By Daniel Dale
Pro-Russia accounts on social media are trying to convince the public not to believe accurate news reports about Ukrainians suffering and dying.
To sow doubt, the pro-Russia accounts, joined by accounts that are critical of the “mainstream media,” are spreading false claims that media outlets have been broadcasting phony footage of Ukrainian “crisis actors“: happy, healthy people who are merely playing the role of terrified or deceased war victims for the cameras.
Videos that are being falsely described as depicting Ukrainian “crisis actors” 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 had been duped, not because they were maliciously trying to spread incorrect information.
Their confusion is unfortunate but understandable. False claims about “crisis actors” rely on a two-step process that can be bewildering to people who aren’t experts on conspiratorial thinking.
Here’s how the 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 film shoot for a British science fiction movie.
Second, social media accounts falsely claim or suggest that the acting was done by people pretending to be Ukrainian war victims, even though the footage actually has nothing to do with the war, and falsely claim or suggest that the mainstream media promoted this footage as if it was from the war, even though media outlets didn’t actually do so.
Here are three examples of false claims about Ukrainian “crisis actors” that have circulated on social media over the past two weeks. CNN could not immediately determine who was originally behind this dishonesty.
A video of an Austrian climate demonstration
One viral video shows a news reporter speaking in German in front of rows of people lying on the ground in what look like body bags. During the news report, one of the people in the bags moves around conspicuously, very much alive.
The video has been used by pro-Russia social media accounts and others to claim that Ukrainians are faking war deaths and that the mainstream media is broadcasting phony reports about Ukrainian casualties.
Facts First: This video is an Austrian news report about a Vienna demonstration calling for action against climate change. The footage, filmed nearly three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, has not been presented by major media outlets as if it was from Ukraine.
At least one obscure Twitter account did describe the February 4 Austrian news footage as if it was from Ukraine. But there is no indication that actual media outlets followed suit.
Journalists from PolitiFact, Reuters, the BBC and elsewhere previously debunked the false claims about this video. But a more sophisticated fake — using the same Austrian footage — also began circulating.
The new fake replaced the actual audio from the Austrian news report with English-language audio from a February 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 made clear in German that the report was about a climate protest in Vienna, with the English-language text that appeared on NBC as Perry spoke. That text read, “UKRAINIAN HEALTH MINISTRY: 57 DEAD, 169 HURT ACROSS UKRAINE AS RUSSIA LAUNCHES ATTACK.”
The new fake generated well over 1 million views on Twitter. Many viewers described it as evidence of Ukrainian propaganda or of the supposed untrustworthiness of the media.
Among others, the new fake was shared by Lee Stranahan, a vocal Russia 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 a CNN request for comment.
The video that was shared by Stranahan, which had more than 700,000 views as of 1 a.m. on Monday, was taken down by Twitter later on Monday as a violation of its rules. But other copies of the same fake have remained online and continue to be shared, though some popular copies had been taken down by Twitter by Tuesday morning.
A video of a British science fiction movie
Another video that has circulated on various social media platforms shows a crowd of people running toward a camera in an urban square, screaming, after a filmmaker with a British accent shouts, “Action!”
The video has been portrayed by pro-Russia social media accounts and others — in multiple languages — as evidence that media outlets are falsely presenting footage of actors as footage of fleeing Ukrainians. (At least one TikTok user even implied that Sean Penn, who was reportedly in Ukraine working on a documentary about the Russian invasion, had himself staged this footage.)
Facts First: This video is old footage from the making of a low-budget independent science fiction movie called “Invasion Planet Earth.” The scene was shot in Birmingham, England in 2013 — the distinctive Birmingham City Council House is prominently featured in the scene, with the flag of the United Kingdom flying outside — and it has been available on YouTube since 2013.
An obscure, now-deleted Twitter account did inaccurately describe this video in late February as if it was news from Ukraine. But there is no indication that major media outlets did so as well. In other words, there is no basis for citing the video as evidence that the media is broadcasting phony footage to manufacture sympathy for Ukraine.
The website Snopes and other fact-checkers previously debunked the Ukraine-related misuse of the “Invasion Planet Earth” footage. 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 with blood makeup
One more video that has spread on social media as alleged evidence of Ukraine using crisis actors shows a woman applying blood-style makeup to the face of a smiling man.
Facts First: This video is from the 2020 filming of a television series called “Contamin.” There is, again, no sign that major media outlets have presented the footage as if it was from the war in Ukraine in 2022.
The television series, which takes place at least in part in Ukraine, is a thriller about a pandemic caused by a lab-created virus much deadlier than Covid-19.
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Clara Grudberg contributed to this article.