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Struggle against fake information about events in Ukraine
Updated: 37 min 8 sec ago

How Tech Giants Are Joining Forces to Fight Fake News

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 18:46

By Craig Newmark, Linkedin

In high school US history, I learned that a trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy. As a news consumer, like most folks, I want news we can trust. That means standing up for trustworthy news media and learning how to spot clickbait and deceptive news.

A group of tech industry leaders, academic institutions, and nonprofits are teaming up and funding a combined $14M million to launch the News Integrity Initiative, a global consortium focused on helping people make informed judgments about the news they read and share online. The Initiative’s mission is to advance news literacy and increase trust in journalism around the world by convening meetings with industry experts and funding applied research and projects.

The founding funders include Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Tow Foundation, AppNexus, Mozilla, and Betaworks.

As digital media allows folks to engage with and distribute news across their social networks, the ability to vet the authenticity and integrity of online content is increasingly important. Through research and education, the News Integrity Initiative’s goal is to give people the fundamental tools to make decisions about which sources to trust and to question.

The News Integrity Initiative will operate as an independent organization within the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.

Early participants who will contribute to conversations, host events around the world, and bring projects and research for potential funding to the Initiative’s attention include:

  • Arizona State University
  • Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY Journalism School
  • Constructive Institute at Aarhus University 
  • Edelman
  • European Journalism Centre 
  • Fundación Gabriel García Márquez para el Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano
  • Hamburg Media School 
  • Hans-Bredow-Institut
  • The Ida B. Wells Society
  • International Center for Journalists 
  • News Literacy Project
  • Polis, London School of Economics 
  • Ecole de Journalisme de Sciences Po (Sciences Po Journalism School) 
  • The Society of Publishers in Asia
  • Trust Project
  • Walkley Foundation
  • Weber Shandwick 
  • Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Division for Freedom of Expression and Media Development headquartered in France

The thing is, as of lately, there’s an unfortunate new normal in journalism. It’s a media environment where gossip, lies, and deception have the business advantage, and where lots of traditional news organizations are on the ropes. It’s time to redouble our efforts to support the good guys.

[Social Media Photo Credit: Esther Vargas]

By Craig Newmark, Linkedin

Craig Newmark is a Founder at craigconnects and craigslist

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukraine Shelling OSCE Vehicle Explosion Area

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 20:25

The self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the Russian supported separatist enclave in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia, has resorted to using the recent accidental death of an OSCE monitor for propaganda purposes, accusing Ukraine’s military of shelling the region where a land mine blew up a vehicle carrying an OSCE monitoring team and impeding the investigation into the explosion.

Скриншот сайта Звезда

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry responded to the accusation  and dismissed it as groundless and fake. And interactive map developed by the Ukraine Crisis Media Center that tracks fighting in the occupied eastern territories shows that Ukrainian armed forces have not shelled any area around Pryshyb, the village in Luhansk oblast where the OSCE vehicle hit a mine. On Aril 23 all shelling in Luhansk province took place in the area of Stanytsia Luhanska and Valuyivsk, areas held by the separatists.

This fake claim was initiated by LPR representative Vladislay Deynego, who claimed that “one can hear shelling close to the place where the tragedy occurred, about ten explosions”.  “This is how the Ukrainian side is hindering the investigation” he said.

Russia today, RIA Novosti, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vesti,ru, Channel five and scores of other Russian propagandist sites disseminated this fake.

Website screenshot mil.gov.ua

During an April 24 briefing about the mine incident OSCE Ukraine Deputy Chief Monitor Alexander Hug did not mention any Ukrainian obstruction into the investigation, nor did he say that the area was being shelled.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also dismissed the shelling accusations as a lie, Ukrainian military have not violated the ceasefire in this area at all, the Ministry said.

Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Oleksander Motuzianyk said the area where the OSCE vehicle hit a mine is under separatist control since the summer of 2014. He pointed out that according to the Minsk ceasefire agreement, front areas are to be demined, something that Russian supported separatists have ignored.

Website screenshot ukraineunderattack.org

There is no mention in social media of any shelling in the region where the OSCE vehicle came upon a landmine. There is however a posting about tractor carrying civilians hitting a mine in another area of Luhansk oblast held by the separatists.

Screenshot @dmitry.tymchuk

Ukrainian MP and military expert Dmitry Tymchuk who coordinates a fact-checking initiative called Information Resistance reported that soon after the OSCE vehicle hit the mine, a RT camera crew arrived on the scene, followed closely by a jeep of civilians who began issuing orders to RT “journalists”.

 

Categories: World News

Bad Explainers: The Economist Misses the Point on Ukraine

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 19:47

By Jim Kovpak, for StopFake

Often people assume that it is only Russian media that distorts the truth about Ukraine and as a rule Western media is more factual and trustworthy. While it is true that there is a huge difference between Russia’s consolidated state-run media, which is deliberately run as a propaganda organ, and the multitude of privately and publicly owned media in the West, this does not always mean that those latter outlets provide reliable coverage of Ukraine. Western media often lack of expertise on Ukraine, its history, and its politics and tend to look at Ukraine through a Moscow-centered prism. They also have to consider profitability and ratings, and therefore cannot spend much time educating their viewers on the topic of Ukraine.

As a result, reliable outlets often resort to expedient, over-simplistic narratives. Another consequence is the tendency towards “balance for the sake of balance,” where two viewpoints are presented as equally valid in the name of objectivity. While it is important to let subjects speak for themselves and expose readers and viewers to other viewpoints, it’s also necessary to challenge those viewpoints when they contradict objective reality. All too often this tenet of journalism is forgotten.

A recent Economist explainer video presented on Twitter with the unequivocal title “Ukraine’s three-year war is tearing the country further apart day-by-day” is a good example of this sort of failure.

Let’s begin with that headline about “Ukraine’s three-year war.” By attributing the war to Ukraine in this way, the Economist implies that Ukraine started the war.  While hostilities are taking place on the territory of Ukraine, this is first and foremost Russia’s war. Participants in that war are based on Russian territory just across the border when they are not at the front. In 2014, Russian artillery shelled Ukrainian targets from across the Russian border. The so-called “rebels” wear modern Russian uniforms with insignia nearly identical to Russia’s soldiers. Russian citizens not only served as commanders for rebel militia units, one was a “head of state” for the Donetsk separatist “republics”. The currency in these occupied territories is the Russian ruble.  The Economist states in its video that some 5,000 Russian soldiers are fighting in the Donbas. So how is this “Ukraine’s war,” exactly?

German politician and member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Green Party Rebecca Harms called The Economist out on their misleading and inaccurate explainer headline by tweeting “Sure you mean #Putin’s three year war against #Ukraine and Russian occupation of #Crimea are attempts to split country. But Putin fails.”

The war is most certainly not “tearing the country apart.” In many ways, it has actually unified Ukrainian society and strengthened the concept of a Ukrainian identity to include all the country’s ethnic groups.  And for better or worse, in the capital Kyiv, and even cities closer to the war zone such as Kharkiv and Dnipro, one could almost forget that there is a war nearby.

As if the headline was not bad enough, the rest of the Economist’s explainer follows in the same simplistic tone. The video features what appear to be ordinary citizens, a man and a woman, who describe the situation as they see it. The woman, a teacher named Svitlana speaks Ukrainian in the video, the man, a retiree named Gregory speaks Russian. They are both from eastern Ukraine; the man is from Donetsk, the woman from a town nearby. In this war they are on opposite sides.

 

To me it smacks of the Western media’s most common oversimplification about Ukraine- the myth of “Ukrainian-speaking west” versus “Russian-speaking east.”

Next we see short scenes of Svitlana and Gregory speaking along with footage of soldiers, military equipment and what are purported to be factual statements about the three year conflict.

Gregory begins by stating that in “Lvov they have a different language and a different religion”. The subtitle says “In Western Ukraine…” While the city of Lviv (Lvov in Russian) is indeed in “Western Ukraine,” by replacing a specific city with a whole region it makes it seem as though these “different” Ukrainians he’s describing are far more numerous.

In reality Ukrainian has traditionally been spoken in the Donbas region as well as many regions in southern Russia where ethnic Ukrainians were a majority. In every poll taken since independence, the majority of Ukrainians have indicated that Ukrainian is their native language. The idea that only people from Lviv or even Western Ukraine speak Ukrainian is simply nonsensical.

Gregory also says that “Western Ukrainians” have a different religion, Catholicism, whereas those in his occupied region are Orthodox. In reality, about 52% of Ukrainians are Orthodox; some 9% are Greek Catholic and only 1% Roman Catholic. By not challenging any of this, the viewer might get the impression that this is a religious cultural struggle, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example. It simply is not.

The video then goes on to claim that a majority of Donetsk residents are pro-Russian. No evidence of any kind is provided to support this sweeping claim. Nearly two million Donbas residents fled to Ukraine held territory in order to escape the Russia inspired separatist war. I have personally interviewed refugees from Donetsk who spoke about what happens if you’re suspected of not being “pro-Russian” by the self-proclaimed authorities there.

No reliable poll has ever been produced to show that a majority of Donbas residents, including those currently in occupied territory, actually want to secede from Ukraine or join Russia. On the contrary, most prefer to stay in Ukraine.

Gregory then goes on to repeat several claims that were perpetuated throughout the years to cultivate a Donbas myth; that the region was subsidizing all of Ukraine and the country would not survive without its industrial output. This mendacious mantra was particularly prevalent during the rule of the Regions Party, fueling the party’s separatist tendencies and propelling its native son Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. In reality, the central government heavily subsidized industrial enterprises in the east which would have had to close down otherwise.

While one can quibble over some of the other statements made later in the video, there is nothing as egregious as the aforementioned issues. This does not mean that those issues are insignificant, however.

These days “explainer” type videos have become quite popular. There’s an implied promise that a video can give the viewer a good understanding of the situation in the space of three to five minutes. Unfortunately, they promise more than they can actually deliver. Real understanding comes from real work, and work requires time
There is one aspect of this conflict that is quite simple and doesn’t take long to explain.  Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine. That’s the most important thing for viewers to know about “Ukraine’s war.”

Unfortunately, The Economist carelessly omits this salient detail in its explainer video.

Categories: World News

Fake: Aided by Islamic Battalion Ukraine Delivers Chemical Weapons to the Middle East

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 18:45

Russian Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda, along with other Russian propagandist sites disseminated a fake story last week claiming that Ukraine was delivering chemical ammunition to the Middle East. These deliveries, Zvezda wrote, are controlled by a 500 member strong Islamic battalion.

