CNN – Pro-Russian social media accounts are trying to convince the public not to believe accurate information about Ukrainians suffering and dying.
To sow doubt, pro-Russian accounts, joined by accounts critical of ‘mainstream media’, are spreading false claims that the media has been broadcasting fake images of Ukrainian ‘crisis actors’: happy people and in good health who just play the role of terrified or dead victims of war for the cameras.
Videos falsely described as depicting Ukrainian “actors of the crisis” have been viewed millions of times on various social media platforms over the past two weeks. Thousands of people appear to have shared these videos because they were tricked, not because they were maliciously trying to spread incorrect information.
Their confusion is regrettable but understandable. False claims about “crisis actors” rely on a two-step process that can be confusing to people who aren’t experts in conspiracy thinking.
This is how deception works.
First, the people behind the deception find videos that were indeed staged, but staged for benign purposes unrelated to the war in Ukraine. One example is footage of actors pretending to be terrified during a 2013 shoot for a British sci-fi film.
Second, social media accounts falsely claim or suggest that the game was made by people posing as Ukrainian war victims, even though the images actually have nothing to do with the war, and falsely claim or suggest that the mainstream media promoted these images as if it were war, even though the media did not.
Here are three examples of false claims about Ukrainian “crisis actors” that have been circulating on social media over the past two weeks. CNN could not immediately determine who was behind this dishonesty.
A video of an Austrian climate demonstration
A viral video shows a journalist speaking in German in front of rows of people lying on the ground in what look like body bags. During the report, one of the people in the bags moves ostensibly, very much alive.
The video has been used by pro-Russian social media accounts and others to claim that Ukrainians are faking war deaths and that mainstream media are spreading false reports of Ukrainian casualties.
Facts First: This video is an Austrian report on a protest in Vienna calling for action against climate change. The footage, filmed nearly three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, was not presented by mainstream media as if it came from Ukraine.
At least one obscure Twitter account described the Austrian February 4 news footage as if it came from Ukraine. But there is no indication that the actual media followed suit.
Journalists from PolitiFact, Reuters, the BBC and elsewhere have already debunked the false claims about this video. But a more sophisticated fake – using the same Austrian images – has also started circulating.
The new fake replaced the actual audio from the Austrian report with English audio from a Feb. 24 NBC News report from Ukraine, in which correspondent Cal Perry spoke about casualties on the first day of the war.
This fake also replaced the Austrian outlet’s original on-screen text, which clearly stated in German that the report was about a climate protest in Vienna, with the English text that appeared on NBC as Perry spoke. It read: “UKRAINIAN HEALTH MINISTRY: 57 DEAD, 169 INJURED ACROSS UKRAINE AS RUSSIA LAUNCHES ATTACK.
The new fake has generated over a million views on Twitter. Many viewers described it as evidence of Ukrainian propaganda or the alleged unworthiness of the media.
Among others, the new fake was shared by Lee Stranahan, a staunch Russian supporter who hosts a show on Radio Sputnik, a propaganda arm of the Russian state. Stranahan wrote, “How to lose your job as a crisis actor…” He did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
The video Stranahan shared, which had more than 700,000 views as of 1 a.m. Monday, was taken down by Twitter later Monday in violation of its rules. But other copies of the same fake remained online and continue to be shared, although some popular copies were taken down by Twitter on Tuesday morning.
A video from a British science fiction film
Another video that has circulated on various social media platforms shows a crowd of people running towards a camera in an urban square, shouting, after a filmmaker with a British accent shouted “Action!”
The video has been touted by pro-Russian social media accounts and others – in multiple languages - as evidence that the media misrepresents images of actors as images of Ukrainians on the run. (At least one TikTok user even hinted that Sean Penn, who was reportedly in Ukraine to work on a documentary about the Russian invasion, directed this footage himself.)
Facts first: This video is old footage from the set of a low-budget, indie sci-fi movie titled “Invasion Planet Earth.” The scene was filmed in Birmingham, England, in 2013 – Birmingham City Council’s house is prominently featured in the scene, with the UK flag flying outside – and it has been available on YouTube since 2013 .
An obscure, now-deleted Twitter account inaccurately described this video in late February as news from Ukraine. But there is no indication that mainstream media did as well. In other words, there is no reason to cite the video as evidence that the media is broadcasting fake images to manufacture sympathy for Ukraine.
The Snopes website and other fact checkers have previously debunked Ukraine’s misuse of “Invasion Planet Earth” images. Simon Cox, the director of ‘Invasion Planet Earth’, wrote on Twitter last week that he was “shocked to see my footage being used like this”.
A video of actors made up of blood
Another video that has spread on social media as alleged evidence of Ukraine’s use of crisis actors shows a woman applying blood-style makeup to a smiling man’s face.
Facts first: This video is from the 2020 filming of a TV series called “Contamin”. Again, there is no indication that mainstream media presented the images as if they were from the war in Ukraine in 2022.
The TV series, which is set at least in part in Ukraine, is a thriller about a pandemic caused by a lab-created virus far deadlier than Covid-19.
Journalists from the BBC, Agence France-Presse and Reuters have already debunked the misuse of war-related “Contamin” images.
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