Yesterday morning, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it had concrete evidence that the U.S. is aiding the Islamic State in Syria, where the U.S. and Russia stand on opposite sides of the conflict. The startling claim was supposedly substantiated with video evidence.
The footage, which was published on the MoD’s social media accounts and on Russian TV, was meant to show collusion between the U.S.-led coalition and ISIS in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. According to the MoD, the U.S. has been refusing to enact airstrikes against the Islamic State and even attempted to impede Russian forces from doing so. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition told Reuters that these claims are “about as accurate as their air campaign.”
Unfortunately for the Russian MoD, the Internet era has seemingly disrupted the disinformation game. Tech-savvy sleuths like Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat were quick to identify the source of Russia’s intelligence: a video game.
A video game?
The footage broadcast by Moscow did not involve the U.S. and wasn’t even shot in Syria. It is actually footage from the smartphone game AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron. The accompanying images were also proven by the fact checkers at the Conflict Intelligence Team to be fakes. The images were captured from a 2016 video of the Iraqi air force.
Once outed, the MoD jumped to point the finger, blaming a “civilian employee” for attaching the wrong images. In a characteristically bold move, the MoD refused to retract its claims about the U.S. aiding and abetting ISIS in Syria. Although the agency deleted the video and replaced the images, it doubled down on its allegations, asserting that the U.S. is attempting to use ISIS as a tool to advance the American agenda in the Middle East. Considering Russia’s recent arms deals in the region and its alleged support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that’s hardly a narrative that it is unfamiliar with.
Despite the evidence being a proven sham, at least one Russian politician so far has echoed the call to expose the alleged U.S.-ISIS collusion.
An insignificant mistake
Today a spokesman for Vladimir Putin dismissed the video issue as an insignificant mistake, but critics like Higgins have refused to accept that answer, calling attention to the fact that the video was painstakingly edited to remove any evidence that the footage was from a video game.
Unfortunately, the editor did not do very good job. Text from the developer’s disclaimer that was meant to have been cropped out can still be read in the upper right-hand corner of the MoD’s video.
Captions were also added in English, Russian, and Arabic, conveying that a significant amount of time was spent working on the material. Many also find it hard to believe that sensitive intelligence regarding one of Russia’s biggest rivals could have been handled so carelessly by the Ministry of Defense. In short, it seems impossible that the MoD did not know where the footage was actually from.
“Why would he fake it?”
This is hardly the first time Russia has been accused of using bogus video footage. In Oliver Stone’s 2016 documentary about Putin, the Russian president shows the director footage of what he claims is Russian forces fighting ISIS in Syria. As it turns out, the footage was found to be from a 2009 U.S. attack against the Taliban, leading Stone to famously ask, “Why would he fake it?”
In 2015, the MoD posted dozens of videos showcasing its alleged successes against ISIS in Syria. Investigative reporters from Bellingcat were able to prove that these videos were not even filmed in ISIS territory.
Using social media as part of a defensive strategy after being accused of bombing the Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque, the MoD released footage of a different intact mosque, claiming it was the Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque. Moscow echoed this technique after the alleged bombing of a Syrian hospital, only to be called out again by Bellingcat investigative reporters.
Disinformation in the social media age
These incidents raise a number of questions. On a geopolitical level, they reveal an attempt to take credit for successes against ISIS while discrediting U.S. involvement in the region, which is relatively unsurprising since the U.S. is considered their main rival in the Middle East. That being said, the accusations were somewhat jarring, considering that Presidents Trump and Putin just released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to fighting ISIS in Syria on November 11.
Over the years Russia has been accused of attempting to paint the Soviet Union as the savior of Russia and even Europe during World War II. Could Russia be utilizing similar nationalist rhetoric to highlight its impact in Syria? It could certainly be a helpful tactic to detract attention from its support of the Assad regime, which is well-known for the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
The Russian Ministry of Defense being caught red-handed using social media in an international disinformation campaign draws interesting parallels to the accusations being leveled against Moscow in the U.S. Russia currently stands accused before the American press and Congress of utilizing social media to manipulate the results of the 2016 presidential election.
In October, Facebook appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where representatives of the social media network testified that content from Russia-backed pages may have reached up to 126 million Americans.
Spain, likewise, has accused Russia of utilizing social media in an attempt to influence the independence referendum in Catalonia. Spain also claims Venezuelan groups had a hand in the social media campaign to promote the separatists. The extent and the implications of Russia’s alleged meddling in either of these countries remains unclear, assuming it happened at all.
One thing is clear: social media has changed how governments communicate with their people, cultivate their image, and even disseminate propaganda, while the Internet has given citizens the ability to almost instantly fact-check the claims of governments and political leaders. The Russia video game image controversy perfectly captures this delicate new dynamic.