How the War in Ukraine Is Being Covered (Up) on Russian TV

Visceral images of the Russian attack on Ukraine are missing from Russian TV, and the Kremlin is trying to convince the public the chaos it sees on social media has been staged.

KHARKIV, UKRAINE -- FEBRUARY 24, 2022: Hundreds of people seek shelter underground, on the platform, inside the dark train cars, and even in the emergency exits, in metro subway station as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
Residents of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, checked their phones while sheltering underground from the Russian invasion last week. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Russia’s all-out assault on the truth intensified this week, with the country’s leading independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, silenced, and the website of an independent streaming television channel, TV Rain, blocked, as both broadcasters refused to echo the government line that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a war.

Meanwhile, Russian television continued to downplay or ignore the bombardment of major Ukrainian cities by their military, and officials warned the Russian public not to believe any of the visceral evidence of death and destruction that reaches them through social networks that are increasingly hard to access.

While most Russians still rely on television channels either directly or indirectly controlled by the government for news, the authorities are clearly aware that images of the conflict that show civilian casualties, and Russian troops being greeted not as liberators but as occupiers, threaten to undermine the official fiction that Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is limited to protecting Russian-speaking enclaves.

So dramatic, viral images of rocket attacks on Ukraine’s cities, destroyed Russian vehicles, Ukrainians blocking Russian tanks with their bodies, insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin, jeering the occupying army, and even hurling Molotov cocktails at Russian vehicles are nowhere to be found on Russian television news shows.

On NTV, for instance — a channel owned by Russia’s state-controlled energy firm, Gazprom — reports on Tuesday focused not on terrifying footage of a missile strike on Freedom Square in the historic center of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, but on advances by Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. (The fact that Kharkiv is well known as a largely Russian-speaking city might also explain the need to repress evidence of attacks there.)

That selective focus has been echoed by reporting from Russia’s state broadcaster, which dispatched its most battle-hardened war correspondents to Donetsk and Luhansk, where they have filmed tearful separatist fighters being reunited with their families and the aftermath of Ukrainian shelling.

The limited glimpses of the Russian offensive in other parts of Ukraine offered by the state broadcaster — like a Russian strike on the main television tower in Kyiv on Tuesday, and images of Russian forces seizing the area around the former Chernobyl nuclear plant — have been described as defensive in nature. Forcing Ukrainian television off the air, the Russian military said, was necessary “to thwart informational attacks against Russia” by a psychological operations unit of Ukraine’s army. Russia had to take control of Chernobyl, the state TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov told viewers on Sunday, because “the unspent nuclear fuel there could become a source of weapons-grade plutonium for Zelensky,” the Ukrainian president the Kremlin aims to depose.

When images of the bombing of Kharkiv’s main square, and its opera house, spread too widely on social media for Russian television to entirely ignore, the state broadcaster finally acknowledged the footage but claimed that the strike on the Ukrainian city had been carried out by Ukraine’s army to frame Russia.

“To get an idea of state TV coverage in Moscow,” the Times of London correspondent Tom Parfitt tweeted on Wednesday, “these are the stories on the website of flagship news programme, Vesti, this morning: 1. The Russian armed forces are not connected with the missile strike on the Kharkiv administration building – the Ukrainians did it themselves; 2. Expert: The Russian operation against the western-created regime in Ukraine is equivalent to shutting down the Third Reich in 1938; 3. Tourists are not recommended to travel to countries that have sanctioned Russia.”

As a result of this intense censorship of the airwaves, “the news from the ground does not penetrate the screens of mainstream media, so I think that Russian society has yet to grasp what is happening” in Ukraine, Denis Volkov, a director of the Levada Center in Moscow, told Ellen Barry of the New York Times in a Twitter Spaces discussion on Tuesday. “We have to understand, on Russian television, it is not an official war. The word ‘war’ is forbidden.”

Francis Scarr, who monitors Russian television for the BBC, reported on Monday that NTV warned viewers not to trust images of the conflict in Ukraine they come across on social networks, claiming that “a million fakes” had been fabricated by the nation’s enemies to mislead them.

That number seems to have come from a claim made on Sunday by Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations. Decrying what he called “an information war on Russia in social media,” the ambassador told the U.N. Security Council that video clips and photographs of Ukrainian strikes on separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are bring portrayed as Russian attacks, “since evidence of the destruction of civilian infrastructure by Russian military does not exist.”

“Furthermore, social networks have a host of tutorials about how to shoot fakes to defile our special operation,” Nebenzia claimed. “All in all, there are 1.2 million such fakes circulating in Ukrainian social media.”

While there have been some incorrectly captioned images of the Russian offensive in Ukraine online, and some viral hoaxes — as there are in all modern conflicts — Nebenzia offered no proof that a vast operation was underway to fabricate false visual evidence of Russian war crimes. (Nebenzia made no mention of evidence that Russian separatists in Ukraine have been caught by open-source investigators producing false videos for social media to smear Ukrainian forces.)

