Russian authorities have woven a web of false information across social media about their forces’ attack on a Ukrainian hospital last week even after earlier attempts by the platforms to halt this disinformation campaign.
Nearly 20 Twitter, Facebook and Telegram accounts belonging to Russian embassies have dispensed the disinformation, which seeks to discredit news reports that Russia shelled the Mariupol hospital and its maternity ward, killing two adults and a child and injuring 17. The incident has drawn rebukes from the White House and other Western leaders, while Ukrainian President Zelensky called it an “atrocity.” A photo of a pregnant woman carried away from the rubble on a stretcher has been shared widely on social media—it appears above—and has quickly becoming one of the most dramatic images from the Russian invasion into Ukraine. She and her baby both later died.
The Russian embassy in Britain last Thursday published several tweets in the past week about the hospital falsely claiming the facility had been emptied and was being used instead as a military outpost, and later followed up with false claims that images of the tragedy were staged, using crisis actors, including a popular figure. Twitter deleted the tweets. But over the past week, the same type of disinformation about the hospital has been put out through Russia’s embassies in Japan, Denmark, Greece and 16 other nations, reaching an audience of more than 2.4 million on Twitter alone, according to research by FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog group monitoring disinformation.
This latest example of fake content from Russia about the war underscores the country’s continued ability to weaponize social media, and, in what amounts to a high-stakes game of Whac-a-Mole, the inability of these platforms to do much about it. disinformation either distributed by Russia or pro-Russian actors have spread across nearly every major social network in the last two weeks, a river of false content about Nazis in Ukraine’s government, military biolabs under Ukraine control, even that billionaire George Soros is secretly funding Ukraine’s resistance against Russia.
The Mariupol hospital disinformation puts this into stark relief—with Twitter banning the content in one place as it flourishes elsewhere. “If content posted by the Russian embassy in the UK is a lie, it’s a lie everywhere else,” says Achiya Schatz, FakeReporter’s executive director. “Those Russian channels are now embassies of war. They spread disinformation to confuse the masses, hide victims and help the Kremlin continue and normalize the invasion.” (Twitter, Facebook and Telegram couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.)
On Twitter, the Russian embassy in Denmark published a minute-long video that inaccurately claimed images from the hospital showed only broken furniture and videos and no people. It showed the image of the woman on a stretcher, pasting a large, red “FAKE” label over it, an attempt to mimic what genuine researchers have tried to do to distinguish between real and inauthentic pictures from the war. It also includes the debunked claims that the Ukrainian Instagram model posed for photos.
The video or a version of it was also shared on Russian embassy Twitter accounts in Peru, Argentina and Cambodia. Russian embassies in Panama, Sweden and Mongolia published photos and text about it, too. In Japan, the Russian embassy tweeted out the information in three different languages: Russian, English and Japanese.
Russia is making use of Facebook, too. It pushed similar videos, photos and text on its embassy pages in Japan, Jamaica, Greece, Costa Rica, Denmark, Tunisia and Iceland. The company had removed the content posted to the latter three countries by Thursday afternoon while it remained available in Japan, Jamaica, Greece, and Costa Rica.
And on Telegram, the message was spread by Russian embassies in Spain, Cambodia and Ireland, as well as the Telegram channel controlled by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the channel run by the ministry, authorities put up a version of the video and said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and unnamed “independent investigative outlets” had concluded reports about the hospital bombing were a “hoax.” It further criticized Twitter for taking down the tweets by Russia’s U.K. embassy.
The post in the ministry’s Telegram channel ends by imploring readers with a hashtag: #Think4Yourself.