During the mentioned period, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian disinformation and incorrect narratives were noticed, with a significant difference that pro-Russians are far more centralized, organized, widespread and dangerous and use long-established structures for expansion in the region.
An analysis of the available content indicates that pro-Ukrainian disinformation about the war arose ad hoc and recently, i.e., during the Russian invasion itself, and is mainly aimed at raising the morale of the Ukrainian army. Such disinformation is much lower in intensity and quantity than the pro-Russian one. Although most of the disinformation that belongs to this pro-Ukrainian narrative results from social media users, some of it has been shared by official Ukrainian sources. The most common type of such content includes photographs and recordings of alleged successful actions of the Ukrainian army or scenes in which Ukrainian civilians allegedly oppose Russian soldiers. This later turned out to show completely different events unrelated to the current situation in Ukraine.Also, the new phenomenon of creating disinformation about the spread of alleged Ukrainian disinformation is noticeable. These refer to the production of fake news on social networks by people located in the Western Balkans region, who presented themselves as Ukrainian sources of information. Examples of such content are photographs of scenes from Balkan war films featuring Serbian actors, who are incorrectly presented as Russian soldiers in Ukraine. After social media users or Ukrainian and Western sources stumbled upon such posts and shared them, pro-Russian media in the region would accuse them of spreading Ukrainian disinformation.On the other hand, global disinformation claims and narratives within Russian propaganda are often more centralized, designed and organized than Ukrainian, and have far greater reach and negative consequences. Apart from the claims directly related to the current events in Ukraine, we must not forget those created and spread over the years, such as distorted interpretations of the events from 2014. All of the above is the result of the careful work of Russian officials and institutions, diplomatic missions, state-owned media, and various analysts and “experts”. After sources in Russia create such disinformation content, often in the form of official announcements and statements, it spreads in the Western Balkans mainly with the help of Sputnik, the Russian state media that also operates in our speaking area. Sputnik has been provided with assistance by many other public and private pro-Russian media in the region, which uncritically and without consulting additional sources share the aforementioned content presenting them as facts. This is most noticeable in the Republic of Serbia, Montenegro, and the Bosnian entity – the Republic of Srpska. In the midst of the Russian invasion, in addition to uncritically sharing content created in Russia, the mentioned media also produced their own, all with the aim of justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine and convincing the regional and public in BiH of the correctness of Russian diplomatic and military actions. Some of the mentioned local media go so far in support of the Russian Federation that they often serve as a direct means of Russian propaganda.At the same time, media in another BiH entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, published numerous clickbait articles before the invasion, thus using manipulative content to provoke negative emotions and fear in public, in an attempt to increase visits to their websites.These conclusions are based on a review of key disinformation, manipulative news and propaganda narratives in BiH regarding the war in Ukraine, which the fact-finding platform Raskrinkavanje.ba assessed as incorrect. A significant part of the current disinformation in BiH originated or spread to other countries in the region. In other countries, fact-checking websites joined in the regional SeeCheck network have also written about them. Although the total number of disinformative content about this war in the domestic information system is much higher, the following are isolated examples of published fake and manipulative claims that are part of global deceptive narratives and those created by domestic disinformers.
Early declaration of the beginning of the war and sharing information only from Russian sources
- “It started!? Heavy heavy artillery”– 2.2.2022, Cafe (.ba)
Even before the invasion began, some websites in BiH made bombastic speculations and inaccurate claims about the beginning of the war, with even more bombastic headlines, such as the one published by the website Cafe (.ba) on February 2, 2022: “It started!? Heavy heavy artillery”. This article is based on posts from social networks, while at the same time, it does not contain general information about who is allegedly shooting. Apart from this, Raskrinkavanje wrote about several other cases in which websites made incorrect and manipulative claims in their headlines, such as that “Ukraine attacked the Russians” (Alo online) or that RUSSIAN SHIPS AND TANKS HAVE SET OFF” (Slobodna Bosna). You can read more about it here. Such and similar articles belong to the disinformative content created due to the increase in the readership of online media, which makes up a significant part of the disinformation on this topic.