Efforts by other Russian diplomats to provide examples of what Dmitry Polyanskiy, Nebenzia’s deputy, called “#Fakenews” about the Russian attack were themselves filled with errors and false claims.

The Woman With the Bloody Face

Perhaps the most widely seen images that Russian diplomats have baselessly called fake are the distressing photographs of a woman with a bloodstained face three American photojournalists came across on Thursday, following a missile strike on an apartment complex near the Ukrainian air base in Chuhuiv, outside Kharkiv. As the dazed woman, Olena Kurilo, encountered the three photojournalists, Wolfgang Schwan, Justin Yau and Alex Lourie, she looked directly into their camera lenses with a stunned expression that was reprinted the next day on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Clearly concerned that this woman’s bloody face was making the reality of civilian casualties in Ukraine impossible to hide, Russian bloggers and diplomats flooded social networks with baseless conspiracy theories about Kurilo, claiming that she was “a crisis actor” who faked her injuries to make Russia look bad.

Alexander Alimov, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, tweeted one version of this theory, in which he claimed, without evidence, that Kurilo’s cover had been blown because she was previously pictured in a publicly available photograph said to show the employees of Ukraine’s psychological warfare unit. In fact, Kurilo bore little resemblance to a different-looking woman Alimov identified as a member of Ukraine’s “Info Warfare & PsyOps” unit.

In his tweet, Alimov also claimed, incorrectly, that Kurilo was photographed two days later in Kyiv — unscarred and wielding a rifle — in an image made by the photojournalist Lynsey Addario that appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times.

A screenshot of a tweet by a Russian diplomat sharing a baseless conspiracy theory about a woman injured during the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

Although the blond woman in Addario’s photograph looked quite different from Kurilo, the Russian diplomat’s claim was shared by people, or bots, who were willing to accept his conspiratorial claim without asking for evidence.

That might be, in part, because hundreds of thousands of internet users had already been exposed to the baseless speculation that Kurilo was faking her wounds, even before Alimov endorsed the claim.

Within hours of the missile strike that injured Kurilo and killed at least one person, wild speculation about her had gone viral across social multiple networks. That speculation was based on the false claim that a photograph of Kurilo’s injured face had already been used in 2018 to illustrate news stories about a gas explosion that destroyed an apartment building in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk.

It is not clear if that misinformation was the result of simple confusion by the internet users who started it or was intentionally planted to discredit this evidence of human suffering as a result of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but it appears to have gained traction based on a post on Facebook by Maria Alejandra Salomón, whose profile describes her as a Chilean woman living in Denmark. The original post is no longer available, but a screenshot of it posted on Twitter shows how so many people were misled.

A screenshot of a conspiratorial Facebook post that inspired a viral TikTok video.

“Not to sound unsympathetic,” Salomón wrote in the caption to her post, “but just wonder why the media is using the same woman in 2018 she survived a gas explosion this year she survived missiles in Ukraine.” Below her comment, Salomón included screenshots from news articles about the strike in Ukraine, including one in the German magazine Bild, and part of a tweeted comment on the Bild article, in which someone named Paul K asserted, in German, “Ukraine is posting fakes again, this is a gas explosion in Magnitogorsk in 2018.”

Salomón’s post also included a screenshot of a New York Post report on last week’s strike in Ukraine, which featured a different photograph of Kurilo’s face, apparently taken after the blood has been cleaned from her face and new bandages applied. Crucially, Salomón suggested, incorrectly, that this photograph of Kurilo was not taken on the day of the attack in Ukraine but comes from a news report published four years ago about the gas explosion in Russia. “Is this not the same woman?” she wrote about the two photographs of Kurilo, not realizing that they were taken the same day in the same place by two different photographers. “Ask questions,” Salomon wrote, “and yes think for yourself.”

That is entirely wrong, since the later image of Kurilo was also taken on Thursday in Chuhuiv by the Greek photojournalist Aris Messinis, who arrived at the scene of the attack after Schwan and Yau. But Salomón’s mistake was quickly amplified in a viral TikTok video by a young English woman that has been viewed more than 450,000 times.

In that video, a woman who uses the TikTok handle @kymeekins10 — and has also endorsed conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines, the British royal family, and “Pizzagate” — repeats Salomón’s false claim that the photo of Kurilo after the blood was cleaned from her face dates to 2018.

Another element of Salomón’s post — the partial text of the German-language comment on the Bild article — suggests that the false claim that news photographs of the attack in Chuhuiv last week were actually taken after a gas explosion in 2018 can be traced back to a Russian blogger.

That’s because the original tweet from Paul K cited by Salomón sources the claim to a screenshot of a comment on the news posted on Telegram on the day of the attack by a Russian blogger, Sergey “Zergulio” Kolyasnikov. “Ukrainian media massively post fakes,” Kolyasnikov wrote that day in Russian. “Pictured is a household gas explosion in Magnitogorsk in 2018.” The screenshot posted by Paul K also indicates that he made it on a phone that was connected to MTS RUS, a Russian mobile network based in Moscow.

A screenshot of a Russian blogger’s post on Telegram, which made the false claim that news reports on an attack in Ukraine last week were using an old image of a gas explosion in Russia.

