BBC: Inside a pro-Russia propaganda machine in Ukraine

The Kremlin information war against the Western world is not confined to Russia itself and also involves areas occupied by Moscow

Andrei Soshnikov
Monday, 13 November 2017 22:58

A Russian "troll factory" in St Petersburg is working with the self-styled "Donetsk People's Republic" in eastern Ukraine to produce extreme propaganda videos that aim to discredit pro-Ukrainian elements and stir up the conflict in the region, BBC Russian has learned.
A series of fake news videos produced by a group called the Russian Liberation Movement have emerged on YouTube dating from 23 August. The videos show extremist groups with hidden faces, distorted voices and posing with weapons.

The fighters identify themselves with a confusing array of labels. At times they describe themselves as pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, as pro-Ukrainian rebels in Russia and even as fighters from so-called Islamic State - even though they have also made videos potentially deeply offensive to Muslims.

They appear to be extreme Russian anti-government nationalists, helping Ukrainians to fight what they describe as "Putin's bloody regime" in Eastern Ukraine and claim they are "turning their gaze towards the Fatherland".

In another video, the Russian Liberation Movement claims responsibility for a suspected arson attack in the Russian city of Rostov, saying it was their "first successful attempt at a terrorist act on Russian soil". The suspected arson attack did indeed happen - one person was killed and more than 100 houses were damaged - but there's no indication that it was linked to political groups or terrorism.

In later videos, the militants explain how to seize a building and use hand grenades. They also hoist a pig's head on to a Koran and send "greetings" to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

But BBC Russian has discovered a number of similarities between characters and locations in the videos and people and backgrounds in other online films which aim to recruit men to defend the "Donetsk People's Republic" - indicating that the videos are fakes produced by anti-Ukraine fighters operating in the region.

The Russian Liberation Movement videos were distributed through seven fake accounts on the Russian social network VK. The accounts used false names and photographs of random people as profile pictures.

The accounts were opened just a few days before the material appeared and were largely reposting entertainment content in an effort to look "real". BBC Russian also found that a social media account sharing the material was computer generated and belonged to a botnet - a large controlled network of social media accounts. Although they weren't hugely viral - generally receiving fewer than 1,000 views each - YouTube and other social media sites have since deleted the videos.

A picture of the Russian city of Rostov after a suspected arson attack. In an arson attack in Rostov, buildings were burnt to the ground, 118 houses were damaged and one person was killed. The Russian Liberation Movement claimed responsibility, but there's no indication the group had anything to do with the attack - or is even a real group of fighters at all

In the videos, Dalyant also sends impassioned messages to the Ukrainian security forces. In one he taunts them for living under a "Jewish occupation".
In one of them he calls CyberBerkut a "division" of the "Interior Ministry" of the "Donetsk People's Republic". He also declares that he leaked the personal details of Ukrainian soldiers to hackers.

On the same online channels where Dalyant Maximus videos are disseminated, other "masked showdowns" filmed by the Donetsk rebels are posted. They claim responsibility for an explosion in a local bar which injured 13 people, for blowing up part of a military hospital and a cash machine, and many other bombs placed on railway tracks and bridges.
In one video they produced, real acts of terror are listed alongside made-up ones - like the "murder of five American instructors at a tank repair factory" - all along to the soundtrack of the American film Rocky.

Later CyberBerkut published a similar faked photo purporting to show Kiev, and calling the Ukrainian government a "junta of war criminals". The hacking agency was also behind an elaborate ruse designed to discredit a Putin opponent and wealthy former Russian businessman living in exile, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

At the end of 2016, a video appeared which showed a man in a mask who introduced himself as a former employee of a Khodorkovsky media project called the Centre for Directing Investigations. The video claimed to show photos taken in the centre's Moscow headquarters, which showed apparently damning signs on doors leading to the "Media Fakes Department" and the "Social Media Department".

The video claimed that behind those doors, saboteurs sowed panic among with false reports about poisoned medicines. The masked man promised further "revelations" but then claimed that he was beaten up by Khodorkovsky's employees. Like the Russian Liberation Movement, the anti-Khodorkovsky videos were provable fakes. BBC Russian tracked the location of the pictures to a business centre not in Moscow but in St Petersburg, close to the headquarters of the Internet Research Agency.

The revelations point to a problem for the propaganda-makers - making their often-absurd claims believable. But Aric Toler of the investigative website Bellingcat, suspects that believability may not be the whole point.

"I think that the fakes are not meant to be extremely convincing," Toler says. "All it takes is a few popular news outlets... to run a headline about a video of a Ukrainian far-right group 'reportedly' making a threat. The vast majority of people only look at headlines for stories and won't see any future retractions - so the damage is done."

Toler believes that the fake Russian Liberation Movement claiming the suspected Rostov arson - despite any evidence to back up the claim at all - may also have been somewhat effective.
"Perhaps the video was a smokescreen to hide the real purpose of the arson, or maybe it's just an opportunity to create this bogeyman of the anti-Putin ultranationalist."

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