- “RUSSIA HAS BEEN ATTACKED Ukrainians rocketed the secret service checkpoint!” – 21.2.2022, Alo (online)
The information that Ukraine attacked Russia and destroyed the facility on the border on the territory of Russia, which was initially published by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) through the Russian news agency RIA, received significant attention in BiH and the region. This widely circulated article about the alleged attack of the Ukrainian army on the border base within the territory of the Russian Federation was published just a few days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and was supposed to serve as a justification for it, as many regional media presented it. As Raskrinkavanje found, many websites in BiH uncritically shared the information about the alleged attack, relying entirely on the information from Russia’s security service and news agency. Therefore, readers of these websites have been completely deprived of information that the Ukrainian government has denied the FSB’s allegations, i.e., it denied responsibility for shelling Russian territory and accused Russia of spreading fake news. A total of 37 websites from the region announced that Russia had accused Ukraine of shelling Russian territory and that Ukraine denied responsibility. Some websites, 30 of them, on the other hand, completely left out Ukraine’s denials of these accusations.
Calling the invasion “a special operation”
Following the beginning of the Russian invasion, some media outlets openly support and spread Russian war propaganda, promoting Putin’s claims about “a special military operation”. In such reports, the invasion of Ukraine is described using terms such as “special military operation in Donbas” and “counter-offensive”, and some media go further in spreading this narrative that they completely avoid even using the word “war”.
- “A map that shows what the Russian counter-offensive has captured” – 24.2.2022, Srbija Danas
- China has refused to call Russia’s special operation an occupation; America’s suggestions are not appropriate – 24.2.2022, Radio-Television of the Republic of Srpska
In our region, pro-Russian media, mostly from Serbia, are participating in spreading this narrative. Thus, for example, the website Srbija Danas incorrectly claimed that Russia was conducting a “counter-offensive” in Ukraine on several occasions and in several different articles. The media from the BiH entity of the Republic of Srpska have also shared this content, originally created in Serbia, but they also created their own manipulative reports that belong to this broader narrative.
Justifying the invasion by accusations against the West and Ukraine
The media that openly side with Russia also promote Putin’s claims about the “denazification” of Ukraine and the prevention of the alleged genocide in Donbas.
- THERE IS NO SILENCE ABOUT GENOCIDE: Here is what Ukraine has done during the eight years of crisis – 25.2.2022, Srbija Danas
The Russian army is described as “liberating”, and Russian war actions are being minimized and presented in a positive light. Various claims are being fabricated that try to justify the invasion, but at the same time accuse the West and Ukraine of provocations, even Nazism and genocide, and NATO of expanding beyond the agreement.
- “Former Ukrainian Prime Minister: Russia prevented NATO from starting World War III” – 4.3.2022, Sputnik
Such claims and narratives have their primary source in Russian institutions, while officials, and various analysts and “experts” help to spread them. One of them is the former Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykola Azarov, who held the position from 2010 to 2014. With the help of Sputnik, he claims that Ukrainian troops were preparing an attack on Donbas on February 25, and that Ukraine, together with the West, planned an attack on Donbas in March. He goes even further in his claims and, as Raskrinkavanje found, states that Russia prevented NATO from starting World War III.
- “RUSSIANS ATTACKED NATO: A training base for Ukrainian Nazis is destroyed – 35 dead (VIDEO)” – 13.3.2022, Pravda
The website Pravda published an article about Russia’s attack on the military training ground in Yaroviv, featuring a title in which it is explicitly stated that Russia attacked NATO, i.e., the NATO center in Ukraine. It is true that on March 13, 2022, the Russian forces shelled a military complex in Yaroviv, near the border with Poland, but the military complex is not owned by NATO but by the Ukrainian army. Military cooperation between Ukraine, NATO and other countries took place in this center through the Partnership for Peace program, but it cannot be called a “NATO center”. This disinformation is yet another in a series of those aimed at justifying the Russian invasion. This time, it included allegations of the existence of NATO infrastructure in Ukraine.