Website screenshot tvzvezda.ru

Zvezda’s source is the deputy defense minister and spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic Eduard Basurin, who on April 8, announced that separatist intelligence had uncovered the arrival of an Islamic battalion in the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. The battalion’s job, Basurin claims is to guard an arms depot in the port, which has become a center for illegal arms trade, including chemical weapons.

NTV, RBK, Vzglyad, Novostnoy Front and other Russian media all disseminated this story.

Website screenshot opcw.org

Ukraine signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993; the agreement was ratified in 1998. The treaty outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons administers the treaty and publishes an Information Bulletin in which it tracks countries still possessing chemical weapons and means of production. Ukraine is not on this list.

Website screenshot ru.krymr.com

As for that Islamic battalion, Mr. Basurin most probably is talking about “Asker” a Crimean Tatar civilian formation. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry is considering absorbing the Asker group into its military structures, but has not done so yet, according to Crimean Tatar activist Lenur Islyamov. Asker enforced a citizens’ blockade of Crimea and operates checkpoints between the Russian annexed peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland.

Eduard Basurin is a fertile source of fake information and his pronouncements are always given pride of place in the Russian propaganda corporation. In the past he has announced a Ukrainian tank crushed a civilian car, that American snipers are working in Donbas, that the Ukrainian army has shelled OSCE monitor and more.

 

Categories: World News

Investigation – Sex and lies: Russia’s EU news

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 18:21

By – Investigation – Sex and lies: Russia’s EU news (20.4.2017, EU Observer)

Rape, paedophilia, incest, and sodomy – Russian media have targeted France and Germany for years with hundreds of fake or distorted stories, many of which were designed to incite sexual revulsion toward asylum seekers and the politicians who gave them shelter.

Conspiracy theories about false-flag terrorist attacks and about Nazism have also featured in Moscow’s propaganda campaign as France and Germany head for elections.

  • Russian foreign ministry endorsed the fake news of a teenager’s rape in Germany (Photo: mid.ru)

News of Lisa, a 13-year old girl of Russian origin in Germany who was said, last year, to have been raped by migrants, is the best known of its type.

Lisa left home for a few days and told her family that she had been kidnapped and raped by Arabic men. German police said it was not true and she later confessed to having made it up.

But it was reported as fact by every big Russian news agency and personally endorsed by the Russian foreign minister.

It was also circulated, for months, by pro-Russian local language websites all over Europe, for instance in Czech, English, Hungarian, and Slovak, and spread wider still by Russian trolls and bots on social media.

A Russian TV station, Pervyi Kanal, on 17 January last year, even aired a fake interview on YouTube with Lisa’s aunt and uncle.

Part of the Russian line was that German authorities had hushed it up, which meant that official denials reinforced the message and the story stayed alive after it had been debunked.

The Lisa affair was designed to harm German chancellor Angela Merkel, an advocate of EU sanctions on Russia, by indicating that her policy of welcoming refugees had put Germans in peril.

It was also designed to sow ethnic hatred in German society and was accompanied by street protests organised by Russian expat groups.

The story exposed Russia’s modus operandi – how media giants such as RT and Sputnik worked hand-in-glove with fringe websites and with bloggers, trolls, and bots to propagate disinformation. It showed how publications in one EU language end up being translated and cross-posted into other ones.

It was also just one of dozens that used sexual taboos to manipulate people’s feelings.

EUobserver studied the 2,951 examples of Russian fake news collected and published by East Stratcom, a counter-propaganda cell in the EU foreign service, since October 2015.

The bulk of the material was designed to legitimise Russian foreign policy, such as its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine or its military intervention in Syria.

It was also designed to legitimise Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s increasingly totalitarian rule at home by claiming that the West and Nato were trying to encircle Russia, but the Lisa story was just the beginning of a long stream.

Out of 189 stories identified by East Stratcom as having directly targeted France and Germany, 28 of them (15 percent) were based on sexual slurs against migrants or LGBTI people in those countries.

Dozens more used sexual content that targeted other EU states, especially in the Nordic region, to paint a misleading picture of a Europe-wide emergency caused by Merkel, as well as by French president Francois Hollande and by EU institutions.

East Stratcom relies on journalists and NGOs around Europe to send alerts on Russian fake news.

The real number of fake stories on France and Germany was far higher than 200, but the EU cell has more correspondents in former Soviet states and in central and eastern European countries than it does in the west and in the north of Europe, creating blind spots in its research.

A European diplomat, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver that sex was deliberately used as a propaganda weapon.

“Sex sticks to memory,” the diplomat said.

“It creates a lot of emotions and when your objective isn’t to inform people, but to divide them, destabilise them, make them more fragmented, more afraid, more angry, this is precisely the kind of message you’re looking for,” he said.

Jakub Janda, a Czech expert at the European Values think tank in Prague who works with East Stratcom, added: “Sex is used because it’s emotionally mobilising and supports the narrative that Western/German mainstream political leadership is soft or unable or unwilling to defend our own people”.

Migrant rapes

The Lisa story came out in conjunction with distorted reports about sexual assaults by Arabs against German women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2016.

Assaults did take place, but Russian media falsely claimed that Merkel refused to condemn them and that German police did not intervene out of political correctness.

In June last year, Russian TV reported that a migrant had pushed a young German woman under a train. The attack was real, but the attacker was not a migrant.

In September, Russian media claimed, without giving any evidence, that women in many German cities were afraid to go out at night for fear of being raped by migrants.

They also claimed, without evidence, that German courts were “inundated” by migrant sex crimes and that German police could not keep up with migrant crime statistics.

In February of this year, Russian bloggers circulated false reports that migrants had sexually assaulted women on New Year’s Eve in Frankfurt.

The dirty tricks were similar in France.

In May last year, Russia’s flagship TV show, Vesti nedeli, quoted Raphaelle Tourne, a French woman, as saying that migrants had verbally abused her and that she was scared to go out in her own neighbourhood, but the quotes were made up.

In November last year, a Czech pro-Russian blogger planted a fake story that the French government had agreed with Islamic radicals to create zones governed by Islamic “sharia” laws, which oppressed women, in parts of France.

Turning the rape motif on its head, Russian media in February this year falsely reported that a German soldier in a Nato unit in Lithuania had raped a local girl.

Varying the motif again, a pro-Russian Facebook account in February said migrants had attacked a Catholic priest in Avignon, France, even though the assault in question had taken place four years ago.

Russian sources also replicated migrant sex stories in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, and Sweden.

They reported that migrants had raped schoolgirls in Finland without giving any evidence.

They claimed Austria had acquitted a migrant who raped a 10-year old boy even though the alleged rapist had not been acquitted.

They said falsely that migrants had made five nuns pregnant at a monastery in Milan, Italy, and said that a migrant had sexually assaulted a 17-year old girl in Denmark in a story that used photos from an incident years ago.

They made hollow claims of mass rapes by migrants in Belgium and in Sweden, which hosts the most refugees per capita in Europe, and which, Russian reports said, had, due to this, become “the rape capital of Europe”.

The campaign to provoke sexual-political revulsion also used more exotic content.

Last January, pro-Russian media said Germany had hired Czech prostitutes to have sex with migrants so that they would spread sexually transmitted diseases in the Czech Republic in revenge for Prague’s refusal to join EU migrant-relocation quotas.

Last February, they made the unsubstantiated claim that bestiality was on the rise in Germany due to African immigrants.

In November 2015, a pro-Russian Czech website said that Germany planned to legalise paedophilia in the EU.

In April last year, a Russian blogger reported that Western countries were to legalise incest, cannibalism, and necrophilia.

Last May, Russian newspaper Pravda said Merkel was a lesbian who wanted to legalise paedophilia, while in October, Russia’s Ren TV claimed that European men wanted to practice polygamy because they were jealous of Muslim migrants who had more than one wife.

In another variation of the theme, in January, a Russian social media user planted a fake allegation that Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstroem was such an extreme feminist that she advocated mass-scale castration of white men.

Opinion makers

No one has carried out detailed polling on the impact of such stories on French or German public opinion.

But a survey by American pollster Pew last year indicated that Russian propaganda had carved out a sizeable constituency in Europe.

It said that between 25 to 30 percent of people in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain believed, for instance, that there were no Russian troops fighting in east Ukraine, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.

There is also no detailed study of how big Russian media work with fringe websites and bloggers, which ones of the small publishers are Kremlin agents and which ones replicate fake content because they believe it.

“This huge [media] ecosystem has different parts with different aims … and our knowledge about it is still very small. It’s quite scary and it’s obvious they know our audiences much better than we know them,” the European diplomat said.

“We need to know how many disinformation-oriented multipliers there are, who is there more for planting the story, who is there for providing material for disinformation-oriented outlets in other languages, who is there for reaching out to the general audience and who is reaching out to opinion makers”, he said.

He said “some parts of it [the ecosystem] definitely work independently from Russia’s central brain”.

But he added that if European media or bloggers echoed the “central brain” in good faith then that would be “the ideal result of this incredible information carpet bombing”.

“These cases are actually even more dangerous, when a non-Kremlin outlet spreads pro-Kremlin disinformation, the disinformation receives more credibility”, he said.

He also said that the small readership of some pro-Russian outlets did not mean that they were harmless because they targeted “opinion makers”.

“Look at it like an advertising campaign”, he said.

“You might have some doubts whether a printed ad in a magazine read by 500 people was worth the money, especially when the same company has ads in TV and radio and internet … But if the company knows that those 500 readers are important for them, and that they might have influence on other audiences, it was money well spent”.

Orthodox values

The migrant rape stories were part of a wider narrative that portrayed Putin and pro-Putin far-right parties in Europe as guardians of orthodox values.

They ran alongside homophobic fake news designed to incite revulsion against the LGBTI community in Europe and against liberal politicians, such as Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, a French presidential candidate, or against EU institutions who defend the rights of minorities.

In one direct attack on the French presidential campaign, Russian TV, in March, spread unsubstantiated rumours that Macron, a Russia-critical and pro-EU politician, had had a gay love affair.

Russian TV last February also said the European Parliament was promoting homosexuality in France in order to erase the difference between genders.

Russian media said last summer that French people were shocked by Russian football hooligans because their ideas of masculinity had been degraded by watching men take part in Gay Pride marches.

The homophobic content also had a pan-EU dimension.

In one example, a pro-Russian newspaper in Georgia last May said EU elites had been “captured” by LGBTI activists. A Russian website in June said people in Europe were being “forced” to become gay.

As with the story on the priest attack in Avignon, the homophobic theme worked in conjunction with fake news on religion.

In January last year, Igor Druz, an expert at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, told a Russian website that EU leaders were trying to “eradicate Christianity”.

