Cybersecurity

Ukraine war: How a ‘fact-checking’ website is spreading Russian propaganda

“The unprecedented stream of fake news about what is happening in Ukraine is intended to stir up emotions and eliminate rational thinking,” the Russian Defense Ministry writes on Twitter, referring to the website www.waronfakes.com, where “a group of experts” and “journalists” are allegedly exposing the “most outrageous” false claims. But what is this alleged fact-checking site all about?

The creators of the website, which was registered on March 1, claim there are signs of an information war against Russia. The website, they write, provides “objective publications” to make citizens less fearful and uncertain about what is happening. “Fact-checking” articles in English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic are meant to show what is really going on in the war in Ukraine.

What is striking is that Russian, of all languages, is missing from this website. The aim, it appears, is to reach an international audience. The original Russian version of this website and the associated Telegram account are older, according to research by the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. The Telegram account was reportedly set up on February 23, the day before the war began. The first post appeared a day later. The account now has more than 625,000 subscribers and is one of the top Telegram channels in Russia, with a reach of more than 30 million daily views.

Both the Russian and English websites and the Telegram account are being heavily promoted on social media. For example, Russian television station RT quoted “War on Fakes” in a Telegram post on February 27.

Given that this channel itself has hundreds of thousands of followers, it is likely that much of the growth of “War on Fakes” is due to their promotion, and that of other accounts. Additionally, Russian embassies, like the one in France, have also featured it on their social media accounts, including Twitter.

The ploy of the website operators seems sophisticated: The authors debunk false claims, including those from the Ukrainian side that appear on this site as well. However, Russian propaganda is then used to provide background for the fact checks, as the following two examples show.

Russian soldiers also killed civilians

In one “fact check,” the claim that a Grad multiple rocket launcher system, also known as BM-21, is being used against Ukraine is presented as false. In the process, a widely circulated video purporting to show the use of such weapons is revealed to be old — correctly so. In fact, a video from 2021 was passed off as current, as a reverse image search shows. 

However, the website “War on Fakes” does not deny the use of such missile systems at all. Its argument to explain the fact check is to claim that the Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly emphasized that no missile, artillery or airstrikes are carried out on Ukrainian cities. This is false.

As reported by DW, the Russian military is also targeting cities. According to UN figures, at least 406 civilians have been killed so far, including 15 children, and 801 people have been injured, including 29 children (as of March 7).

Russia began its current war against Ukraine on Feb. 24

The website also uses another “fact check” to put Russia in a better light: This article analyzes the tweet of British journalist Larisa Brown, who works for The Times newspaper. On February 25, she shared a video of a man tearfully saying goodbye to his wife and child before they boarded a bus. Brown writes that these scenes are playing out across Ukraine, following the Ukrainian defense minister’s decree that

men between the ages of 18 and 60 remain in the country to defend Ukraine. The post gives the impression that the man is saying goodbye to his family, who are fleeing the Ukrainian war.

The “War on Fakes” authors reveal that the shared video is outdated and is about a family from the separatist Donetsk region who had already left for Russia on February 21, before the Russian military attacked Ukraine on February 24.

This is apparently true, as the Spanish fact-checkers of the website Maldita also revealed. The “War on Fakes” piece uses the disclosure of the false claim to say that the mother and the baby are now “no longer in danger,” implying that they had to save themselves from the Ukrainians. This ignores the fact that the war in Ukraine started on February 24.

These examples show how the website purposefully uses false claims to portray Ukraine in a bad light, while at the same time spreading and substantiating Russian propaganda.

All the examples on the website are structured in the same way: Two to three sentences are used in each case to refute the alleged Ukrainian fakes, however, the claim is never properly addressed. The writers also don’t provide evidence or methods used to expose the “fakes.”

Who is behind the website?

So who runs “War on Fakes”? To find out who’s behind it, we ran it through the who.is website. It revealed that the website was launched only very recently, on March 1, and focuses only on the war between Russia and Ukraine. The name of the operator is hidden, but an address in Moscow is given as a contact option. However, this address only leads to the company that registered the page.

The given phone number turns out to be a popular scam number previously used in 2019 to rip off people financially.  An analysis of the website using Scamadviser also shows that the website should be treated with caution. In a ranking up to 100 trust points, “War on Fakes” scores a single point.

There is no information on the site itself, nor does research reveal who these “journalists” and “fact-checkers” are who are publishing articles on the site and its corresponding Telegram accounts.

At this point, it cannot be said with any certainty who is behind “War on Fakes.” But its sudden appearance, rapid growth, and widespread support from state-run Russian media raise questions about its origins and influence.

Source: DW

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