How a network of conspiracy sites spread a fake story about US reinforcements in Europe
By Ben Nimmo, DFRLab
On January 4, a little-known news site based in Donetsk, Ukraine published an article claiming that the United States was sending 3,600 tanks to Europe as part of “the NATO war preparation against Russia”.
Like much fake news, this story started with a grain of truth: the US was about to reinforce its armored units in Europe. However, the article converted literally thousands of other vehicles — including hundreds of Humvees and trailers — into tanks, building the US force into something 20 times more powerful than it actually was.
The story caught on online. Within three days it had been repeated by a dozen websites in the United States, Canada and Europe, and shared some 40,000 times. It was translated into Norwegian; quoted, unchallenged, by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti; and spread among Russian-language websites.
It was also an obvious fake, as any Google news search would have revealed. Yet despite its evident falsehood, it spread widely, and not just in directly Kremlin-run media. Tracking the spread of this fake therefore shines a light on the wider question of how fake stories are dispersed.
First, the facts of the case: on January 6, the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the US Fourth Infantry Division, whose home base is in Fort Carson, Colorado, landed in Bremerhaven, Germany, for a nine-month rotation as part of the US Operation Atlantic Resolve. From Bremerhaven, they traveled by rail and road across Germany to Poland; they are scheduled to fan out across the Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria in February.
According to an official account published by US Army Europe, the 3rd ABCT’s equipment consists of 446 tracked vehicles, 907 wheeled vehicles and 650 trailers, for a total of 2,003 vehicles of all sorts. Among the heavy armor are 87 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 18 Paladin self-propelled howitzers and 144 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. These figures were widely reported by Western media, including the BBC, the Independent, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Spiegel and NDR.
In parallel, as part of the Atlantic Resolve strategy of enabling rapid reinforcements in Europe, roughly 1,600 vehicles — again including tanks, Paladins and other armored and support vehicles — are slated for storage in a former military base in Eygelshoven, the Netherlands.
The complete vehicle fleet associated with Atlantic Resolve therefore totals roughly 3,600 vehicles. Of these, 87 are known to be main battle tanks (MBTs) shipped in with the 3rd ABCT. The exact number of MBTs to be stored in Eygelshoven has not been confirmed, but the storage is for “a brigade’s worth” of equipment. The standard for a US armored brigade combat team is around 90 tanks.
The number of main battle tanks involved in the Atlantic Resolve reinforcement is therefore on the order of 180, half of them in storage.
On January 4, however, the Donbas News International (DNI) agency, based in Donetsk, Ukraine, and (since September 2016) an official state media outlet of the unrecognized separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, ran an article under the sensational headline, “US sends 3,600 tanks against Russia — massive NATO deployment under way.” DNI is run by Finnish exile Janus Putkonen, described by the Finnish national broadcaster, YLE, as a “Finnish info warrior”, and the first foreigner to be granted a Donetsk passport.
The equally sensational opening paragraph ran, “The NATO war preparation against Russia, ‘Operation Atlantic Resolve’, is in full swing. 2,000 US tanks will be sent in coming days from Germany to Eastern Europe, and 1,600 US tanks is deployed to storage facilities in the Netherlands. At the same time, NATO countries are sending thousands of soldiers in to Russian borders.”
The report is based around an obvious factual error, conflating the total number of vehicles with the actual number of tanks, and therefore multiplying the actual tank force 20 times over. For context, military website globalfirepower.com puts the total US tank force at 8,848. If the DNI story had been true, it would have meant sending 40% of all the US’ main battle tanks to Europe in one go.
Could this have been an innocent mistake? The simple answer is “no”. The journalist who penned the story had a sufficient command of the details to be able to write, later in the same article, “In January, 26 tanks, 100 other vehicles and 120 containers will be transported by train to Lithuania. Germany will send the 122nd Infantry Battalion.” Yet the same author apparently believed, in the headline and first paragraph, that every single vehicle in Atlantic Resolve is a tank. To call this an innocent mistake is simply not plausible.
The DNI story can only realistically be considered a deliberate fake designed to caricaturize and demonize NATO, the United States and Germany (tactfully referred to in the report as having “rolled over Eastern Europe in its war of extermination 75 years ago”) by grossly overstating the number of MBTs involved.
Spreading the word
Initially, the story’s internet penetration was limited. On the day of publication, it was re-posted by four other sites. Two appear to be aggregators: timesofnews.com, which focuses primarily on content concerning Ukraine, and trump24h.com, which shares stories from a wide number of sources, including USA Today, Yahoo News, the BBC and the Washington Post.
The other two are platforms dedicated to specific issues: FriendsofSyria.wordpress.com, which focuses on the conflict in Syria, and therussophile.org, which focuses on Russia and its relationship with the West. Both these sites explicitly support Presidents Assad of Syria and Putin of Russia, and are systematically anti-Western, anti-US, anti-NATO. The sharing of a fake story on NATO aggression therefore fits their overall editorial stance, although it does not say much for their editorial standards.
The DNI story gained a significant boost on January 5, when it was picked up verbatim by Canada-registered website globalresearch.ca. This was not a simple re-post: it expanded the original headline to accuse US President Barack Obama of “political insanity” and inserted an explanatory paragraph. The DNI article was then reproduced underneath.
