Fake Russian fact-checkers spread propaganda about the war in Ukraine

Street art in Tirana, Albania with the motto “Support Ukraine.” Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY 3.0.

This story by Ana Anastasovska was originally published by Truthmeter.mk, a fact-checking service from North Macedonia, member of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.

Little is known about who is behind the Russian “fact-checking” website “War on fakes”. The creators of the website identify themselves only as “administrators of several Russian non-political Telegram channels,” and not one of its authors is named. The site has no masthead, nor contact details or address. The fact-checking service of Poynter checked this website and deems its fact-checks parts of disinformation that use well-known techniques of Russian propaganda — incoherence, a large number of claims, repetition of statements on obvious untruths — to confuse the public trying to find out what is actually happening in Ukraine.

For more than a year, since the beginning of the all-out invasion on Ukraine, Russia and its supporters have been trying aggressively to twist the role of Moscow in the war with what experts call a highly-powerful weapon in its arsenal — disinformation campaigns. Members of the global community of fact-checkers — including Truthmeter — debunk on daily basis many lies that try to distract the attention from potential Russian war crimes or to smear Kremlin's opponents. Nevertheless, Russian channels for spreading disinformation do not stop and they apply various techniques to confuse the public. One such example is a website and Telegram channel managed by Russia that falsely claims to be fact-checking to combat the “information war initiated against Russia.” More specifically, the site (War on Fakes) claims in its “Manifesto” (presented under the title “Manifest” in the right-hand  column of their website) that they “consider it important to provide unbiased information about what is happening in Ukraine and on the territories of Donbass, because we see signs of an information war launched against Russia.”

On March 4, 2022, soon after Russia attacked Ukraine, this website published a text claiming that it was revealing the idea that the Ukrainians were fighting an information war against the Russians. According to this War on Fakes text,  not only were the Ukrainians disseminating “forgeries, productions and disinformation” to portray Russian forces in a “hostile manner,” but they were also apparently using professional actors and video-editing software to stage visuals of dead Russian soldiers and devastated Ukrainian cities.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking service of US non profit Poynter Institute, analyzed this website and deemed its fact-checks parts of disinformation that use well-known techniques of Russian propaganda — incoherence, a large number of claims, repetition of statements on obvious untruths — to confuse the public trying to find out what is actually happening in Ukraine. PolitiFact contributing writer Luiz Romero wrote:

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.

There is very little information about who stands behind this Russian “fact-checking” website. There are no named authors on the website, and the people behind it identify themselves as “administrators of several Russian non-political Telegram channels.” The site has no masthead (imprint, impressum), contact details or address.

On the contrary, actual fact-checking media outlets adhere to a set of standards that include strict rules for transparency of staff, ownership and sources of revenue. These standards are form of self-regulation enforced through adherence to the Code of Principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (EFCN),  operating globally, as well as the European Fact-Checking Standards Network (EFCSN), which has developed  Code of Professional Integrity for European fact-checkers approved by 44 European organizations.

Members of these networks voluntarily submit to the public process of annual independent audit or external evaluation that certifies that their produced work has been objective and true to the codes. None of this has been done by the fake fact-checkers, such as War on Fakes, which is not a member of any of these networks.

How does War on Fakes debunk ‘disinformation?’

Looking through the “fact-checks” of this website, we found a “Russian fact-check” related to the information about the shelling of the residential building in Dnipro where 46 persons were killed. Information from Ukrainian officials and experts, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies located in the USA, asserts that the residential building was hit by a Russian Kh-22 cruise missile. The blasted nine-floor building was the deadliest single attack in Ukraine in the Russian invasion. However, War on Fakes, “exclusively” claims that the building was destroyed by an Ukrainian air defense missile.

Similar to the actual fact-checkers, “War on Fakes” uses visuals with the word “fake” impressed with bold red letters. Screenshot from waronfakes.com, fair use.

In January 2023, Truthmeter also wrote about Russia’s attempt to put the blame on Ukraine for blasting the same building. The investigation after that attack proved that the building was hit by a Russian type Kh-22 missile. Ukraine defence doesn't have capabilities to operate this type of missile. This was published by international media, based on data from the Ukrainian air defense that published precisely where the attack came from, i.e. from the direction of Kursk in Russia.

A Raduga Kh-22 anti-ship missile under a Tupolew Tu-22M aircraft. Public Domain photo by Wikipedia user JNO.

The main purpose of this powerful long range missile designed in Soviet times is to destroy ships at a distance of up to approximately 600 kilometers. It was designed as an anti-ship missile for heavy battleships — destroyers, cruisers or aircraft carriers.

Since May 2022,  as part of its all-out aggression against Ukraine, Russia has started to use these missiles as heavy weapons for destroying targets on the ground. In June, several such missiles devastated a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, killing more than 20 civilians. The missiles are usually fired from the air by Tu-22M strategic bombers.

The aim is to confuse the public and undermine trust in authentic fact-checkers

Roman Osadchuk, representative of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, stated for AFP:

Since Russia's invasion, the ‘War On Fakes’ initiative has become a powerhouse of spreading false debunks … It is an effective tool of state propaganda and disinformation … It works primarily because fact-checking usually serves for readers as an ‘authoritative’ source to seek ‘objective information.’

Kidnapping the fact-checking format only enhances the invasion-related information war, as it is called by analysts, thereby causing new challenges for authentic disinformation debunkers. Madeline Roache from NewsGuard also told AFP:

Fake fact-checks risk undermining trust in credible media and legitimate fact-checking institutions … They can also warp perceptions of Ukraine and the West, and make it seem as though facts about the war are impossible to obtain.

War on Fakes has frequently published a series of fact-checks on the same topic, sometimes with multiple opposed statements overwhelming  readers. The AFP article also quotes  Jakub Kalensky, senior analyst with the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats who said, “The aim is to confuse the audience, overload it. … The ideal result will be a consumer who ends up saying ‘there are too many versions of events, it is impossible for me to find out where the truth is.'”

This is not the first time Russians have relied on the fact-checking format to spread disinformation. In 2017, the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs initiated the project Unreliable Publications as part of its website where it published fact-checks. Analysis by Ben Nimmo, at the time senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, showed that not one of the 11 stories published in the first month of Unreliable Publications was credible.

In addition, in 2017, the state-owned television network RT initiated a news-project on its website called FakeCheck, that, as announced, aimed at “separating the facts from fake news.” According to Nimmo, out of the nine articles published in the first two weeks of its establishment, four contained “incorrect and possibly partial with irrelevant or insufficient evidence.”

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