"It looks like a DW report," a Twitter user comments in Japanese on an alleged DW video report about a Ukrainian refugee who is claimed to have raped women in Germany — serious accusations against a man named "Petro Savchenko." The Twitter user commenting on the video further writes: "I want to see the original video. Please share with me the URL of the original video." The user seems to doubt the origin of the video — and rightly so. The video is not a DW production. It is a fake but more on that later.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, fake news has been thriving. Hoax videos, reports and tweets pretending to come from the BBC, CNN and other news outlets have come up on social media platforms, some even went viral. The main purpose seems to be to spread false claims, aiding the Russian disinformation war. A second aim seems to be to discredit media outlets.
The case of a false DW video with anti-Ukrainian propaganda
The video claiming to be made by Deutsche Welle (DW) is about the case of a Ukrainian refugee, Petro Savchenko, who had been caught by the police in Germany. According to the video, Savchenko had been blackmailing women for months by threatening to leak their nude images that he had secretly recorded with a hidden camera after meeting them at bars. The video claims he has been arrested and will now face charges and even time in prison. When asked by DW, a spokesperson of the Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany (BKA) said: "We are not aware of such a case."
The video, which has only been viewed around 1,000 times, looks genuine at first glance giving the impression of an authentic DW video. In fact, it is not coherent with DW's style guide and has minimal but noticeable differences in the design to an original DW production: the font used is not the same as can be seen in the screenshots, for example, in the letter X. Also, there are periods at the end of sentences that do not comply with DW's style guide.
What's more, the name "Petro Savchenko" does not lead to any corresponding hits in search engines. No media reported on the alleged incident, neither in German nor in English or Ukrainian which is unrealistic in a case like this. There is no evidence at all for such a case to have occurred in Germany even with a different name. Moreover, the video does not give any information about where and when the acts are supposed to have taken place.
Further research leads to even more inconsistencies: A reverse image search of the photo used of the alleged perpetrator leads to a profile on the Russian website TopDB.ru, which, according to the available data, should belong to Pavel Poperechnyy. He is from Sevastopol and according to his other social media profiles he does not live in Germany. The accusations made in the video are all unsubstantiated and deliberately kept very vague — a tactic that has already been used in previous false news stories to make it more difficult to verify the story.
The fake BBC video about the missile attack on Kramatorsk
An alleged BBC video reached significantly more people compared to the fake DW video: After the missile attack on the Kramatorsk train station that claimed many lives, a video was posted several times and garnered 500,000 views. It was shared on numerous pro-Russian profiles and shows dead bodies in Kramatorsk as well as a missile that landed nearby. The text claims that the missile came from Ukrainian troops and was fired at its own population.
The BBC immediately objected, calling the video a "fake." BBC producer Joe Inwood, who covered the missile attack for the BBC, confirmed that the video was not genuine but had BBC branding, raising fears that more fakes could follow.
The video, which at first glance appears authentic, spread quickly: Within a few hours, Germany's BR fact-checkers found posts with the video in German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Indian and French. Cyberwar expert Sandro Gaycken told public broadcaster BR that this was a "concerted but hasty operation" of disinformation.
Roman Osadchuk, a digital forensics and open source expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, gave DW more specifics. "So with Kramatorsk there was a huge campaign associated with it. It was not only the video. The video was only one small part of the whole campaign trying to lead people to the conclusion that Ukraine was behind the shelling its own people, which is absurd, to be honest," he said. The video, he said, was accompanied by numerous posts on Telegram and other platforms.
Fake CNN tweets causes confusion
When CNN tweets are shared it suggests a high level of credibility. But here, too, not everything that appears genuine at first glance is actually authentic: Several fake tweets or even fake CNN accounts have made the rounds since the start of the Ukraine war, forcing CNN to issue denials. For example, when the alleged CNN Twitter channel "@CNNUKR" reported the first death of a US national in the war it turned out to be a fake story, as our fact check shows.
Something similar happened with a fake tweet about an alleged bombing of a hotel in Ukraine.
And alleged screenshots from CNN live broadcasts also spread false information. This post suggested that CNN had falsely sold images of a 2015 explosion as current ones. This account is also a fake, as an AFP fact check shows.
No BBC special on nuclear attack
This kind of fake news is nothing new. In recent years there have been repeated cases of fake news being attributed to established media. One case is particularly dramatic. In a video, a presenter in a studio resembling BBC News reported a military incident between Russia and NATO and the explosion of a nuclear bomb in Brussels. The video is purely fictional and does not originate from the BBC, the broadcaster clarified— and yet it continues to be shared, Reuters reports.
Who is behind these disinformation attacks?
The trail to the actual authors of the fake videos, images or tweets is not always immediately recognizable. However, experts see clues pointing in the direction of Russia. Dr. Josephine Lukito, a professor at the School of Journalism & Media at the University of Texas in Austin, sees professional structures behind the fake productions. Much of the pro-Russian disinformation can be attributed to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll factory active since 2012. The IRA became known for attempting to influence the 2016 US presidential campaign, and numerous false reports on Ukraine attributed to the IRA have also been disseminated since 2014.
"Typically, the long-term goal of Russian-linked disinformation is to generate distrust in the media ecology. State-sponsored digital disinformation such as the ones we are seeing in the case of Ukraine/Russia often try to exploit the status of news media organizations," said Lukito.
Ingo Mannteufel, head of cybersecurity at DW, emphasized that "Often, state or state-affiliated actors are behind these elaborate productions of disinformation." In the specific case involving DW, the creators of the fake video had tried to use the DW design of the video "to lend credibility to the disinformation and to influence opinion in the Japanese Twitter space in the sense of Kremlin propaganda," he said. This disinformation phenomenon is known as spoofing, in which a digital identity is faked in order to gain trust and credibility.
How do the video fakers operate?
As a rule, media fakes are based on a replica of the respective outlet design. The digital forensic experts at the Atlantic Council think tank also came to this conclusion. In the case of the fake BBC video, the BBC's logo, inserts and style were copied and transferred to give the appearance of a real BBC video, according to researcher Eto Buziashvili. Such a replica is not too difficult to create, she said, but of course requires knowledge of video editing and the relevant programs.
How successful is imposter content?
Scott Radnitz, an associate professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, says it is difficult to tell whether this kind of fake content is enough to substantially influence opinions.
"Given that most people already have strong opinions about the war, one way or another, they are more likely to consume news consistent with their views and will instinctively doubt conflicting claims and images." Therefore, he says, the "information war" may be better understood as performances for particular audiences who may be susceptible to that kind of approach.
"In a sense, to have one's brand appropriated to mask propaganda or misinformation should be considered an honor, as the name BBC, CNN or DW will only be used if it is seen to represent credibility."
This article was originally published in German. It was published on July 6 and updated on July 8 with a statement by the federal police in Germany.