Homophobia

Pro-Russian media last year also said the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was planning to ban baptism and that people in EU countries were being fined for wearing jewellery with Christian crosses while walking down the street.

The Kremlin’s foreign influence operations often lacked coherence.

Russia has portrayed itself as a bulwark against the purported rise of fascism in Europe while supporting neo-Nazi parties such as the NPD or the extreme-right Pegida movement in Germany.

It has backed mainly far-right parties, such as the National Front in France or the AfD in Germany, but it has also backed far-left anti-EU parties such as the Communist Party and Left Party in France and Die Linke in Germany.

In this context, the central place of homophobia in the Kremlin’s anti-EU ideology was made clear by its non-cooperation with Geert Wilders, the leading anti-EU politician in the Netherlands.

Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Russia at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, told EUobserver that Wilders did not fit the bill due to his sexual politics.

“Russian actors who are engaged in building relations with the European far right are homophobic – that could damage Wilders, who positions himself as pro-LGBTI,” Shekhovtsov said.

Sex aside, the Russian campaign against France and Germany also exploited the hot-button issue of terrorism and the historical trauma of Nazism.

The Russian propaganda in this area also lacked coherence.

In one line, EU leaders were accused of being too weak to protect their citizens from terrorists of migrant origin.

In another line, seen time and again in individual reports on France and Germany, EU and US leaders were accused of secretly organising false-flag jihadist attacks because they served as a pretext to impose supranational rule.

The stream began with reports in German and in Czech that French authorities had “staged” the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, in Paris in January 2015 to justify a crackdown on the anti-EU National Front party.

In March 2016, Russian sources said Merkel had organised the Brussels bombings and published what they said was a “selfie” of the chancellor with one of the attackers, but which was, in fact, a photo of an unrelated Syrian refugee.

They said the US staged the truck assault in Nice, France, last July, to punish French people for protesting against an EU-US free-trade pact.

At a lower level, they accused Merkel’s intelligence services of having organised the Cologne New Year’s Eve sex attacks.

They also made the unsubstantiated claim that German intelligence services had carried out an arson attack against Frauke Petry, the leader of Germany’s main anti-EU party, the AfD.

Another propaganda theme said Merkel was a crypto-Nazi who wanted to impose German rule on Europe.

Germanophobia

It was designed to foment Germanophobia among EU nations, many of which suffered huge losses in World War II, and to legitimise Putin’s authoritarianism and revanchism by allusion to Stalin, whose totalitarian regime defeated Hitler’s forces.

It was also designed to promote anti-EU parties in Europe by presenting the EU as a vehicle for Merkel’s imputed Nazi agenda.

Russia’s Ren TV broadcaster in December 2015 made the unsubstantiated claim that Nazism was on the rise in Germany because it publishers had printed copies of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf.

A story planted in Georgian media in April last year said Merkel was Hitler’s daughter.

Several articles in June last year and in February this year claimed that German soldiers posted to Lithuania as part of a Nato battalion designed to deter Russian aggression were occupation forces modelled on Operation Barbarossa – Hitler’s plan to conquer the Soviet Union.

A story in Czech media in February also claimed that Poland has been co-opted into Merkel’s “Fourth Reich”.

Anti-EU articles in February last year said the European Commission was founded on Nazi ideas by reference to Walter Hallstein, its first president, who had served in the German army in occupied France, but who had, in fact, rejected Nazi ideology.

Another stream of stories in Czech, English, and Russian-language media last May described the EU as a continuation of Nazi plans.

They said the EU was a totalitarian regime that enforced loyalty to Merkel and that European children were being made to cuddle dolls of Hitler at bedtime.

Conspiracy theories

Some fake stories ventured even further into the realms of nutty conspiracy theories.

Sputnik reported that the design of a new Nato building in Brussels was modelled on the insignia of Nazi “SS” brigades.

Infowars.com, a US blog, cited David Icke, an English former TV presenter who believes the world is ruled by alien lizards, as saying the EU and US had organised the migration crisis to impose a new world order.

A pro-Russian newspaper in Georgia also said last June that EU leaders had taken part in a Satanic ritual in a rail tunnel in Switzerland.

The European diplomat told EUobserver that conspiracy theories were a “smaller” but “essential” part of Russia’s disinformation campaign, which targeted disenfranchised minorities in European society.

“Look at how anti-Jewish conspiracies worked for Hitler. For a destabilised society, conspiracies are a very pleasant message, they tell them that it is not their fault, that they have someone else to blame”, he said.

“They do find their audiences and they help the general messaging: ‘Trust no-one. Nothing is sure. Be afraid’,” he said.

Janda, from the think tank in Prague, said the Kremlin’s conspiracy theories were designed to recruit EU-native fringe writers by using ideological instead of financial means.

He said the conspiracies appealed to the EU natives’ own thinking, making them more likely to trust in and replicate Russia’s less outlandish stories “for free”.

“Russia captures [Western] conspiracy theorists and extremists in an ideological sense by providing narratives that make sense to them … these people then do it [repeat Russia’s other stories] for free because they believe in it”, he said.

Breitbart and UK tabloids

East Stratcom’s mandate, as stated by the EU foreign service, is to counter “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”.

Its so-called Disinformation Review has also included a handful of stories by the US far-right publication Breitbart and by British eurosceptic tabloids, however.

Breitbart’s stories mirrored Russia’s anti-migrant messages to a striking extent.

One article by the US publication’s London office in January 2016 ran the same story as two pro-Russian Czech media saying that the leader of Pegida, a German far-right movement, was being prosecuted by the German “establishment” for wearing a T-shirt that said “Rapefugees Not Welcome”.

The lawsuit in question was in fact filed by Juergen Kasek, a minor opposition figure with no links to mainstream parties.

Another Breitbart story in January this year said that a mob which chanted “Allahu Akhbar!” had set fire to Germany’s “oldest church”, St. Reindold’s in Dortmund.

The small fire was in fact started by a stray firework that had landed on scaffolding amid New Year’s Eve celebrations and the church in question was not Germany’s oldest, diminishing its symbolic value.

An article in Britain’s top-selling tabloid, The Sun, in October last year, made the equally hollow claim that German authorities were paying one Syrian refugee, who had four wives and 23 children, €360,000 a year in welfare.

There is no evidence linking Breitbart to the Kremlin, but the FBI is looking into this possibility as part of a wider probe into last year’s US elections, the European diplomat said.

Breitbart was run by Steve Bannon, who is now US president Donald Trump’s chief strategist.

The diplomat said British tabloids, such as The Sun, the Daily Mail, and The Express, which have published hundreds of distorted anti-EU and anti-immigrant stories, were also doing it for “domestic political purposes” to justify the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

The diplomat warned that if EU institutions complained about disinformation in British, French, or German media they risked feeding anti-EU feeling on grounds of interference in matters of national sovereignty.

Long-term harm

Janda, from the Czech think tank, predicted that Russian propaganda would increasingly target Macron in the run-up to the French elections in April and May.

“The Russian goal is clear – anybody but Macron”, he said.

He added that Moscow’s success in swaying the French result would depend on “how much will they be able to damage Macron”.

Hot on the heels of the gay affair slur in February, a fake website modelled on Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper also said his campaign had been funded by Saudi Arabia.

The fake news was tweeted by Marion Marechal-Le Pen, an MP.

The European diplomat predicted that Russia’s German campaign would focus on migrants in the run-up to the German vote in autumn “with more false victims, fake stories, and by developing the narrative that Germany is collapsing because of Merkel’s [immigration] policies”.

Mainstream French and German media have launched their own East Stratcom-type debunking efforts and German authorities are taking regulatory steps to crack down on fake news.

It remains to be seen whether Russia can achieve in Europe what it helped to achieve in the US with the shock election of the populist Trump.

But Russia’s media campaign, which began well before East Stratcom was launched, is unlikely to end after the French and German votes, even if these do not go Moscow’s way.

US far-right media, such as Breitbart, and British tabloids were also active for years prior to Trump’s election and to the Brexit referendum to help create anti-establishment or anti-EU feeling with ever-deeper roots and wider-spreading branches.

Their actions bore fruit at a moment when other political and economic factors converged to create the right environment.

Russia’s propaganda “ecosystem”, with its mix of Kremlin-funded media, useful-idiot proxies, and its focus on highly emotive issues is now creating fertile ground in Europe for political shocks either in the short or longer-term.

“Sex sticks to memory,” as the European diplomat said.

By – Investigation – Sex and lies: Russia’s EU news (20.4.2017, EU Observer)

Categories: World News

StopFakeNews #128 [ENG] with Romeo Kokriatski

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 10:14

The latest edition of StopFake News with Romeo Kokriatski. This week’s fakes include claims of a nuclear explosion in Ukraine, President Poroshenko alleged disappointment in the country’s armed forces, fake austerity measures and an accusation of genocide.

Categories: World News

Fake: Poroshenko Recognizes Superiority of European Armies

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 18:59

Russian propagandist site Life.ru published an article claiming that Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko admitted that European armies were superior to Ukraine’s armed forces. Poroshenko allegedly made this announcement in a speech to Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly known as Chatham House.

RIA Novosti took Life’s claims even further and declared that President Poroshenko is disappointed in Ukraine’s armed forces.

Website screenshot life.ru

Russia’s disinformation arsenal usual suspects quickly followed suit: Lenta.ru, Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda, Sputnik, REN.TV, NevaInfo and others all ran versions of this fake story.

Screenshot @petroporoshenko

 

Ukraine’s President however, made no such claims in his Chatham House address, quite the contrary, Poroshenko pointed out that Ukraine spends 5% of its GDP on defense and its army currently ranks 8th in Europe.  “It is the only army that not only faces Russian aggression but also is able to effectively contain it,” Poroshenko said.

Website screenshot globalfirepower.com

The text and video of President Poroshenko’s address are available on the president’s official web site.

“Ukraine is a fighter,” Poroshenko said.” If you are looking for someone guided by principle, look at Ukraine. We spend 5% of our annual GDP on defense, more than some NATO members. Ukraine’s army currently ranks 8th in Europe. It is the only army that not only faces Russian aggression but also is able to effectively contain it. Thanks to the Ukrainian army, you can feel safe and secure.”

According to the Global Firepower Index, a ranking of nations’ militaries based of active personnel, tanks, aircraft and more, Ukraine is ranked 30th among 126 countries, ahead of the armies of Switzerland, Norway, Holland and Argentina.

Categories: World News

Fake: Nuclear Explosion in Ukraine

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 18:37

Dubious and less than legitimate web sites regularly publish stories claiming that Ukraine possesses hidden nuclear weapons. The latest version of this unsubstantiated and questionable narrative appeared in the US Veterans Today website, claiming that a nuclear weapon detonated during the March munitions depot fire that occurred in Balakliya, near Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.

