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Video Games Are the Latest Additions to Russian Infowarfare

Collage by Christopher Moldes. Used with permission.

On November 14, 2017, the latest efforts in the information war appeared on Twitter, when The Russian Ministry of Defense published “irrefutable evidence” of US – ISIS cooperation. The tweet purported to show drone footage of ISIS convoys moving under US protection. There was just one problem — none of it was real.

As investigative search network, Bellingcat, and the Conflict Intelligence Team point out, four of the five pictures were from Iraqi military aerial footage, and the fifth…from the computer game, “AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense swiftly deleted the tweets, but not before Russian users presented their own mocking evidence of American wrongdoing in Syria:

The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation presented irrefutable evidence of American soldiers mining residential areas in Aleppo. [screenshot: Bomberman]

Presidential hopeful Alexey Navalny weighed in:

Sorry, I’m also going to make a meme.
The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation presented irrefutable evidence of Americans using a special virus that changes soldiers’ sexual orientation. [the picture is of Trevor Philips from Grand Theft Auto V]

Others helped the Ministry of Defense by hailing the actions of Russian forces in the area:

The Ministry of Defense published exclusive photos of Russian Special Operations’ covert ops in Syria [the picture is from the controversial “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2]

This last Twitter account, TV Jihad, is a well-known satirical Twitter personality lampooning the liberal, independent news channel TV Dozhd. In a typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, they jokingly broke the news that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the Ministry of Defence’s post:

Relying on Allah, brother Vanka Erokhin, also known as Abu Al-Kukhul Ar-Rusi, posted video game screenshots to the Ministry of Defense’s Twitter, so as to debase the kafirs (non-believers) and shatter their reputation. All glory to Allah!

Although the original tweets were deleted, many were left wondering how anything like this could have been given the go-ahead by the Russian ministry in the first place:

Even pro-Kremlin bloggers were outraged. One said:

The Ministry of Defense passed off video game screenshots as “irrefutable evidence” of US cooperation with ISIS. Zakharova’s [Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, known for her blunders and gaffes] laurels aren’t leaving someone in peace. This speaks to the recent dispute about Zakharova’s “honest mistake.” This is what happens when “honest mistakes” are forgiven. Do you like it? For some reason the bots are silent, downright surprising.

Others saw this as another move in Russia’s continuing eleven-dimensional chess in the information war with the West:

Despite backlash against the fake photographs, Rossiya 24, a Russian state-owned TV network, aired a news segment about the “irrefutable proof” anyway:

“We begin with a message from the Russian Ministry of Defense: the US-led international coalition is supporting ISIS terrorists and working together with them. This is confirmed by photos taken on November 9th by Russian drones during the liberation of Abu Kamel. The pictures show armed ISIS formations running from Russian airstrikes in kilometer-long convoys, heading towards the Syrian-Iraqi border. To ensure the safety of the retreating fighters, the coalition’s air forces tried to run interference against Russian warplanes in the area. These facts are irrefutable confirmation that the US is providing cover for ISIS units and is using them to promote American interests in the Middle East.”

The Ministry of Defense later put out a statement:

Минобороны России проводит проверку в отношении гражданского сотрудника одного из подразделений, ошибочно прикрепившего фотоматериалы к заявлению военного ведомства о взаимодействии возглавляемой США международной коалиции и боевиков ИГИЛ* в районе аль-Букемаля (Сирия)

Russia’s Defense Ministry is conducting a review in relation to a subdivision’s civilian employee, who mistakenly attached photographic materials to the military administration’s statement on cooperation between the US-led intenational coalition and ISIS fighters in the Abu Kamel region in Syria.

The Defense Ministry went on to say that the US’s refusal to carry out airstrikes on the convoy and interference against Russian warplanes is a fact borne out by official transcripts. This is not the first time tensions have arisen between US and Russian forces over whether or not to carry out attacks on convoys.  Earlier in September, during a weeks-long standoff with a convoy transporting not only ISIS fighters, but also fleeing civilians, Russian officials had requested that their American counterparts pull their air assets back, apparently standard procedure so the Russian planes could carry out strikes. This was the deconfliction process at work, whereby both the US and Russia could ensure their forces do not strike one another in the fight against ISIS. American drones and warplanes had been harassing the convoy from the get-go, but as the conflict drew on, the Americans acquiesced and pulled all air reconnaissance units out. Since this particular convoy was crossing into Iraqi territory from Lebanon, it seems that a deal had been struck between the Assad government and the respective governments. As Assad's allies, the Russians were perhaps using the deconfliction process to facilitate the convoy's movement. No Russian airstrikes took place. By pulling back their air assets, the Americans therefore let the convoy reach its destination.  This is not the first time a deal of this sort has been struck; the BBC wrote an exposé about a secret deal with coalition forces that allowed another such convoy to leave Raqqa with thousands of ISIS fighters and their families.

As for the latest Russian tweet, the Russian Defense Ministry eventually posted a new one with the “correct” images. Some commentators were still doubtful that they amounted to much, however:

Russian drones in Syria can take much higher-quality photos with time-stamps, but this “irrefutable evidence” 2.0 is a still from a video and it’s not clear when it was shot (the timestamp’s been cut out).

Social media users may have had some fun with this, but others wondered if this is the kind of intel the commander in chief himself, Vladimir Putin, is getting from his agencies. Because there are definitely reasons to believe that this might be the case.

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