Fake news — or at least global discussion of the phenomenon — continued to flourish in 2017, so much so that Collins Dictionary named the term its Word of the Year.
Defined by Collins as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting,” fake news also reverberated across the Russian media and political landscape in 2017.
From a purported Western plot to “collapse” Russia to a New York restaurant’s alleged campaign honoring President Vladimir Putin with a massive hamburger, some of these reports — including outright hoaxes — were treated with credulity by prominent Russian media outlets, public figures, and audiences alike.
Some of them originated in Russia — which Western governments have accused of deploying fake news and disinformation as part of its foreign policy. (Moscow has repeatedly rejected such criticism, including accusations that it was behind a flood of fake news aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.) Others began elsewhere and were then perpetuated by both Russian state-controlled television and privately owned media outlets — and, in some cases, by senior officials.
Here’s a look at some of the fake-news and other dubious reports that resonated across Russia in 2017.
In August, a website confusingly similar in appearance to that of the British newspaper The Guardian published a fake story attributing quotes to a former head of British intelligence about a purported Western plot to dismantle Russia.
The fake interview quoted ex-MI6 head John Scarlett as saying — in clunky English — that Britain and the United States planned to use the pro-Western former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and a “fictitious quarrel between Ukraine and Russia” in order to bring about Russia’s “re-disintegration.”
“I must admit that the two Georgian and Crimean wars, the most strategic plan of the U.S. and Britain over the past several years for collapsing Russia, ended with failure,” Scarlett was quoted as saying in the fabricated story.
The ruse was quickly debunked, including in an investigation by BuzzFeed, and The Guardian itself noted that it was a “a fake story…on a fake site purporting to be The Guardian.”
Several Russian media outlets picked up the story, however, including the national television network REN-TV. Days after the false report had been debunked, prominent Russian television personality Vladimir Solovyov appeared to give credence to the hoax on his popular political talk show on state TV, though he added the qualifier, “Some say it’s true, some say it’s not.”
On October 7 — Putin’s 65th birthday — Russian state television and news agencies reported that a New York restaurant was serving a special five-patty burger in honor of the man in the Kremlin. The reports were based on a video produced by Ruptly, a news agency owned by the Russian government-backed TV network RT. Ruptly interviewed an employee at Lucy’s Cantina Royale in New York City who said the restaurant had created a burger weighing 1,952 grams — a reference to the year of Putin’s birth — and featured a small leaflet bearing Putin’s image as evidence of the alleged special menu item.
“It’s not only foreign leaders who are wishing Russia’s president a happy birthday, but ordinary citizens as well. What’s more, they’re doing it in extremely original ways,” an anchor for the state-run Rossia-24 network said in a segment based on the Ruptly report.
But Russian journalist Aleksei Kovalyov, who regularly debunks canards circulating in the Russian media, quickly dug in to the reports about the special burger, which proceeded to fall apart under scrutiny. The restaurant denied honoring Putin with a burger and said “the employees responsible for this hoax have been suspended pending an investigation.” A bartender at the restaurant later said the “Putin burger” was her idea and that she had lost her job. The employee filmed in the Ruptly video was also reportedly fired.
Ruptly later deleted the video, saying in a statement that the story “did not meet [its] editorial standards.”
Kovalyov has long accused state-controlled Russian media of fabricating or twisting news from abroad in order to produce stories for domestic consumption that are aimed at reinforcing Kremlin messaging. “The Putin burger was a particularly egregious example of virtual reality,” he told RFE/RL.
Nobel Winner Alexievich ‘Dead’
In May, a Twitter account purporting to be that of French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen tweeted out that Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich had died. Nyssen had previously headed the Actes Sud publishing house, which her father founded and had published Alexievich’s writing in French, which appeared to lend credibility to the death claim.
Numerous Russian media outlets — including the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta and state news agency RIA Novosti — quickly ran with the report, as did the website of Current Time TV, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. European outlets also circulated the report, including the French newspaper Le Figaro and popular Portuguese daily Diario de Noticias.
It was, in fact, a hoax. Alexievich, 69, spoke with RFE/RL’s Belarus Service from Seoul, South Korea, with the reports swirling, saying, “Someone’s impatient.”
Shortly after the original tweet, Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti — who had previously published fake interviews with famous writers — claimed he was behind the hoax.
Another Sketchy MH17 Claim
On October 6, the official television network of the Russian Defense Ministry published a claim from a man it said was a defector from the Ukrainian Air Force. The man, identified as Yury Baturin, claimed that the Ukrainian Air Force had moved a Buk missile system to within firing range of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shortly before it was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
The report by the Zvezda network clearly suggested that Ukraine may have shot down the plane amid its war with Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine, though Baturin did not specifically say that Ukrainian forces fired on MH17 with the Buk. The location in question, Baturin said, was the one previously identified by Russian weapons maker Almaz-Antey: a spot near the Ukrainian village of Zaroshchenske.
The Zaroshchenske claim is one of a range of uncorroborated theories that the Russian government and its proxies have proposed about the downing of MH17, including that it was brought down by a Ukrainian fighter jet.
An international investigation has concluded that the plane was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile system fired from territory controlled by the separatists near the Ukrainian village of Snizhne. The Dutch Safety Board and the Dutch-led international investigation have both dismissed the Zaroshchenske theory, citing a broad range of evidence that includes forensic tests, eyewitnesses, and an intercepted phone call between separatist fighters.