Website screenshot www.veteranstoday.com

The Russian blogosphere immediately picked up this fake story and Russian sites such Infomaxx disseminated this fake story.

According to Veterans Today author Ian Greenhalgh (photographer and historian with a particular interest in military history and the real causes of conflicts) during the explosions at the munitions depot in Balakliya, at least one nuclear weapon was detonated. Greenhalgh says his claim is based on “real expertise in nuclear fission”, he uses emotionally charged words such as Holocaust, sabotage and mushroom cloud, and declares that something nuclear is definitely afoot and Ukraine is hiding it.

Greenhalgh uses video footage of the depot explosions to seemingly prove his claims, footage that is no longer available on the internet. His story also features a frame from the alleged video to claim that it shows “plasma rain falling from a mushroom cloud, a clear sigh this was a nuclear explosion”.

The photo is in fact a screenshot from a 2013 video of a fire at the Chapaevsk test site in Russia’s southeastern Samara province.

Greenhalgh uses other photographs to push his claim that Ukraine illegally possesses tactical nuclear SS-21 missiles. What he fails to mention is that SS-21s can carry conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads.  The missile photos Greenhalgh uses in his sensational story in no way prove that they contain nuclear warheads.

Ukraine has never hidden the fact that SS-21s are part of its arsenal, these missiles are clearly visible at Ukraine’s festive military parades. The warheads Ukraine uses are conventional.

In 1994 Ukraine gave up the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile, joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and signed the Budapest Memorandum  guaranteeing its security.

Veterans Today is a marginal web site publishing a mixture of legitimate veterans issue stories but largely specializing in conspiracy theories and questionable journalism giving pride of place to stories questioning the September 11 terror attacks in the US, supporting Russia, Iran and undermining the U.S. The business review website Sitejabber calls Veterans Today an alarmist conspiracist site.  The reputable Southern Poverty Law Center has featured Veterans Today on their hate watch review for its Holocaust denial and other conspiracy theory stories.

A Veterans Today story from April 21 for example declares “Nikki Haley is a political maniac and a psychopath”. Ms. Haley is the American ambassador to the United Nations.

Categories: World News

Fake: Rasmussen for Recognition of Independent Course for Crimea

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 22:37

Russian media regularly publish stories claiming that the West has resigned itself to the annexation of Crimea and is ready to compromise with the Kremlin regarding sanctions. Pro-Russian delegations of marginal European politicians regularly feted in the annexed peninsula are presented as official delegations, proving that the West is softening its position on Crimea.

Website screenshot RIA

Last week former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen became the newest victim of Russian media manipulation when RIA Novosti quoted him out of context, claiming that Rasmussen did not rule out that Crimea will not be part of Ukraine in the future and might strike out on an independent course.

RIA managed to run three separate stories based on Rasmussen’s answer to a question on whether the West should exchange Crimea for Kaliningrad, that was jokingly posed at a Hudson Institute conference  U.S.Sanctions on Russia: evaluating impacts and costs.

This is Rasmussen’s answer:

“As regards Crimea, we should pursue exactly the same policies as we did after the illegal annexation of the three Baltic States into the Soviet Union. We never, ever recognized that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were just republics in the Soviet Union. So eventually circumstances gave them a chance to regain independence and immediately we could recognize their new freedom and the new independence. I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that one day, in the future, circumstances will allow us to  welcome Crimea as a free entity, whether it will be an integrated part of Ukraine, or whatever, I don’t know how. But I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that a new situation could arise, so we should never, ever recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea.”

Rasmussen did not advocate recognizing the occupation of Crimea. On the contrary, he emphasized that recognizing the annexation was bound to have dangerous consequences and would encourage other authoritarian rulers to seize others’ territories.

Strana.ua and Komsomolskaya Pravda both ran this fake story.

Categories: World News

Fake: Ukrainian Сolonel Proposes to Raze Donbas and Crimea

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 20:22

Russian propagandist media (REN TV, Vesti) disseminated a fake this week claiming that a lieutenant in the Ukrainian armed forces was advocating razing Crimea and the Donbas in order to return these occupied territories to Ukraine.

Website screenshot REN TV

Website screenshot Vesti

The source for this distorted claim is an interview that Lieutenant Vsevolod Stebliuk gave to the information portal Online.ua , where he does use the word raze, however, in a context that is completely opposite, to what the Russian sites claim.

Stebliuk never advocates resorting to a scorched earth approach to return these territories.These are his exact words:

“It is impossible to end this war diplomatically or through a simple decision. Go and liberate the occupied territories by force? This would mean huge numbers of casualties. In order to free occupied Crimea and the Donbas, you need a massive clean-up, like the Russians did in Grozny, they razed the place. Do we really need this?”

Lieutenant Stebliuk also talks about possible ways of ending the war in the east.

“The only sane way is to say to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics yes; we recognize that you are now independent. We set the border; we set rules on border crossings. We establish customs rules; moving goods outside these rules is considered smuggling!  And with time we will think about diplomatic relations with these territories.”

Categories: World News

Kremlin Watch Monitor. April 19, 2017

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 18:34

Invitation: How Europe sees Putin’s Russia

On April 24, we will present a new major study in the European Parliament, which evaluates policies of individual EU28 countries towards Russia. It is our pleasure to invite you to the public hearing (www.europeanvalues.net/putin/).

New publication: How Kremlin controls major Russian media

We would like to introduce a new Kremlin Watch Report, authored by Ilyas Sharibzhanov, Analyst of the Kremlin Watch Programme. Mass media in Russia have changed significantly since the days of President Yeltsin and the contrast with the free and independent media in Russia of just 20 years ago has been ever so evident for the past three years, with Russia’s media turning from a market into a state-organized system of propaganda machine. The document analyses these changes.

Putin’s Champion Award

Our Expert Jury consisting of Jessikka Aro, Anton Shekhovtsov, John Schindler and Michael Weiss regularly vote on the dangerousness of several candidates you can nominate via e-mail or Twitter.

The 8th Putin’s Champion Award Recipient is:

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

For ignoring Russian aggression and willingness to renegotiate Ukrainian borders.

Image Source: Flickr, Place Au Peuple, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Expert Jury ranked his Putin-supportive job with

3.3

(out of 5) mark.

The rating signals how much the recipient contributed to the interest of the Putin’s aggressive regime. It is calculated as an average of ratings assessed by the Expert Jury of this Award.

You can find more details about the award and the former recipients here.

Weekly Update on the Kremlin Disinformation Efforts in Europe The Czech Government adopted a new (State) Defence Strategy.

It also reads in unofficial translation:

  • “The Russian Federation openly projects its power ambitions in Eastern Europe, including the use of military force.
  • (The Russian Federation) does not hesitate to break international law, including breaching the territorial integrity of neighbouring countries.
  • (The Russian Federation) uses tools of the hybrid campaign against the EU and NATO member states, including the use of disinformation activities and cyber attacks.”

Full version, yet only in Czech language: http://www.mocr.army.cz/ministr-a-ministerstvo/odkazy/odkazy-46088

Similar wording can be found in other Czech strategic government documents: the 2015 Security Strategy, 2015 Foreign Policy Strategy, or the 2016 National Security Audit.

The Estonian Internal Security Service published its Annual Review for 2016. It describes several cases of caught Russian spies, including the first case involving an alleged recruit of the GRU military intelligence service.

Russian cover-up of Syrian chemical attacks

The National Security Council issued a dossier accusing Russia of conducting a disinformation campaign aiming to cover up the role of the Syrian government in recent chemical attacks. The report includes declassified intelligence on the attack, showing that the Russian Federation and Syria both spread “false narratives” concerning the incident. Russian President Putin responded by comparing the accusation to the case of intelligence findings on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.

The rising number of cyber attacks

The Joint Force Quarterly recapitulates the attacks on information systems in recent years, showing the increase in their numbers. From the report:

  • The Pentagon reports getting 10 million attempts a day, just as well as The National Nuclear Security Administration.
  • The United Kingdom reports 120,000 cyber incidents a day, which is almost as many as the state of Michigan deals with.
  • Utah states that it faces 20 million attempts a day – up from 1 million a day 2 years ago.

The Bundeswehr is also a common target, noting more than 280,000 cyber-attacks only during January and February. The German government takes the issue seriously, establishing a new Cyber and Information Space Command (CIR) in the beginning of April. The CIR should involve around 14,000 military and civilian staff and include structures dealing with IT, cyber-security, military reconnaissance, geo-information and psychological warfare. You can read the analysis of this move by Justyna Gotkowska from the Centre for Eastern Studies.

Helsinki will host a newly established centre for research on the tactics of hybrid threats. Experts from several EU and NATO countries, including The United States, Britain, France, Germany, or Poland, will participate. According to the Foreign Minister of Finland Timo Soini, one of the aims should also be to boost society’s resilience against hybrid operations.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

A Field Guide to Fake News;

compiled by Liliana Bounegru, Jonathan Gray, Tomasso Venturini & Michele Mauri; published by Public Data Lab.

A collection of recipes for those who love to cook with digital methods – that is how this unique publication about fake news describes itself. Focusing on the character of online circulation and reception of fake news, the “field guide” offers its readers new ways of mapping and responding to this phenomenon. It contains a number of recipes, which can be used by everyone with basic computer literacy who wants to grasp comprehensively the topic of fake news circulation on the internet or simply put a specific fake news into broader context. Every recipe is well-described and illustrated with examples, which are very interesting by themselves. To get a better understanding of how it all looks, here you can see a recipe how to create a network of cross-references between pages mentioning a certain fake story, and the result as well.

Result:

The first set of recipes maps fake news hotspots on Facebook and offers answers to questions such as “what publics does fake news animate”, “how may the trajectory of a fake news story be traced” or “do fact-checking initiatives reach the publics of fake news” (on Facebook). As with the other recipes, one can use the methods described and apply them to fake news of their choice. The second set focuses on tracing the circulation of fake news on the web and proposes various ways how to find out more about where do fake news originate and how they spread. Finally, the third set of recipes provides instructions how to use tracker signatures to map the techno-commercial underpinnings of fake news sites.

Read the full text here.

Euroatlantic experts on disinformation warfare

As the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini approaches half of her term, POLITICO asked foreign policy experts to evaluate her performance. Her mark on Russia is not very high, unsurprisingly. “Mogherini completely fails to address a threat more than a dozen EU member states see as a major danger,” says Jakub Janda in his contribution to the assessment.