Video games as evidence of current and authentic stories
In February 2022, more precisely after Russia officially launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, many photos and videos were published on social networks, thus featuring incorrect allegations that they show current and authentic scenes from the Ukrainian battlefield.
- “Footage of a Russian armored plane hitherto unknown to the public” – 27.2.2022, Facebook posts
One of the most famous such cases is the video that many claimed shows a new model of the “indestructible” Russian armored aircraft. In reality, as Raskrinkavanje found, the video shows scenes taken from the computer video game Arma 3, in which military conflicts are portrayed in a very realistic way featuring various simulations.
- “Video showing Ukrainians crashing a Russian plane” – February 25, 2022, Facebook post
On February 25, the Facebook page of Vijesti (.com) posted a video that allegedly shows the downing of a Russian military plane over Kyiv with the help of unidentified weapons. As it was later determined, the video does not show “the sky over Kyiv”, but scenes from the video game Arma 3.
Disinformation about disinformation and discrediting credible sources
The emergence of social networks has significantly increased the innovation and power of propaganda materials. This seems to be proving the rise of the phenomenon of disinformation about alleged disinformation from other sources and new methods of creating and sharing such manipulations that appeared after the Russian invasion.
- “They portray Putin as Hitler, and publish four-year-old photographs in public” – 26.2.2022, ATV
The photo of a wounded Ukrainian woman covered in bandages on the streets of Chuguev is one of the most widespread photos from the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was published by many media around the world and the region. However, the website of Alternative television (ATV)published an article claiming that this photo represents “Western propaganda”. Referring to the Facebook page of Srpska incijativa (the Serbian initiative), ATV, and many other media that shared this article, claimed that the photo was actually taken in 2018 after the gas bottle explosion, and not in 2022 after the airstrikes on Ukraine as the “West” claims. However, journalists from numerous fact-checking platforms found that the photo did not exist on the Internet before February 24, 2022, and that journalist Wolfgang Schwan, the author of the photo, confirmed its authenticity. Such disinformation belongs to the group of those aimed at discrediting credible media and sources of information. Other inaccurate claims that fall into this narrative are, for example, that CNN presented footage from 2015 as current footage of a Russian airstrike, but also that the same media reported twice on how the same journalist was killed, once in Kabul and once in Ukraine.
- “Creepy!” BJELOGRLIC AS A RUSSIAN OCCUPIER: He is setting the Ukrainian villages on fire and drinking beer! Another actor victim of the PROPAGANDA WAR (PHOTO) “– 2.3.2022, Kurir
Some Twitter accounts from Serbia, which present themselves as Ukrainian sources, published photos of Serbian actors dressed in uniforms and used scenes from war films, and presented them as images of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Several media outlets in the region published articles based on the aforementioned tweets, stating that the images were fake and that they represented anti-Russian propaganda by “Ukrainian propagandists” and “the West”. Raskrinkavanje inspected the Twitter accounts that published these photos and found that they belong to people from Serbia, not Ukraine, and that most of the previously published content on the mentioned accounts is in Serbian. This is another example of a broader narrative of indirectly discrediting credible sources. However, it is a technique Raskrinkavanje did not encounter before in their work.
Justifying the invasion using accusations of biological weapons
Fake claims about “American biolabs” in Ukraine have been spreading for years. In the midst of the war in this country, some sources even claim that they are the real target of the Russian attack. The conspiracy theory about the existence of American biolabs in Ukraine is “proven” by various, completely incorrect arguments, and now it is used to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- “PUTIN BOMBS AMERICAN BIO LABORATORIES IN UKRAINE” – 24.2.2022, Facebook posts
One of the oldest articles on the existence of “American biolabs” in Ukraine, which claims that the US military sector is behind the development of these biolabs, was published by Sputnik on August 15, 2015. Today, these inaccurate claims spread in many forms and are based on the allegations of an “unnamed Russian source”. They do not provide any material evidence to support their veracity. From 2015 until today, the same claims, which are part of the Russian propaganda narrative, have been updated on several occasions, with various inaccurate claims to prove such a narrative.