Several online sleuths, including the German blogger Gerhard Uhlhorn, also pointed out that Kolyasnikov’s claim — that Justin Yau’s photograph of the apartment building damaged by the strike in Ukraine last week was taken from coverage of the 2018 gas explosion — was clearly wrong. The apartment building in Ukraine is just five floors, as video shot by Yau (and Schwan and Lourie) makes clear.

The building in Russia damaged four years ago was a 10-story structure.

Wolfgang Schwan, who took the most widely seen images of Olena Kurilo’s bloody face, told The Independent in London on Wednesday that he had heard from Kurilo’s daughter that her mother is recovering after surgery but was distressed by the viral false claims that she had faked her injuries.

In a perhaps futile effort to tamp down those conspiracy theories, Kurilo has spoken about the attack and displayed her wounds on camera in a brief video statement circulating online, and in a pair of clips on her daughter’s Instagram account, which have been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

In a message from Kyiv on Wednesday, Yau told me that the day after the attack, he received a notification from Twitter that his video of the aftermath had been blocked in Russia following a complaint from Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media regulator, which claimed that the clip violated Russian law.

Fake CNN Tweets

Other evidence cited by Russian diplomats to support their U.N. ambassador’s claim that social networks are filled with discredited information is no more convincing.

On Monday, for instance, the U.N. ambassador’s deputy, Polyanskiy, tweeted an example of what he described as social media posts fabricated by CNN: a screenshot of a tweet, attributed to CNN Ukraine, announcing the death of an American activist, Bernie Gores, who was killed by a Russian mine. According to the internet sleuth cited by Polyanskiy, the news organization had used the same photograph of the same man last summer, when it described him as a CNN journalist who had been killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But, as Reuters reported, both of the tweets attributed to CNN in this post cited by the Russian diplomat were themselves fabrications posted on fake accounts, possibly for the purpose of framing CNN.

A False Claim About BBC Coverage

Later on Monday, Polyanskiy also drew attention to what he claimed was another example of “#Fakenews” injected into social networks by a Western news outlet. His complaint, which was also shared by the Russian foreign ministry, concerned a screenshot from the BBC News website which, the Russian diplomats claimed, proved that the BBC had falsely suggested that damage from Ukrainian shelling in the separatist-held city of Donetsk was the result of a Russian attack on Kharkiv.

The Russian diplomats were right that the BBC had placed a photograph of a damaged apartment building in Donetsk on its website next to a headline about Kharkiv, but a closer look at the BBC site reveals that the photograph from Donetsk image was not used to illustrate the report on Kharkiv.

What the Russians shared was a snapshot, taken on Sunday, that showed the top of the continuously updated BBC live blog on Ukraine at that time. The template for that live blog uses a news photograph taken that day as the backdrop for a multimedia section of the page where users have the option of viewing video clips. The main news headline for that hour is displayed just below that anchor image. Further down comes a stream of brief text updates on the latest events.

So when one of the Russian diplomats looked at the BBC live blog on their phone on Sunday, that person mistakenly thought they were looking at an article on Kharkiv that was incorrectly illustrated by a photograph from Donetsk. But the brief dispatch from Kharkiv — which is still available to view on the BBC live blog — was simply next to the photograph from Donetsk at that moment, it was not used to illustrate that specific news item.

Nonetheless, when Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson, appeared on state television on Tuesday to accuse NATO of producing “fake news” about the Russian assault on Ukraine, that screenshot of the BBC live blog was displayed on-screen for viewers, as it it proved what she was saying. NATO “intelligence services are behind it all rather than individual hackers,” Zakharova said, according to a translation from TASS, the state news agency.

“Given what is going on there, it’s clear that the last thing that common Ukrainian citizens would do at the moment would [be to] film and edit videos, using visual effects, and post them everywhere,” Zakharova added. “It is being done professionally.”

As Zakharova is no doubt aware, Ukrainians, who are resisting the Russian effort to remove their independence and subdue them, are in fact recording their confrontations with the invading army and sharing the evidence on social networks. Keeping ordinary Russians from seeing such scenes, and creating a backlash to the war, is now a central concern of the Kremlin.

One of those Ukrainians is Maria Avdeeva, the research director of the European Expert Association in Kharkiv, who said in a video of the latest bombardment on the city she recorded on Wednesday: “Show this to those in Russia who say that Putin is not a war criminal, who say that Russia is not bombarding Ukrainian cities.”

Asked on Wednesday during an interview with Canada’s Globe and Mail why she decided not to flee the Russian attacks on Kharkiv, Avdeeva said, “I feel committed to document them as much as I can and to be a witness. I’m sure that sooner or later all these people who gave these orders … will become war criminals and there will be a case, and they will stand there like the Nazis did during the Nuremberg process.”

Update: March 2, 2022
This article was updated to report that the American photojournalist Alex Lourie also photographed the injured Ukrainian woman Olena Kurilo after a missile strike on her apartment building in Chuihiv, near Kharkiv, last week.

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