A Russian-born activist Masha Gessen and a former FBI special agent Clint Watts from the Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security discuss the role of disinformation concerning the ties between the President Trump’s administration and Russia, and how bots, trolls, and fake news can influence politics on Radio Times.

John Cappello describes in his article for the Foundation for Defence of Democracies what narratives are spread and  politicians supported by the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign in the Western Balkans.

Belarus has been off the grid of the disinformation campaigns until recently. The motives of the newly acquired attention are discussed by Amy Mackinnon in the article for .Coda.

The Vulnerability Index Subversive Russian Influence in Central Europe

The European Values think-tank participated in a new study published by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, together with counter-parts from Hungary and Poland. The aim was to describe how vulnerable are the societies of the Visegrad countries to subversive foreign influence and to point out the weak spots and best practices in addressing these threats, with the focus on five areas – public perception, political landscape, media, state countermeasures, and civil society.

The Czech Republic ranked the third among the Visegrad group. Czech society, despite being quite euro-sceptic simultaneously rejects a pro-Russian orientation. One notable exception is Czech President Miloš Zeman, who is regarded by many as the most important and visible pro-Russian political actor in the region. At the same time, the current Czech government is leading the way in addressing subversive foreign efforts by setting up a dedicated anti-hybrid threats task force at the Ministry of Interior and is in close cooperation with a very active civil society.

Czech Disinformation Corner

National Bank of the Protectorate: According to the New Republic website, the behaviour of the Council of the Czech National Bank (ČNB) suggests it is in the service of foreign capital or colonizers. The recent intervention of the Czech National Bank allegedly increased already huge exchange losses by 50 %.  AC24 informed that the price for previously weak Crown is 2 trillion CZK stolen from Czech citizens. Das neue Europa, we can read on Aeronet. Strengthening the Crown, according to its chief editor, really means setting up a reaction mechanism from Berlin in order to deal with an unsustainable situation in the area of low wages in the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.”

False flag in Syria: The reactions to the chemical attack in Syria varied on the disinformation websites. For example, according to Protiproud, the incident was a long-prepared excuse of the Pentagon generals for an indirect attack of Russia. AC24 references alleged sources amongst former CIA officials, according to which it was a fraud just as the sarin attack in Syria in 2013. Apart from other things, also former CIA official Philip Giraldi allegedly confirmed that neither the Syrian government nor the Russians are behind the attack. The government of Bashar al-Assad, according to fringe sources, would not have any benefit from using chemical weapons. On the contrary, the NATO inciters don’t want peace and desire prolongation of the war and destruction of Syria. Rescue operations after the chemical attack in Idlib in the White Helmets videos are faked and conducted on a dead chid.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.

Categories: World News

Small time propagandists

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 18:07

Written by Inga Spriņģe, Re:Baltica

Who is polluting the Baltic internet in Russian?

U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to end financing for the Baltic states.

This screaming headline was published in March 2017 by the website rubaltic.ru which resembles a news portal and operates under the auspices of the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad, Russia. The task was to create the impression that the U.S., which is seen in the Baltics as a guarantor of regional security, is abandoning Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In three days, the article was republished by 37 different Russian-language websites, including vesti.lv, which aggressively targets the Russian-speakers in Latvia, and baltnews.lt, a Russian-language site in Lithuania, connected to the Kremlin’s media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya.

The problem is that the story is not true.

Internet sites that published the news that Trump has cut funding for the Baltic states. Illustration: Māris Diņģelis, IR

Rubaltic.ru is another cog in the Kremlin’s Baltic disinformation machine, a series of little known websites sitting on the outskirts of the public debate pumping out negative stories or outright falsehoods on events in the Baltic states. The stories are spread via social media and republished on marginal Russian websites and later picked up by some Baltic media. Readers looking for news in Russian on the Baltic states have to wade through a swamp of misinformation and manufactured news funded by this Kremlin-friendly network.

Propaganda in disguise

Quoting the conservative Fox Business channel, the author of the article, Aleksandr Nosovich, alleged that the new U.S. administration under Donald Trump would slash funding for public diplomacy and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Therefore, “Washington has said the Baltic states and other parasites, who are used to living off of U.S. State Department grants, won’t get a damn thing.”

Source: Twitter

USAID has not given any money to the Baltics since 2004, when the three countries joined the EU. What is left from the public diplomacy funding are stipends, small grants promoting human rights and better business practice as well as cultural events. The U.S. embassy in Latvia declined to provide the precise amount.

Also, that was a plan, not an adopted budget. Essentially: Trump’s administration’s wish list. But the news went wild on social networks – at least in Russian.

Nosovich doesn’t think he misled his readers. Answering via Facebook, he said that the article was about “the whole system of support for the Baltic states and foreign activists, not only USAID.” To follow-up questions, such as why he hasn’t determined how much the U.S. spends in the Baltic states, choosing instead to mention that the “financing was impressive,” Nosovich stopped responding.

The 30-year-old Nosovich, “a Russian political scientist, an international journalist,” calls himself a foreign policy expert on the Baltic states. He has published two books on the topic with  headlines straight from the Kremlin’s propaganda labels: Europe’s backyard: Why the Baltic states are dying out and The history of the Fall: Why the Baltic states failed. Continuing on his favourite theme, during month Nosovich penned pieces stating that because of the inferiority complex, the Baltic states consider themselves to be Scandinavian countries, Europe will drop the Baltic states off with the help of two-speed Europe, and the Baltic states turned out to be more unhappy than Russia.

Nosovich likes provocative headlines and book titles that appear to match the Kremlin’s foreign policy rhetoric, which portrays the Baltics as failed states instead of the only former Soviet republics who successfully integrated into Europe.

Readers from RUS, LT, LV

Rubaltic.ru is run by the Research Center on Societal/Political Issues “Russian Baltics”, a non-governmental organization. It’s connected to the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave in the European Union. The center works mostly on the former Soviet Union, publishing news and research, organizing conferences and summer camps for journalists.

In its 2013 annual report, the Latvian security services described  the organization as “one of the tools of Russian information influence” that “in the form of an analytical portal it creates a Russia-friendly geopolitical outlook on what is happening in the Baltic Sea region.”

“Rubaltic.ru operates as an aggressive Baltic irritant and a producer of biased content to influence and misinform the less educated Russian-speaking residents of the Baltic states,” says Andis Kudors, a director of Latvia-based Centre for East European Policy Studies.

Rubaltic.ru doesn’t have a wide readership. According to data from similarweb.com, around 350,000 people visited the site in the last six months. A quarter of the audience came from Russia. Another quarter came from Lithuania, which borders the Kaliningrad region. 18 percent came from Latvia.

Virtual newsroom

Rubaltic.ru operates a virtual newsroom, which is located in several “cities and even countries,” says the site’s editor-in-chief Sergey Rekeda. The 29 year old is based in Moscow and works in analytical centre studying political processes in the post-Soviet space. It is affiliated to Moscow State University.

Another contributor, “economist and political scientist” Andrey Starikov, 26, also lives in Moscow. Born in the Latvia’s capital, Riga, he bloomed under the protection of Aleksandr Gaponenko, frequently featured in the Russian media as “a Baltic expert” or even “human rights defender”. Besides Gaponenko, Starikov is the only known person who has claimed to have worked in Gaponenko’s NGO, Center of European Studies which has been generously financed by the Kremlin. Together, they wrote “a series of research papers about energy markets” as well as a brochure The Russian Nation: ethnic and civilizational challenges, Starikov wrote in an email to Re:Baltica. He is also a regular contributor at baltnews.lv, which indirectly belongs to Rossiya Segondya, the state-run media conglomerate.

In his Facebook profile, Solopenko indicated that he worked at many places funded by the Russian government. Source: Facebook

Up until January 2017, Andrey Solopenko, another Riga-born author, worked as a contributor to rubaltic.ru. In 2015, as a journalist for the Russian government-funded journal Baltiysky Mir, he was barred from covering the EU summit on the Eastern Partnership which took place in Latvia’s capital. A year earlier, he observed the Crimean referendum on joining Russia as an “independent international expert”. Currently, his Facebook profile says he is working for Sputnik Latvia. Re:Baltica has made several attempts to meet with him, but they were unsuccessful.

Who’s paying?

None of the interviewees brought clarity about the source of funding for the site. The editor-in-chief Rekeda said that the lack of physical offices and newsroom allows the publication “to exist without serious financial investments. No one pays for the position we are expressing, we write what we really think.”

The portal is often critical of the Baltic states, however, “journalism must be critical. Even the values of the Soros Foundation say: we believe in providing critical debates and respecting a difference of opinions,” he wrote.

In the last few years the NGO which is listed as running rubaltic.ru, have received around 120,000 euros from various government funds to hold summer camps for young journalists, according to the publicly available information. For example, in 2014 and 2015, Russian Youth Union awarded 34,000 euros and around 50,000 euros respectively. In 2016, the National Charity Foundation awarded 30,000 euros.

Asked whether there will be a summer camp this year, Rekeda said he didn’t know if he would secure the funding. Nevertheless, an official page of one of Russia’s soft-power foundations, Gorchakov Foundation, says that it awarded financing to Russian Baltics to hold a school for young journalists in 2017. It didn’t specify the amount.

Propaganda trainers

Several of the trainers of young journalists in Kaliningrad  regularly appear in the Russian propaganda outlets.

Mateusz Piskorski. Source: YouTube

In August 2014, a regular on the RT network on Polish affairs, Mateusz Piskorski, taught journalism to 40 young people from Germany, Russia, Poland and the Baltic states. Piskorski is usually presented as one of the heads of the European Geopolitical Research Center from Warsaw, Poland. When Re:Baltica went to search for it in its documentary Masterplan about the Kremlin’s mechanisms of influence in the Baltics, the centre turned out to be a flat in one of Warsaw’s suburbs. Piskorski claimed it was “a virtual think-tank”.

In 2016, he was arrested by the Polish security services under suspicions of espionage and is still in detention.

Aleksei Kochetkov has been another instructor at the summer school. Kochetkov’s foundation People’s Diplomacy published a series of books, freely available on the internet, condemning nationalism in Lithuania and Ukraine. Kochetkov visited Latvia’s MEP Tatjana Zdanoka in Brussels, where in the heat of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, he presented a book on the cruelty of Ukrainian nationalists.

Books published by the People’s Diplomacy Foundation led by Aleksei Kochetkov are generally available free of charge. Source: publicdiplomacy.su

Both Kochetkov and Piskorski regularly acted as “independent observers” to the elections in which the Kremlin had a stake.