- “Renat Kuzmin, former Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine and MP of the current convocation of the Verkhovna Rada, spoke openly about American biolabs” – December 8, 2021, In4S
- “Well-known Bulgarian investigative journalist Diana Gaitendziyeva has published new information related to the activities of American biological laboratories in Ukraine, Georgia and other countries”. – 30.1.2022, Zvezdane staze
Various fact-checking websites around the world have dealt with numerous sources and evidence for claims that there are biolaboratories in Ukraine controlled by the United States, as well as questions about whether Ukraine is a “source” of Covid-19 disease. According to them, these claims are part of the Russian propaganda narrative directed against Ukraine, and adequate evidence has never been offered for them.
- “It is the United States that has crammed Ukraine with biolabs, which have – very possibly – been used to study methods of destroying the Russian people at the genetic level”. – 27.2.2022, Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The fact that the quoted statement was published on the official Facebook page of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bosnia and Herzegovina on February 27, 2022, confirms that these claims are part of a propaganda narrative coming from official Moscow.
- “Ukraine could become a nuclear state in the near future” – 6.3.2022, Sputnik
In addition to the existence of American biolabs, Russia has accused Ukraine of developing nuclear weapons, which has also been used as a justification for invasion. On March 6, 2022, the website Sputnik Srbija, which is part of a media group owned by the Russian Federation, published an article implying that Ukraine would become a nuclear state in the near future. The article conveys the claims of an unnamed “representative of one of Russia’s competent departments” suggesting that Ukraine, with the help of the West, is capable of producing nuclear weapons. The article also claims that Ukrainian President Zelensky said during a recent visit to Munich that Ukraine seeks to become a member of the Nuclear Club. In addition to this claim, Sputnik Srbija also published an article claiming that Western countries were supplying plutonium to Ukraine. Many official institutions, including the IAEA, and fact-checking websites, have refuted this fake news.
Dividing Western political actors
One of the efforts of Russian propaganda is to create discord among Western political actors by using disinformation. For example, Sputnik published a claim on its Serbian-language website suggesting that “France is in favor of dialogue”, while other EU leaders are “in favor of sanctions” against Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine. This is disinformation.
- “France deviates from EU position: Keyword – dialogue /video/” – 24.2.2022, Sputnik
The article incorrectly states that “French President Emanuel Macron is in favor of dialogue”, while Great Britain and Germany are in favor of sanctions against Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine. As Raskrinkavanje found, Macron is also in favor of sanctions against Russia.
- “Ukrainian nationalists captured about twenty OSCE vehicles” – 1.2.2022, Sputnik
On March 1, Sputnik also published incorrect information that “Ukrainian nationalists captured about twenty OSCE vehicles”. Later, some websites, while sharing this article, stated that observers of the OSCE mission were captured. None of this is true, and such disinformation is aimed at creating discord among Western allies and discrediting Ukrainians. Such disinformation also comes from social networks, and an example of that is a video of a convoy of military vehicles. The video featured a title on Facebook stating that the EU and England are getting involved in the war. Both the title and video’s description contain a formulation “3 is starting anyway”, which indicates that World War III is starting due to the alleged involvement of the EU and England. Raskrinkavanje found that these allegations were not true.
Discrediting Volodymyr Zelensky
Various inaccurate information about the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, were also relevant during the first month of the Russian invasion.
- “WHEN YOU HAVE A COMEDIAN FOR A PRESIDENT, THE ENDING IS USUALLY TRAGIC! This morning, Zelensky promised the people of Ukraine that he would be with them until the end, and now he is packing his bags for London!” – 24.2.2022, Informer
One of the first incorrect pieces of information belonging to this broader narrative was that Zelensky allegedly fled to London. This information was published on the first day of the Russian invasion, and Raskrinkavanje rated it as fake news. Similarly, other claims were created and shared, suggesting that Zelensky allegedly supported Nazism. One such example is a photoshopped image in which Zelensky allegedly holds a jersey with a Nazi insignia. Raskrinkavanje found that the symbol was subsequently added to the original photograph through photomontage.