Globalresearch.ca — the Centre for Research on Globalization —posts articles which are wider-ranging than that of the Russophile and FriendsofSyria. Many of these are conspiracy theories. Recent articles include the repeatedly-debunked claim that Hillary Clinton is running a pedophile ring from a Washington, DC, pizzeria; reports that a secret government operation is spraying poisonous aerosol gases (“chemtrails”) from aircraft in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand (which it describes, wrongly, as “all NATO countries”); and a report that US-led military commanders were captured in east Aleppo in December 2016 (it later claimed they had been released by the Assad regime “to spare NATO the embarrassment”).
The site is pro-Putin and anti-NATO (which it conflates with the US). On that basis, it has been accused of being Kremlin-funded, but beyond its editorial stance, no direct proof of financial support has been presented. Again, the decision to include an obvious fake fits its editorial stance.
The addition of the “insanity” headline is helpful, as it allows us to track the further spread of the two variants of the story.
On 5 January, six more English websites reposted the “3,600 tanks” story. All six used the globalresearch “insanity” version: tapnewswire.com, thefringenews.com, WordPress blog peoplestrusttoronto, beforeitsnews.com, alternative-news-network.net and the Center for Global Strategic Monitoring.
The first five are pseudo-news sites specializing in conspiracy theories, especially those which discredit the West in general and the Obama administration in particular. They all, for example, post on the “chemtrails” story (tap, thefringenews, beforeitsnews, alternative-network-news, peoplestrusttoronto).
The sixth is an apparent think tank, the Center for Global Strategic Monitoring. This website describes itself, in English apparently written by a non-native speaker, as a “nonprofit and nonpartisan research and analysis institution dedicated to providing insights of the think tank community publications”. It does, indeed, publish think-tank reports on issues such as Turkey and US-China relations; however, the reports are the work of other think tanks, often unattributed (the two mentioned in this sentence were actually produced by the Brookings Institution, although the website makes no mention of the fact). It also fails to provide an address, or any other contact details other than an email, and its (long) list of experts includes entries apparently copied and pasted from other institutions:
Thus, the “think tank” website which shared the fake story appears to be a fake itself.
Two other English-language fringe sites picked up the story in the following days. The first, davidicke.com, a conspiracy-minded site which has also written on chemtrails, picked up the “insanity” version from globalresearch. The second, far-left US activist website popularresistance.org, quoted the DNI version. A Norwegian-language site, steigan.no, which is run by Norwegian communist Pål Steigan, also ran a blog summarizing the claims, without giving a source for the headline figure:
The stories gained some traction on social media. According to DNI’s own website (not, perhaps, the most reliable source), its story was shared 28,000 times on Facebook. The globalresearch story claimed 11,600 shares across all platforms. However, they did not penetrate further into the English-language media, where the figures provided by the US Army were the ones quoted. Even the Kremlin’s English-language channel, RT, reported only “hundreds” of US tanks arriving…
… although RT’s German branch headlined a figure of 2,000:
Into the mainstream
But the story did eventually penetrate the mainstream media in one language: Russian. On January 9, Russian state-owned news wire RIA Novosti ran an article quoting the figure of 3,600 tanks, with the coy disclaimer “Media are writing of 3,600 American tanks intended for the European military theater”. The hyperlinked source to the article led back to the globalresearch “insanity” piece.
Not until two paragraphs later did the article mention the figure of 87 — and it did not indicate that the figure of 3,600 was incorrect.
Instead, the author, Aleksandr Khrolenko, an “observer” for the Rossiya Segodnya news agency (which owns RIA Novosti and the Sputnik channel) proceeded to analyze the reasons for the deployment:
“An American brigade is designed to defend a front no more than 20km wide. That is, even at the broadest disposition in a single echelon, four brigades can cover about 80km of a front whose potential extent in Eastern Europe could be 1,500km north to south.
“Evidently, four brigades of the alliance’s internationalists in Eastern Europe are pointless to defend the EU [sic]. So why spend money on them? Perhaps for another cowboy-style geopolitical adventure. (…) An American tank brigade would be fully sufficient for a new twist in the civil war in Ukraine, and all that remains is to find an excuse for intervention (or ‘deterring’ Russia).”
Khrolenko published another article the following day, summarizing the recent US military and political moves. This included the entry, “On January 7 the US began deploying to Europe a battle group many thousands strong, including 3,600 tanks, out of the 9,000 the Pentagon has.” The article provided a hyperlink to its source — not the “insanity” piece, but Khrolenko’s own report the day before. The dubious origin was thus quietly hidden.
RIA Novosti had itself published the correct figures for the deployment on January 9, and did so again on January 11. Khrolenko’s factual error is therefore highly unlikely to have been an accident or an editorial slip.
The Khrolenko story itself then spread, at least in a small way. On January 11, known disinformation site NewsFront reproduced it, as did a Russian-language website, Telegraf, in Latvia, and a radio station in Tomsk, Russia; one day later, a website called imperiyanews.ru also ran it.
This is, in fact, a classic case of disinformation laundering. The fake story was originally launched by a small and dubious site in Ukraine, and then picked up by conspiracy-minded fringe sites in the West. Using those sites as the source, RIA Novosti repeated the story, feeding it into the Russian-language space, where it gained at least limited pickup. It is an object lesson in how even obvious fake stories can spread — if they suit the agendas of the websites which share them.
By Ben Nimmo, DFRLab
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab). It’s сatalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time