Another summer school instructor has been a popular Latvian-Russian ex-journalist, Andrey Mamikin, who after becoming MEP has become staunch defender of the Russian interests in Brussels. On his Facebook profile photo Mamikin proudly holds picture of him recently meeting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

At the end of 2016, MEP from Latvia Andrejs Mamikins together with the members of the lower chamber of the Russian parliament on an unofficial visit to Syria, where he met with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Source: Facebook

Written by Inga Spriņģe, Re:Baltica
Edited by Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Translated to English by Aleks Tapiņš
Translated to Russian by Jara Sizova
Translation edited by Alex Grigoriev
Illustrations by Lote Lārmane, Re:Baltica and Māris Diņģelis, IR
Research in Kaliningrad: Roman Romanovsky

Categories: World News

Fake: Energy Austerity Measures in Ukraine

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 10:07

The former Soviet newspaper of record, today Russia’s biggest daily broadsheet Izvestia announced this week that energy consumption and demand for oil products in Ukraine have fallen sharply because of political and economic crises plaguing the country.

Website screenshot izvestia.ru

Russian Defense Ministry television station Zvezda quickly followed suit declaring that Ukraine was introducing austerity measures driven by its economic crisis.

Other Russian media that eagerly disseminated this latest fake were Utro.ru, egorlovka.com.ua, Belrynok, Novosti Nizhnogo Novgoroda and others.

Websie screenshot sfs.gov.ua

The austerity measure Zvezda refers to is Ukraine’s decreasing reliance on Russian oil and Kyiv’s diversification of its energy sources.  According to the country’s State Fiscal Service, Ukraine’s oil imports are in fact growing, but it is oil imported from countries other than Russia. In the first quarter of 2017 Ukraine imported 82 million dollars’ worth of oil products from Azerbaijan (82%), Kazakhstan (14%) and only 2.6% of its supplies came from Russia.

Website screenshot ukrtatnafta.com

In 2016 Ukraine spent 173 million dollars for imported oil, 0.10% of those imports came from Russia. According to the petroleum company Ukrtatnafta  Kyiv’s determination to  diversify oil imports increased because of Russia blocking oil supplies to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s energy strategy through 2030 calls for ending Ukraine’s reliance on energy supplies from monopolist sources and increasing the country’s energy security through diversification of routes and sources – most importantly, away from Moscow.

Categories: World News

Revealed: Confessions of a Kremlin Troll

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 23:48
Being paid by the Russian government to troll the internet just isn’t what it used to be.

Pixabay / modified by MT

By Katie Davies, for The Moscow Times

Russia’s paid government trolls have been blamed for everything from the fall of Hillary Clinton to the conflict in Ukraine — They have dominated headlines and sparked political intrigue. But is clocking in as a professional troll really everything it seems?

Following in the footsteps of other former employees, Lyudmila Savchuk and Olga Maltseva, more of the Kremlin’s online army are now coming forward to tell their stories of working 12-hour shifts in Russia’s most controversial office.

Russia’s Bumaga news outlet spoke to one former troll about his life in “the factory” – and why the industry just isn’t what it used to be.

Yes, Russian trolls did target the U.S. elections.

We wrote about 200 comments and 20 news posts for various fake pages each day. At the “factory,” there were many different teams writing on different topics and targeting different websites. At the end of 2016, I know for sure that there were departments dedicated to the Ukrainian crisis and the U.S. elections. Due to my disclosure agreement, I can’t really talk about which department I worked for.

Trolling is tough (but the money makes it all worthwhile).

I graduated with a degree in philosophy in 2014 and didn’t know where to turn. I had large debts which needed to be paid off quickly. Then I read an article about “the factory” and realized that it was a place where I could make some quick money. Many of my colleagues found out about jobs there in the same way.

When I arrived at the interview, I already knew that I would be there to write pro-government propaganda on the Internet. I wasn’t surprised when the interviewer asked me to write a test comment on “fascist elements in the United States.” I was a little ashamed, but it was funny too.

I earned enough. Even Russia’s economic crisis didn’t affect us. If you work there for long enough, then with all the bonuses you get for hitting your quotas and turning out good work, you can get 80,000 to 90,000 rubles a month. I really only stayed in the job for that. I bought myself a Mazda Six during my time there.

It was difficult to get used to at first. Why was I sitting in a stuffy office for eight hours a day, doing what I did? But I was tempted by easy work and good money. I resigned myself to working there and just started enjoying the fact that I was being paid well for doing very little.

Russia’s politicians are expert trolls.

A professional troll should have a good sense of the people they are communicating with, and should fully realize what reactions they will get. And, most importantly, trolls shouldn’t lose their creativity: inventing something new to write every day is incredibly difficult.

I think the ideal Internet troll would be [State Duma deputy Vitaly] Milonov. Everything he says and does is almost dreamlike in its insanity. Take his recent bill punishing anyone who attends opposition rallies. Madness. And it’s all just fluff, because no one took it seriously.

But our patriots do not like anything related to [opposition politician Alexei Navalny, including his rally [on March 26 against corruption]. So Milonov agitated Russia’s liberals public and raised the authority of the government among his fans. He practically used the logic and methods of a troll.

Trolling isn’t as effective as you want to believe.

I can’t name any benefits that society would gain from this kind of work, to be honest. I was always ashamed to work there, so I even tried not to tell anyone. “Troll factories” aren’t benefiting society. It seems that everyone understands this but it’s just like the tabloid press: everyone just carries out their own orders in an attempt to cash in.

But really, our work doesn’t bring great harm on to everyone. Personally, I believe our work doesn’t bring results at all, and especially not the results which our backers hope for. No one believes in our posts: not us, and not our readers. Trolls argue with trolls. It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of people simply do not pay any attention to these kinds of comments.

The trolling industry is changing.

People who work as trolls don’t really like their profession. But now things are changing: with “the factory” appearing so much in the media, the management is starting to scale down their workforce: I was fired. Now they are recruiting people who really believe what they are writing. You need to prove that you are a patriot in order to write comments for money.

Managers also hope this policy will minimize the risk of moles, as happened with Maltseva and Savchuk [former employees who sued the company and discussed their work with the press].

By Katie Davies, for The Moscow Times

This interview was first carried out by Russian news site Bumaga. You can read their original post (in Russian) here.

Categories: World News

Warfare in a Post-Truth World: Lessons from Ukraine

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 00:51

Author: Yuri Zhukov, for PONARS Policy Memo

PDF

(PONARS Policy Memo) The U.S. intelligence community’s January 6 report about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election highlighted the role of Russian media organizations in spreading fake news and amplifying leaked materials in an attempt to manipulate public opinion. While few Americans receive their news directly from Russian sources, it is hard to dispute that a major consequence is that U.S. journalists and policymakers now face the challenge of restoring public trust in the media. This would not be the first case of a society trying counter biased and false information in the press.

Ukraine has been engaged in full-fledged information warfare against Russian propaganda since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and vitalized rebellions in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s information war is not going very well. Rather than helping to establish “ground truths,” Ukraine’s response to Russian propaganda has actually made truth more elusive, particularly with respect to the conflict in the Donbas. It has potentially made the conflict more difficult to resolve.

Harvard political scientist Matthew Baum and I performed a parallel analysis of thousands of incident reports from Ukrainian, Russian, rebel, and third party sources. We investigated the extent to which different sources suggested different patterns of strategic interaction between warring sides, and advanced different conclusions about the causes, location, and timing of violence.

We found that information warfare profoundly affects inferences about armed conflict, particularly about which actors are most responsible for violence. According to Ukrainian sources, rebels are more likely than the government to use force, kill civilians, and violate ceasefires. According to Russian and rebel sources, the opposite is true. Both Ukrainian and rebel sources report more violence than do outside, third-party sources such as the OSCE.

Each perspective has its own implications for how different actors behave in war, the sustainability of ceasefire agreements, the need for sanctions or third-party intervention, and whether intervention should be neutral or one-sided.

Background on Ukraine’s Information War

Before the Euromaidan movement swept President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014, the Russian media had a heavy presence in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea and in the south-east. In contrast to Western media portrayals of the Euromaidan as a largely peaceful protest movement confronting riot police and hired thugs, the mainstream Russian media devoted coverage to nationalist militants storming the Ukrainian parliament and hurling Molotov cocktails. Both images were in a narrow sense true, but neither represented the complete picture. The Russian perspective on events generated impressions on those rallying in Crimea and in the south-east, who then condemned the Euromaidan movement as a “Western-backed coup” and “fascist junta.”

Concerned about the Russian media’s potential for mobilization, Ukraine’s new authorities took a series of steps to counter it. In March 2014, before the first shots were fired in the east, Kyiv banned Russian federal broadcasters from Ukrainian television. Several months later, Kyiv banned some Russian films and television programs and placed travel bans on Russian journalists. In December 2014, Ukraine established the Ministry of Information Policy to protect Ukrainians from “unreliable information,” register media outlets, and define professional journalism standards. To spread government-approved content in social media, the Ministry launched an “Information Army” of patriotic volunteers.

Ukrainian authorities also exerted direct pressure on some information providers. In September 2014, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) raided the offices of the newspaper Vesti, accusing it of violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity through its coverage of the Donbas conflict. In February 2015, Ukrainian authorities arrested a blogger on charges of treason for posting a YouTube video criticizing the government’s military mobilization campaign. The same month, Ukraine’s Television and Radio Council accused popular television host Savik Shuster of violating the law on “incitement of hatred” after a Russian journalist criticized the government’s military operations on his show. Multiple similar incidents ensued.

In the rebel-held territories of the Donbas, separatists moved to create a similar closed information environment. After seizing the Donetsk regional administration building in April 2014, one of their next steps was to take control of the television towers in the region. Their aim was to take Ukrainian channels off the air and broadcast Russian programs. Later that year, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic established an official News Agency (DAN), while multiple privately-owned pro-rebel outlets emerged to fill the regional media vacuum. Wary of journalists from outside Russia and the region, rebels detained several reporters on suspicions of espionage, including an American journalist with Vice News.

In 2014, across Ukraine (including rebel areas) there were: 7 documented killings of journalists, 286 physical assaults, 78 abductions, multiple physical attacks on offices, and cyber attacks on websites, according to Freedom House. Predictably, these developments raised concerns over freedom of speech, including that an informational firewall between dueling and contradictory media narratives would only deepen existing divisions.

A Post-Truth Armed Conflict

How has Ukraine’s information war affected public attitudes toward the conflict? Survey evidence suggests that very few Ukrainians outside of the Donbas see Russian state media as a reliable or truthful source, which may be evidence either of the success of Ukraine’s counter-propaganda efforts or the ineffectiveness of Russia’s. Residents of rebel-held areas appear to have a similarly skeptical view of Ukrainian media, particularly due to its unwillingness to report on civilians killed by pro-government troops—incidents which Kyiv routinely denies.