The Buk system was brought in from Russia and smuggled back shortly after the shoot-down, the international investigation has concluded. Critics have accused Moscow of trying to muddy the waters of the investigation in order to deflect possible culpability from the separatists and itself.
The Zvezda report was picked up by numerous Russian media outlets, including the state-run TASS news agency and state-run television. But the man’s claims have yet to be corroborated by any other media outlets, leaving Zvezda as the only source. And within 24 hours of the original publication, Zvezda deleted — without explanation — its reports based on the interview.
But in early December, Baturin’s story was again published by Zvezda, this time in a slightly different interview format. Zvezda told the Russian news site Meduza that the original report was deleted because it wanted to give a more thorough treatment to his story.
As in the original story, Zvezda and Baturin strongly imply that a Ukrainian Buk shot down MH17 but note that the former Ukrainian soldier was unable to detect the launch of a missile from near Kharkiv, where he claimed to have been stationed at the time. The Ukrainian military confirmed to Meduza that Baturin had served in its air force but quit in 2016 due to “family circumstances.”
Syrian War (Video) Games
The Russian Defense Ministry in November accused the United States of cooperating with Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria, alleging that Washington was providing cover to the extremist group as Russian and Syrian government forces were targeting IS fighters.
It was an incendiary claim, one that came shortly after an explosive BBC reportalleging that forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition struck a deal that ultimately allowed hundreds of IS militants to leave the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. (The coalition did not confirm the deal but conceded that IS fighters may have left the city along with a convoy of civilians.)
But the Russian military’s accusation, which it posted on Facebook and Twitter, included curious images that it described as “irrefutable evidence” of alleged U.S. help for IS militants. The images purported to show an IS convoy heading for the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The fake images triggered a wave of ridicule, with some on social media mocking the ministry with footage from other video games, like the famous 1980s game Frogger.
The Russian military subsequently scrubbed the images and published new photos it claimed were “irrefutable evidence” of its accusation. The ministry conceded that the original photographs were fake and said a civilian employee was facing a probe in connection with the matter.
Bin Laden In the White House
The video-game hijinks weren’t the only time a Russian ministry perpetuated a hoax in 2017.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s often-caustic spokeswoman, claimed during a political talk show on state TV in November that the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had once visited the White House.
Zakharova made the claim during a discussion about lobbying in the United States and the U.S. investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and potential collusion between Moscow and Donald Trump’s campaign staff.
“Recall these fantastic, mind-boggling photographs of Bin Laden being hosted in the White House. This is classic lobbying in the true sense of the word,” Zakharova said.
The Saudi-born Bin Laden, who was killed in a 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan, never visited the White House. Zakharova did not specify during the program which “photographs” she had in mind, though some Russian media outlets speculated she was referring to a photoshopped image appearing to show former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shaking hands with the Al-Qaeda leader.
That image, which has circulated online for years, is a fake. Bin Laden’s head in the photo, which was taken in May 2004, was superimposed over that of musician Shubhashish Mukherjee. The firebrand conservative site Tsargrad.tv cited Zakharova’s claim without noting that Bin Laden had never been to the White House.
Days later, Zakharova took to Facebook to say she didn’t mean to suggest that Bin Laden “personally” had visited the White House but rather “his colleagues, his advisers, so to speak.” She cited what she called her “favorite photograph” of U.S. President Ronald Reagan “hosting a Taliban delegation in the White House.”
The photograph in question, which Zakharova attached to her post, shows Reagan meeting with Afghan rebel leaders to discuss the fight against invading Soviet forces. The United States funded Afghan mujahedin fighting — alongside Bin Laden and other Arab fighters — against the Soviets; but the photograph in question of Reagan and the Afghans was taken in February 1983 — nine yearsbefore the Taliban was founded.
Let Them Eat Rat
In October, a columnist writing for the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti published an angry screed decrying what he called “propaganda horror stories” about Russia that are regularly published in the Dutch media. The column, titled Muscovites Eat Rat: Who In Europe Is Writing Fake News About Russia, focused on a short November 2016 article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant about a Moscow restaurateur who serves nutria — a large rodent also known as a river rat.
The columnist, Vladimir Kornilov, delivered a highly skewed and, at times, outright false version of the original article to his readers. He incorrectly suggested that the article claimed Muscovites had started eating rat meat because they were “starving” due to Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
He also called the De Volkskrant article “enormous,” when in fact it clocked in at fewer than 400 words.
Kornilov’s column was picked up by several prominent Russian media outlets.
The original article — one of several published in the Western media at the time about Moscow restaurateur Takhir Kholikberdiyev and his nutria-based delicacies— said nothing about Russians going hungry due to sanctions, though it noted that the punitive measures have prompted restaurants to seek alternative and domestically produced ingredients.
“It remains a mystery why, almost a year after an entirely friendly article was published, a RIA Novosti columnist needed to distort its content,” the opposition-minded Russian news site The Insider wrote.
Kovalyov, the Russian media critic, debunked the false characterizations in the RIA Novosti column in a post on his website, Noodle Remover, with the headline: If The ‘Western Media’ Didn’t Lie, No Problem, We’ll Lie For Them And Then Expose Them!
“You are attributing words to the author of the article that he didn’t write,” Kovalyov wrote, addressing Kornilov, “and on the basis of these inventions are accusing ‘the Western media’ of creating fake news about Russia!