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Prep the Tinfoil: Four Hoaxes Shaping Ukraine-Russia Conflict

Dead Cyborg-Yanukovich attacks American aircraft carrier in the Black Sea. Images remixed by author.

Dead Cyborg-Yanukovich attacks American aircraft carrier in the Black Sea. Images remixed by author.

Reliable news are a rare commodity these days, when even journalists look to social networks for their scoops. A simple joke, or a conscious hoax can be propelled to viral status — in Russian this is called an information “injection,” or “vbros” (“информационный вброс”). Here are some more and less successful attempts to influence public discourse on the RuNet in a time of confusion and fog-of-war.

1. The hoaxes started before the “Crimean self-defense forces” (most likely Russian troops or contractors) began silently taking over the peninsula, but after it became clear that Crimea would be a major rallying point for the anti-opposition. The first of these was a supposedly leaked decree from President Yanukovich, addressing Ukrainian armed forces and loyalists in the government. The decree was published [ru] on an Abkhazian news agency ANNA-News, which has maintained extensive pro-Asaad coverage of the civil war in Syria. Oddly, the decree was published as a Russian translation, with no Ukrainian original, and, as some bloggers later pointed out [ru], mistakenly referred to the “Supreme” Rada (Ukrainian parliament) as the “Central” Rada. 

In the decree Yanukovich supposedly declared Crimea as his new base of operations, and ordered all loyal members of government and military forces to report there for further instructions, on pain of death and charges of treason. He also declared the opposition government illegitimate, disbanded the Parliament, invited foreign military attaches to attend him in Crimea, and took a number of virtual steps, that, if real, would have probably thrown the country into utter anarchy. The news was picked up by pro-Russian bloggers, most notably el-murid [ru], a self-styled expert on the Middle East and conflict situations. It did not spread far, however, likely because of its complete outlandishness. Nevertheless, Yandex Blogs finds around 3,000 results quoting the text of the decree. More importantly, a blogger reported that the fake decree was being read out [ru] at pro-Russian rallies in Crimea, thereby contributing to an overall sense of instability and chaos.

2. At around the same time, another leaked conversation appeared, this one supposedly between two radical members of the new political coalition governing Ukraine. Oleg Tyahnibok, leader of nationalist political party “Svoboda,” and Dmitry Yarosh, leaders of the nationalist group “Right Sector” were allegedly recorded talking about what to do about the “Russian question” in Eastern Ukraine. Yarosh proposes a bold plan of action — including a planned insurgence in Russian regions bordering Ukraine, and arming radical Crimean Tartars to go fight the jihad in the Caucasus. He also speaks out against integrating with the “queers” in Europe. Although Yarosh has indeed been caught on camera spewing the worst kind of xenophobic, nationalist rhetoric, this conversation seems a bit rich even for him. One blogger commented [ru]:

По русски, от одного лица с лексикой какого-то студентика. Без симатий к персонажам, на какой уровень интеллекта рассчитана эта залепуха?

It's in Russian, from the first person, using the vocab of some college student. I'm not sympathetic to these characters, but what level of intellect is this drivel geared to?

The level of intellect might not matter in this type of propaganda — people don't believe all that they read, but there is always a nagging “what if” feeling left. The “recording” showed up on several hundred blogs (according to Yandex Blogs), but was much more popular proliferating through the larger Internet, with over 80,000 hits on Google.

3. One hoax from the Ukrainian side of the conflict was much more successful, when Maidan activist Mikhail Lebed posted [ru] on his Facebook that Victor Yanukovich had died of cardiac arrest in a Rostov hospital. The news was an utter fabrication. Nothing about Lebed indicates that he would have access to inside information on the beleaguered Ukrainian president. Yet, all he had to do was cite a “friend” who supposedly works in a Rostov ER, and the media and bloggers were sold. After all, if they don't report it and it's true, then they are saps. And if everyone reports this false information without corroborating it, well, they are all in it together.

Victor Yanukovich is in the hospital, Putin is checking his (naughty) x-ray, while Medvedev is Instagramming. A triple whammy. Anonymous image found online.

Victor Yanukovich is in the hospital, Putin is checking his (naughty) x-ray, while Medvedev is Instagramming. A triple whammy. Anonymous image found online.

Lebed's post was shared over 1,500 times, but at least the first commenters on his status update were a bit less trusting, asking him if he got “hacked” or if he was being “tortured.” One man wrote [ru] that if the news turns out to be a lie, he would unfriend Lebed. (It turned out to be a lie, and he didn't.) Right now, searching for “Yanukovich died” in Russian on Google gives over 200,000 hits. Even though he has scheduled [ru] another press conference for March 11, rumors of his death persist. They work to undermine Russia's fledgling claims to legitimacy in the Crimean crisis — if Yanukovich is dead, how can he be on board with the invasion?

"-Victor, I told them you haven't died... -Thanks! -...haven't died yet" Anonymous image found online.

“-Victor, I told them you haven't died…
-Thanks!
-…haven't died yet”
Anonymous image found online.

4. Another extremely successful fake also tapped into wishful thinking, much like #3 did into hopes that Yanukovich has finally perished. This was the idea that the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush, along with its strike group 17 ships strong, has entered, or is about to enter the Black Sea in order to exert military pressure on Vladimir Putin. G.H.W. Bush is of course doing no such thing, but the persistence of this hoax is mind-boggling, given all the suppositions one has to make to believe it. Not only does the United States need to decide to forgo a diplomatic solution to the crisis, in effect escalating the conflict, it needs to decide to escalate it in the worst way possible. Rather than scrambling NATO jets from Eastern Europe, a carrier group would be put in danger in the enclosed kill zone which is the Black Sea.

Beyond that, there is the Montreux Convention, which limits naval presence in the Black Sea to regional countries. In order to pass the Bosporus Straits, a country like the US has to request permission from Turkey, and only vessels lighter than a total tonnage of 45,000 are allowed in. An aircraft carrier doesn't make the cut. Then, of course, there is the bridge over Bosporus — which puts a physical limit on the height of a ship passing through. At over 200 feet tall, carriers might barely squeeze on by, or might not, depending on which [ru] side [ru] in the flame wars one takes.

The news was started on Ukrainian blogs and social network groups, like the VKontake “This is Kiev, Baby!”, which posted [ru] random YouTube videos of aircraft carriers claiming that they were taking in the Black Sea. Within three days, there were three [ru] such [ru] posts [ru] in the group, the most popular of them with over 2,500 comments and over 5,000 likes. The original inspiration seems to be the fact that USS Bush recently laid anchor in Greece. One eager Ukrainian even wrote on the carrier Facebook page: “dear friends! welcome to Ukraine! we are waiting to you.”

Not to be outdone in the fear-mongering department, some pro-Russian bloggers also decided to push the news. LiveJournal blogger Sergei Nikitskiy wrote [ru] a long post about the carrier debacle, attempting to prove that a carrier group could, and would, enter the Black Sea, even if it meant breaking international conventions (the US has a bad track record in that respect argues Nikitsky). He also asked his readers if they thought World War III could start over Crimea. Most of them said no.

As the Crimean referendum approaches, its legitimacy already in question, we can be sure to expect even more erroneous, and outright fake information. “Question everything” has never seemed like a better motto.

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