To take stock of reporting biases in the Ukrainian conflict, we collected data on 72,010 violent events, as reported by 17 information providers, between February 23, 2014, and May 2, 2016. Our sources included official newswires, television channels, Internet news sites, and blogs from Ukrainian, rebel, Russian, and external, third-party outlets. We also included the Russian-language edition of Wikipedia, and daily briefings from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. We used natural language processing and supervised machine learning to classify each event into a series of pre-defined categories, by event type, initiator, target, tactic, and casualties.

How do Russian and Ukrainian sources differ in their coverage of the Donbas conflict? To answer this question, we estimated the relative bias of each information provider in covering rebel versus government violence. We did so using methods developed by scholars of American electoral politics to estimate “house effects” (Jackman, 2005; Pickup and Johnston, 2008) of individual survey firms (for example, which pollsters have a “pro-Trump” bias and which have a “pro-Clinton” bias).

Figure 1 shows these estimates, with event reports published by the OSCE as the reference category (vertical line at zero). Positive values indicate that a source is more likely to cover rebel than government violence, and negative values indicate greater relative coverage of government violence. Where the margin of error covers zero, relative levels of coverage were similar to reports by the OSCE.

Figure 1. Ukrainian Sources Report on Rebel Violence, Pro-Russian Sources Report on Government Violence

Note: Dots are relative bias in reporting on rebel versus government violence. Lines are 95% confidence intervals.

The data reveal large systematic differences in the armed actors who receive coverage in Ukrainian, rebel, Russian, and international sources. Overall, Ukrainian information providers (blue circles) devote more news coverage to rebel violence and less to government operations than any other group of sources. Four out of the five sources that systematically “over-report” rebel attacks are Ukrainian: the military blog Information Resistance (Sprotyv), and the television channels 112, Espreso, and Channel 5 (the latter is owned by President Petro Poroshenko).[1]

Most sources that “over-report” government violence are based within Russia (red circles) or the self-proclaimed Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR, LNR) (orange circles). DNR-based media outlets NewsFront and Donetsk News Agency (DAN), in particular, have the most acute actor-specific bias in the data, reporting almost exclusively on violence by the Ukrainian government.

Russian sources have the same general direction of bias as rebel sources, but with somewhat lower magnitude. With a single exception—the independent, opposition-oriented Dozhd television channel, which is closer to the median Ukrainian source—Russian media report disproportionately on government violence. The only Ukrainian outlet with a comparable bias in the opposite direction is Interfax-Ukraine, a Russian-owned wire service. Between rebel and Ukrainian media, there is a much clearer separation—the “left-most” Ukrainian outlet is still to the right of the “right-most” rebel outlet.

A very different picture appears in third-party sources, like OSCE reports and Wikipedia. These sources are more “neutral,” in the sense that they are unlikely to attribute violence to any armed group at all. The language in these reports tends to be more passive and non-specific (“shelling was reported near village X”) than language in local media. For the OSCE, this finding is consistent with anecdotal reports that—because it must maintain working relations with all sides—the monitoring organization is cautious about attributing violence to specific initiators. For Wikipedia (green circles), this pattern may reflect the crowd-sourced nature of the data: users flag entries as biased, remove offending information, and eventually reach a “neutral” compromise.

Not only have Ukrainian and rebel media reported disproportionately on violence by the “other” side, they report mainly on indiscriminate violence (e.g., artillery shelling, rockets, heavy armor) by the “other” side. Ukrainian news coverage of rebel violence cites indiscriminate tactics 66 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent in rebel media. Coverage of government violence is a near-mirror image: 32 percent of the government violence reported by Ukrainian sources is indiscriminate, compared to 57 percent for rebel sources. Russian and international sources, again, fall somewhere in between.

Beyond simply making the opponent “look bad,” these biases have implications for conflict resolution. We looked specifically at coverage of ceasefire violations after the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements, and ran a series of simulations to see which actor is most likely to break the peace, according to each set of sources. Unsurprisingly, the greatest disparity here was between Ukrainian and rebel sources. Ukrainian sources predicted that rebels are more than twice as likely to unilaterally violate the ceasefire as are government troops. Rebel sources predicted an even stronger pattern in the opposite direction, with government troops almost ten times more likely to unilaterally escalate than the rebels. According to Russian and outside sources (OSCE, Wikipedia), however, ceasefire violations should be relatively rare overall, and both sides are about equally likely to violate.

These predictions have divergent implications for conflict resolution. In the case of outside sources like the OSCE, a news consumer or policymaker may conclude that sanctions or intervention are not necessary to reduce violence. Here, violence diminishes organically over time, and neither side appears likely to unilaterally escalate—a situation in which a negotiated settlement may become self-sustaining. Local sources yield very different lessons: here, transgressions appear to be more common, and a negotiated settlement less likely to hold. For violence to decline, enforcement efforts and sanctions should target whichever side is more prone to unilaterally escalate. According to Ukrainian sources, this intervention should seek to restrain rebels; according to rebel sources, it should target the government.

Conclusion

The relative direction and magnitude of actor-specific reporting biases in Ukraine represent the exact opposite of what would be needed to quickly resolve the conflict. The net effect is that domestic audiences (in government-controlled vs. rebel-controlled territories) may become less interested in striking a bargain with the opposing side, reasoning that an actor inclined to use unilateral violence is unlikely to stick to the terms of a negotiated agreement. Meanwhile, outside audiences (in Russia vs. the West) may develop contradictory perceptions of how intractable the conflict is likely to be, whether sanctions or third-party enforcement is necessary to stop it, and whether that response should be impartial or directed at one side.

Reversing these biases is, of course, easier said than done. Absent attributions of responsibility for violence, leaders and activists interested in conflict resolution will need to better inform journalists about the details of specific incidents. Where attribution exists, governments and NGOs will need to expand audiences’ access to multiple sources of information.

As the United States adapts to a more polarized and uncertain media landscape in 2017, the main lesson of Ukraine’s information war is that efforts to respond to propaganda through counter-propaganda are unlikely to bring us closer to the truth.

Yuri M. Zhukov is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

[PDF]

[1] The term “over-report” indicates that a source reports a higher share of rebel-to-government (or government-to-rebel) attacks than the OSCE.

Categories: World News

The Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack — Who Bombed What and When?

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 00:36
By Christiaan Triebert, for Bellingcat

Last week, we published a survey of open source evidence concerning the alleged chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province. This article builds upon the information presented in that article by comparing the claims made by a variety of actors and sources, including the Pentagon, the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and aircraft spotters on the ground. All times mentioned in this article are in the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) with Syrian local time (+3 UTC) also included for context. Readers are welcome to suggest information we may have missed in the article, though we only focus on the who, what, and when of the incident, and not on the alleged chemical used in the attack.

The Timing of the Attack Syrian government

The first air raid conducted by the Syrian army was at 8:30 am (11:30 am local time) on April 4, 2017, according to Walid Muallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister. He made the statement during a press conference in Damascus two days after the attack. The army, he said, “attacked an arms depot belonging to al-Nusra Front chemical weapons.”.

Eyewitness accounts

Locals claim the attack took place around 3:30 am (6:30 am local time) in all available statements. Translations of such accounts can be found in our previously published article on the attack. The earliest reference we have discovered to it being a chemical attack is a tweet at 5:21 am (8:21 am local time), referring to a video published at 4:59 am (7:59 local time).

The Aircraft

There are three sources saying that a Sukhoi 22 (Su-22), a Soviet variable-sweep wing fighter-bomber, conducted the attack: witnesses on the ground, an organisation of aircraft spotters, and the Pentagon.

Aircraft spotters

At 3:26 am (6:26 am local time), ground observers working with an organisation of spotters reported that a Su-22 called Quds 1 — the Su-22 fleet’s squadron commander — took off from its airbase in Homs. The spotters say it is significant if the commander conducts the sortie, as they associate the pilot and his aircraft with other alleged chemical attacks in Syria. Not much later, they report that another aircraft, Quds 6, has also taken off from the base.

The spotter organisation, Syria Sentry, is an outlet employing a well-developed network of spotters taking note of take-offs and initials flight directions of aircraft departing from military air fields primarily located in northwestern and central Syria. Their goal is to issue timely warnings to civilians in opposition-controlled territories. The organisation says they have strong evidence that Russian-operated fixed wing aircraft conducted follow-up attacks in the same area around seven hours later.

The Pentagon

On April 7, as the US conducted a cruise missile strike against the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force airfield. It also released an image allegedly showing the flight path of radar blips of the aircraft that carried out the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. The time given in Khan Sheikhoun is 337 Zulu Time to 346 Zulu Time, which converts to UTC directly, thus fitting with the eyewitness and Syria Sentry claims: between 3:37 and 3:46 am (6:37 am and 6:46 am local time respectively), the aircraft was above the town.

The Pentagon map can be used an overlay in Google Earth to gain a better understanding where the radar blips are located with regards to Khan Sheikhoun. However, it is important to mention that it is difficult to connect two-dimensional dots to a three dimensional flight path. Besides, the data appears to be incomplete making a proper analysis of the map probably not accurate.

Eyewitness accounts

In available videos, alleged eyewitnesses claimed that a Su-22 fired four missiles. The first tweets referring to a Su-22 were tweeted at 6:21 am (9:21 am local time) by @ShamiRebel. He links to a screenshot of the Facebook page “The Lens of Khan Sheikhoun and its Countryside”. That Facebook post was published at exactly 6:00 am (9:00 am local time).

Later that day, opposition media outlet Orient News claimed in an article that “a number of field, independent and even Syrian Civil Defense observatories in the countryside of Idlib and Hama” stated that “colonel pilot, Muhammad Yousef Hasouri […] the commander of the Sukhoi 22 Squadron at al-Sha’yrat airport” is responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack.

Orient News further writes that Col. Hasouri’s Su-22 carries the Quds 1 banner, and says he hails from Talkalakh town, but currently resides with his family in the “Al-Sakan Al-Shababy” neighbourhood in Homs city.

Two days after the attack, a rumour started spreading that Col. Hasouri was killed “by a bomb blast under his car”, as Asaad Hanna, political officer at the Free Syrian Army (FSA), tweeted. None of these claims can be confirmed, but Hasouri’s name has been associated with Shayrat airfield by both pro- and anti-Assad supporters on Twitter since 2013.

