social media: “Zelenskyy and western embassies fled Kyiv, US sabotaged Nord Stream”

 

Hybrid War

Article by: Martin Fornusek
After the bans on RT and Sputnik, Russian propaganda now increasingly relies on Telegram and Twitter, spreading false narratives that Russian strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure have sent Zelenskyy and western diplomats fleeing, and spreading conspiracies about the US blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines.

Russian disinformation on social media proves that it can flexibly adapt to recent developments in the war. With its main international propaganda outlets, Russia Today and Sputnik News, blocked in the West, the Kremlin utilizes platforms like Telegram and Twitter to circumvent this obstacle.

The fake content is spread by bots, anonymous accounts, and pro-Russian bloggers and then picked up by far-right and far-left outlets and public figures.

Some of the recent Russian disinformation reacted to the October 10 strikes against civilian targets in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The goal was to amplify the psychological effect of the attacks, claiming that both President Zelensky and European diplomats are fleeing the city.

Other narratives target Western countries, aiming to disrupt their unity or portray them as warmongers. One such popular disinformation blames the United States or one of its partners for the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines.

This article uses some of the false claims from the fall of 2022 to illustrate the spread of disinformation from Russian channels to the wider information sphere, with a particular focus on Twitter.

Undermining morale: Zelensky and European Embassies “flee Kyiv”

The October 10 strikes against Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities were almost immediately followed by a salve of disinformation.

One widespread claim posited that because to the attacks, President Zelensky fled to a bunker in Western Ukraine or Poland.

Georgian fact-checkers from MythDetector.ge linked the disinformation’s origin to the Telegram channel of Illia Kyva, a former Ukrainian MP who defected to Russia during the early months of the invasion.

The same day, an ex-RT America correspondent Sameera Khan tweeted that Zelensky is hiding in a bunker. This was reiterated the following day by users like MI NEWS or UkraineNews, with posts that gained thousands of likes and hundreds of shares.

The aforementioned accounts were started just this year, with much of their content focused on spreading pro-Russian narratives and disinformation about the war.

The “Zelensky in a bunker” caim took on various forms. An account named AZgeopolitics shared a brief segment of Ukraine’s president talking to the camera in Russian, saying: “If you want to live, run.”

According to the post’s text, the video was shot in a “bunker at the Polish border” and Zelensky’s appeal was aimed at the Ukrainian military and citizens.

The most obvious “red flag” in this post is that the Ukrainian president is speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian, as he normally does when addressing Ukraine’s citizens. In reality, the segment was taken from Zelensky’s address in late September and the quoted sentence was aimed at the Russian occupiers.

Zelensky bunker disinformation

Disinformation on Twitter using a false caption.

On October 11, Jackson Hinkle, the founder of the American far-left “anti-imperialist” outlet The Dive, posed a question on his Twitter account: “Where is Zelensky?”

Although he does not repeat the disinformation outright, the timing and Hinkle’s own political positions suggest this was no innocent curiosity. On his accounts on Twitter with 76,000 followers and on YouTube with 183,000 subscribers, he repeatedly takes positions against supporting Ukraine and spreads pro-Russian narratives. As a result, many of the commentators under the post provide the expected answer that “Zelensky is in a bunker in Poland.”

Earlier in September, Hinkle was a guest at FOX News Tucker Carlson’s show – one of the most prominent conduits for Russian disinformation in the United States – and voiced his positions on the war, stating, among others, that Zelensky is a dictator and insinuated he is building a “fascist, dystopian state” in Ukraine.

Shortly after the strikes, Zelensky published a video of himself talking on the streets of Kyiv. Russian propagandists responded by reviving an old piece of disinformation from this year’s summer.

In June, the president joined virtually the VivaTech conference in Paris, appealing to the world’s leading tech companies for aid. As part of the presentation, Zelensky appeared on the stage as a hologram.

Russian disinformers then republished the footage of Zelensky preparing for the presentation in front of a green screen and presented it as “proof” that Ukraine’s president is not actually in Kyiv and is recording his addresses hidden away in safety.

While the claim was debunked already during the summer, after October 10, it caught a second breath.

On October 12, the Russian propagandist Olga Skabeyeva shared a picture from the video, suggesting it proves Zelensky’s manipulation.

Soon the claim spread on Twitter as well. Its disseminators included accounts Dagny Taggart and the recently deleted Sprinter, with the former’s post earning almost 6,000 likes and 3,000 retweets.

Both of these accounts were founded just this September but already managed to gather thousands of followers. Their content was focused predominantly on Ukraine and Russia and posted at a suspiciously high frequency. On some occassions, they even retweeted each other. This matches the behavior pattern of online bots.

Zelensky fled Kyiv disinformation

Footage from the original video on YouTube. Source: Founders Forum

The false claim had real proponents as well, such as the American journalist and filmmaker Dan Cohen, with a Twitter following of over 100,000. This ex-RT America correspondent has contributed to both high-profile and fringe outlets, including Al Jazeera, Vice News, The Nation, and The Grayzone.

Although Cohen does repost pro-Russian content, he is not solely focused on Ukraine and Russia. Still, the uniting theme in his content is criticism of the US and Western foreign policy and support for their rivals.

President Zelensky was not the only one who, according to the Russian disinformation, was driven out by the strikes. Similar disinformation claimed that the staff of European embassies was also evacuated.

The first to report the “evacuation” were the Telegram channels of Sputnik News and Zvezda News. This was then picked up by Russian pro-government media like Lenta.ru and Tsargrad TV.

Again, this claim was further spread on Twitter by accounts like The Poll Lady or The_Real_Fly, boasting up to 50,000 and 120,000 followers respectively.

Nord Stream sabotage

Shortly after the explosions at the Nord Stream pipelines, a conspiracy appeared online that blamed the incident on the United States or one of its allies.

While some researchers trace the disinformation’s origin to the US conspiracy theorist Darren J. Beattie, the Kremlin nevertheless weighed heavily into this narrative.
According to the investigation by the European authorities, the incident was indeed likely a result of sabotage, although they have yet to identify a culprit. Russia does not take part in the investigation and therefore has no access to the evidence.

Instead, Russian official channels use edited segments and out-of-context quotes from Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken criticizing Nord Stream, posing the statements as admissions of culpability.

Within the week after the incident, Russian officials tweeted about Nord Stream 800 times, gaining 23,909 retweets and 59,578 likes.

Landfall facilities in Russia in September 2021. © Nord Stream 2 / Nikolai Ryutin ~

Landfall facilities in Russia in September 2021. © Nord Stream 2 / Nikolai Ryutin

The claim spread quickly also outside of the Russian social media segment. Among its proponents from the left end of the political spectrum were aforementioned characters like Dan Cohen, Jackson Hinkle, but also Benjamin Norton from Multipolarista or anti-imperialist, left-wing outlets like The Grayzone and Mint Press News.
On the right side of the spectrum, Tucker Carlson or the pro-Trump activist Charlie Kirk also blamed the United States for the sabotage, in posts amplified by pro-Kremlin channels. Both of them are heavyweights on Twitter, with over 5 million and 1 million followers respectively. Furthermore, both have an established record of spreading Russian disinformation, for example, the conspiracy about the Ukrainian biolabs

This is a tried-and-tested method of Russian propaganda – targeting public figures and journalists from both political extremes, that nevertheless have a significant following in their countries.

A testament to the effectiveness of this narrative is that according to the US think-tank CEPA, 63% of 500,000 analyzed tweets that mention “nordstream” blame the US, while only 10% blame Russia.

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