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How Kremlin uses false fact checks to spread disinformation

FILE - A woman walks under cloudy skies near the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral in central Moscow, Russia, Feb. 22, 2022.
FILE - A woman walks under cloudy skies near the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral in central Moscow, Russia, Feb. 22, 2022.

Just a few weeks after Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, Moscow started to promote a website that claims to tell the truth about the war.

“War On Fakes” was presented as a fact-checking resource where experts and journalists debunk the most "egregious" statements about Russia and the “unprecedented stream of fake news” about the war.

In reality, however, “War on Fakes” is one of the main groups that push and promote false narratives through fake fact-checking. The purpose, say analysts, is to dispel or distract criticism of Russian policy or action and to flood people with misleading content.

Fake fact-checking is an effective way of spreading state propaganda and disinformation, according to Roman Osadchuk of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab).

"War on Fakes," he told VOA, is not only a key source of disinformation but a site that aims to counter credible fact-check initiatives.

Hundreds of independent fact-check sites have started up in recent years. Among the most reliable in countering Kremlin propaganda are the American website PolitiFact, the British site FullFact, and Ukraine-based StopFake. VOA also has its own version: Polygraph.

But as these sites spread, authoritarian regimes use the language of “fact checking” to try to discredit critics or justify repression.

“They are trying to undermine the basis of this tool as an objective presentation of information,” said Osadchuk. “This harms many media workers and researchers in the world, making their work more difficult.”

Osadchuk cited a fake analysis that sought to discredit photographic evidence of Russian war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha as “a classic example” of how these sites seek to change the narrative. A 2022 U.N. report and multiple independent news groups in 2022 detailed the killings of civilians by Russian troops in Bucha, and a February 2024 UN report said more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians were killed in the first two years of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“War on Fakes” seeks to discredit that evidence.

“They were publishing their forged analysis ... claiming that Russian troops left the city before bodies of the killed people appeared on the streets," said Osadchuk.

Eva Maitland of the U.S.-based disinformation research site NewsGuard has also seen a growth in fake fact checks.

She cites false narratives around an attack on the Moscow Crocus City Hall concert in March, when gunmen killed more than 140 people and set fire to the building. The militant group Islamic State, also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL, later claimed responsibility.

“Russia and Russian media said that the ISIS statement taking responsibility for the attack was false, and it was a fabricated ISIS statement,” she told VOA.

Martin Innes, director of Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute, says authoritarian states have "a long tradition of using fact-checking methods as part of their propaganda efforts."

When the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in Britain in 2018, the Russian disinformation machine supported Moscow by reinforcing the government’s denials and seeking to deflect attention from the allegations.

But, says Innes, false fact-checking has been more institutionalized since February 2022. “For example, ’War on Fakes’ became a brand,” he said.

Maitland believes the aim is to oversaturate the information space with contradictory information, so that audiences no longer know what to believe.

And while the main audience is inside Russia, experts say that the number of languages in which fake fact checks appear are an indication that they also want to reach an international audience.

“War on Fakes,” for example, started with a Russian Telegram channel, said Osadchuk, adding that it also posts in English, Spanish, German, French, Chinese and Arabic.

“So, they aim not only at the Russian audience, but also at a wider audience," said Osadchuk.

Experts also say the Kremlin has developed a massive industry to debunk accusations against Russia. These false narratives are then shared by officials, ministries, embassies, state-run media outlets, and on social media.

The Kremlin has dismissed claims it spreads disinformation, accusing the West instead of engaging in "information terrorism."

“Russia is competing for those people who are sympathetic to their worldview and their narratives and who might give their kind of version of reality some degree of credence,” said Innes.

Its efforts to undermine Western and credible fact-check sites, however, can run into problems.

An August 2022 PolitiFact study found that "War on Fakes" publishes "so many false claims that they sometimes contradict each other."

This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service.