Gen. Ali  Ayoub, Syria’s Army Chief of Staff, visited the Shayrat air base days after the  attack, thereby honouring Hasouri as seen in a video report of the visit. On Facebook, Hasouri is referred to as “the hero who struck the depot” dozens of times. A screenshot of the video linked above is included. Some refer to Hasouri as a Brigadier General, and two members of the Syrian parliament appear to be among those praising Hasouri.

Firstly, there is Fares Shihabi who tweeted that Hasouri was honoured “for destroying Qaeda’s weapons facilities in Khan Sheikhoun, Edlib”. The tweet was linked via his Facebook profile, but has since been deleted. As it was not archived via archive.is or web.archive.org, it is difficult to confirm authenticity of the tweet.


Secondly, Syrian member of parliament Shareef Shehadeh also posted the same still from the video, in which Hasouri is being honoured by Gen. Atoub. It is not clear whether Mr. Shehadeh’s Facebook profile is authentic.

The Times ran a story on Hasouri today.

The Target: A Chemical Weapons Factory? The Syrian and Russian governments

Neither Syria nor Russia denies that government forces bombed Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. Instead, the debate is over what kind of weapon they used and what the target was.

Russia and Syria insist no chemical weapons were used in the attack. Instead, some of their officials claim that a chemical weapon factory belonging to Tahrir al-Sham was hit, which caused the chemicals – the type of which have still not been publicly identified – to spread. Syria’s Foreign Minister Muallem claimed during a press conference in Damascus:

“The first air raid  conducted by the Syrian army was at 11:30 am [8:30 am UTC] on that day [Tuesday April 4, 2017] and it attacked an arms depot belonging to Al-Nusra Front [Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, now operating under the banner of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham] chemical weapons. (…) I stress to you once again: the Syrian army has not, did not, and will not use this kind of weapons – not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that are targeting our civilians indiscriminately.”

Sources on the ground

With regards to the target area, it is worth noting that a group of silos and a large warehouse are dozens of meters away from where locals said the chemical attack took place.

Post-attack drone footage from Hadi Al-Abdallah gives a good overview of that area. It is worth noting that the damage shown at the silos, the warehouse and other buildings in the area already existed before the April 4 attack, as shown by TerraServer imagery from February 2017.

.@bellingcat It's worth pointing out that Khan Sheikhoun silos and warehouse were already largely damaged since February 2017. https://t.co/LWcjFHb989 pic.twitter.com/n76Ci1rQiB

— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) April 10, 2017

Discrepancy with regards to time

Between the different accounts of what happened, there is a clear discrepancy with regards to time.

Eyewitness accounts claim the attack took place around 3:30 am (6:30 am local time), with the first reference to it being a chemical attack at 5:21 am (8:21 am local time). This time period is in line with the data of Syria Sentry and the Pentagon.

However, Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem claims the first airstrike – on an “ammunition depot” – was carried out at 8:30 am (11:30 am local time). This is in line with an earlier Russian Defence Ministry statement claiming the attack occurred “from 11.30 to 12.30 local time”, but neither Syria nor Russia have presented any evidence to support their claims, nor is their any available open source evidence to support their claims.

All available evidence, including witness accounts from the scene and airfields, strongly suggests the chemical attack occurred hours before the attack claimed by Russia and Syria. It is difficult to reconcile the Russian and Syrian claims with the open source evidence available, including a three-hour time gap between the narratives, the previous damage to the silos and warehouse near the attacked site, and the available images showing location of the airstrike.

By Christiaan Triebert, Bellingcat

Christiaan Triebert is an all-source conflict analyst with an interest in conflict and development. He has conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, among other countries. King’s College London and University of Groningen graduate. Contact via Twitter: @trbrtc

Thanks to @THE_47th for noting the link to the social media posts related to Mr. Hasouri, to @obretix with regards to the challenges regarding the Pentagon flight path, and Bellingcat’s Timmi Allen for the Google Earth overlay of that same flight path.

Categories: World News

Fake: Maydan and Economic Crisis Cause Tuberculosis Epidemic in Ukraine

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 03:45

Rates of tuberculosis are rising in Ukraine, the rate of children infected with the disease has increased fifteen times declares the Russian web publication Ukraina.ru and concludes that such a turn of events is a direct consequence of the Maydan revolution and the country’s economic crisis.

Webite screenshot ukraina.ru

The article written by the site’s Ukraine correspondent Vasiliy Temnyi brims with unsubstantiated conclusions and false claims such as “tuberculosis among children is so widespread that it can no longer be concealed”, “the authorities don’t have a program to fight the TB  epidemic” and “if the epidemic can’t be controlled, in three years Ukraine will have no healthy people”. Temnyi references statistics from 2015 and other outdated information in making his alarming claims.

The Ukrainian Health Ministry announced that while tuberculosis continues to be a health problem in Ukraine, overall the rate of TB decreased by 4.3% in 2016. Director of the Health Ministry’s Tuberculosis Control Center Yana Terleyeva dismissed the claim that Ukraine has a TB epidemic as groundless, rates of infection peaked in Ukraine in 2005 and have been declining ever since, she said in an interview.

Website screenshot medstat.gov.ua

Ms. Terleyeva admits that drug resistant tuberculosis is a problem in Ukraine primarily because it is diagnosed late and many people are unwilling to complete the full course of Ukraine’s current outdated approach to treatment which requires 1.5 months’ hospitalization.

Website screenshot uacrisis.org

 

Categories: World News

Meet Russia’s Warrior-Writer and Bloodthirsty Priest

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 23:00

Photo: Pixabay

By Nikolay Syrov, for Global Voices

In addition to being a prominent contemporary writer in Russia, Zakhar Prilepin is a vocal political ideologue. A member of the National Bolshevik Party, he hosts a talk show on the nationalist, ultra-conservative Tsargrad TV network. Prilepin is also the chief editor of Svobodnaya Pressa, another pro-Kremlin media outlet that focuses on politics, the military, and economics.

On March 13, Prilepin appeared in a puzzling online video.

This was the month that he announced the formation of a new volunteer battalion that would fight in eastern Ukraine for the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” This battle group would “ride on a white horse into any town we’ve [the Russians] abandoned,” he declared.

In the video, published by the pro-Kremlin tabloid Life.ru, Prilepin faces the camera, holding up a sheet of paper bearing a clumsily drawn peace sign. He then quietly delivers the following statement:

“All writers in the world have always supported peace. Shakespeare, Shenderovich, Dante, Andrei Makarevich — all of them. I also support peace. Thank you, everyone.”

With a sudden air of extreme boredom, he then asks the cameraman if he’s done, before turning to large anti-aircraft gun mounted on a truck behind him. “Let’s get to work!” he yells, and the gunner fires several booming rounds into the horizon.

The same day, Prilepin published an op-ed on the pro-Kremlin news site REN-TV, where he hosts a second talk show. In this text, he tried to explain the meaning of his “peace video.”

“Peace is not a gift,” Prilepin wrote cryptically. “Peace is a job. When there is no peace, you have to fight for it.”

He also signaled his confidence that history is on his side, when it comes to this subject. “It is completely obvious that Lev Tolstoy, as well as Pavel Katenin, Mikhail Lermontov, and another dozen poets were definitely engaged in ‘wars of conquest,’” Prilepin explained, before naming another handful of famous writers, including Pushkin, Baratinsky, Garshin, Batyushkov, Slutsky and Lukonin.

“I am for peace. I don’t know what you are for,” Prilepin told his readers. “And honestly I don’t care.”

About a week later, he penned another op-ed, this time for the Russian propaganda TV station RT (formerly “Russia Today”), where he declared that “literature is not about humanism,” and explained that he sometimes leaves his base of operations in Donetsk to earn money back in Russia. He uses the income to buy military supplies for the separatists, he said.

In March, Russia’s warrior-writer had a kindred spirit in the country’s warrior-priest. On March 9, Vsevolod Chaplin, the former spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church, wrote a short Facebook post expounding on how he believes the country should treat “traitors.”

Responding to the news about Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in Malaysia, comparing media coverage to reports in 2006 about Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination presumably at the hands of Russian agents, Chaplin complained that “traitors and betrayers” were again spreading hysteria.

Arguing that these vile people should be deprived of their “psychological comfort,” Chaplin made three hyperbolic recommendations: lifting Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty, creating “special units to carry out court sentences,” and authorizing “guided missile strikes” against traitors.

Russian Internet users were understandably amused to see a priest advocate state-sponsored murder. Lentach, a popular satirical community, playfully reminded Chaplin about a thing in Christianity called the Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not murder”).

This wasn’t the first time Vsevolod Chaplin endorsed killing. Last August, he went on the radio station Ekho Moskvy and said that it’s sometimes necessary to “eliminate certain internal enemies.” Asked to clarify what he meant, Chaplin explained that some people “definitely can and should be killed,” in the interests of society.

By Nikolay Syrov, for Global Voices

Categories: World News

Fake: US Accuses Ukraine of Genocide against Its People

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 19:23

Scores of Russian media disseminated a story this week claiming that during a meeting with business leaders US President Donald Trump accused Ukraine of waging genocide against its own people.

PolitForum,Sruuss-westi.ru, Vao News, PolitNews, 7dniv.info, Mir and several other Russian sites ran this fake story.

Website screenshot Vao News

Website screenshot politnews

Donald Trump allegedly made this accusation during a business roundtable, which was reported by CNN radio, Russian sites claim.

However, CNN never ran such a report anywhere, not on radio, on television or their website.

No other US media reported on such a statement by the US president. Had Trump actually said this, it is highly unlikely that other media would not have written about it.

Donald Trump did meet with business leaders at the White House on April 4, but Ukraine was not part of the discussion. His appearance is available on the White House YouTube channel.

In their almost identical versions of this fake story nearly all the Russian sites inexplicably included a photograph of Marie Harf, the US State Department deputy spokesperson during the Obama administration. Harf is currently a commentator for Fox News. Here she is talking about the recent US response to the Syrian chemical attack.

FoxNews

This is not the first such fake that we’ve encountered.  StopFake debunked a similar story in 2015 in which President Obama seemingly also accused Ukraine of genocide against its own people. Again the source was CNN and again the fake accusation supposedly took place during a meeting with business leaders.

It would appear that fakes, like paper and plastic, can also be recycled. Just change the name of the US president.

 

Categories: World News

StopFakeNews #127 [ENG] with Jim Kovpak

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 10:30

The latest edition of StopFake News with Jim Kovpak. This week’s fakes include claims that Ukraine plans to classify Crimea and Donbas residents as terrorists, former NATO Secretary General Rasmussen advocates for an independent course for Crimea and Ukraine plans to open camps for Syrian refugees.

Categories: World News