- “LIE AND PROPAGANDA: Zelensky visited the hospital today, and a woman died next to him! (PHOTO)” – 13.3.2022, Srbin (.info)
Users of social networks and some websites also incorrectly claimed that the recording of the recent visit of the Ukrainian president to the hospital in Kyiv was falsified, i.e., that it was made earlier. As “evidence”, they state that the video shows a doctor who died in February, which proves that the video was not made in March. The video, however, is about a different woman. This is not the only example in which videos published by the Ukrainian president are declared fake, edited and recorded earlier, to convince the public that Zelensky is outside Kyiv or Ukraine.
Localization of themes and narratives
As the official start of the campaign for the BiH general elections, which will be held on October 3, 2022, approaches, many media outlets have published or shared disinformation that tends to link the situation in Ukraine with BiH and try to provoke negative public sentiment and fear. Examples of such reporting include the manipulative sharing and presentation of statements by officials, analysts, institutions and media content.
- “Putin said that genocide is being carried out in Ukraine, just like it used to be in Bosnia and Herzegovina” – 21.2.2022, Politicki
Before the beginning of the invasion, on February 21, 2022, the website Politicki published an article claiming that Putin said that “genocide is being committed in Ukraine, just like it was in the past in BiH”. This article and quote served as the basis for many articles, columns and opinions published in the BiH media in the days that followed. Raskrinkavanje found that Putin did not say such a thing. The claim had a significant impact on the political life in BiH, since it was widely discussed and shared. The best proof of that is the fact that Nermin Niksic, the president of the Social Democratic Party of BiH (SDP BiH), posted this claim on his accounts on social networks.
- “German FAZ: Crisis in Ukraine could provoke war in Bosnia, we do not know where Russian tanks will stop” – 13.2.2022, Raport
The website Raport recently published an article with a manipulative title suggesting that the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that the crisis in Ukraine could provoke a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, stating that “we do not know where Russian tanks will stop”. However, this is not a claim of the German media, but a statement or opinion of the Norwegian writer John Harstad. He is just one of ten interlocutors whose comment was published in the mentioned article in the German newspaper, and he said that he was “afraid that the situation between Russia and Ukraine is just the beginning and that if that situation turns into horror, it will affect China and Taiwan, provoke a new war in Bosnia and so on”. Harstad’s speculation about the future of BiH was presented in this and other headlines as a claim by the German media. The allegations of unstoppable Russian tanks were added to provoke negative emotions.
- “A SHOCKING MESSAGE FROM MOSCOW: First withdraw the army from Texas, Kosovo, Croatia and BiH, and then we can talk…” – 3.2.2022, Web tribune
Some websites in BiH presented the opinion and comment of a certain Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian analyst, as an official request from Russia for the United States and NATO to withdraw their troops from Texas, BiH, Croatia and Kosovo. In an original article published by Sputnik, Sivkov cynically commented on the West’s demands for Russia to withdraw from Crimea, and said that Russia could ask for something similar from NATO. Sputnik published this content along with a headline that indirectly implies that Russia has officially made such a request. Some websites from Serbia and BiH have gone a step further and shared this content with headlines in the form of allegations that Russia has officially made such a request.
Lastly, in spreading inaccurate information about the events in Ukraine, specifically about Ukrainians bombing and attacking themselves, some media resorted to old propaganda narratives such as that the RBiH Army bombed itself in the ’90s.
Public and state media as a significant component of the disinformation ecosystem
As expected, reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the media in BiH and the region once again showed profound differences. Some media try to report responsibly, accurately and ethically. On the other hand, some openly support Russian war propaganda in their reporting.As a medium owned and directly controlled by Russia, Sputnik Srbija is an integral part of the Russian propaganda machine. Sputnik Srbija is the most frequently cited source when it comes to sharing official Russian statements and announcements and the claims of officials of self-proclaimed republics in the Ukrainian region of Donbas. After such information is initially published in Russian news agencies, Sputnik Srbija translates almost every article and then shares it in the media space of Southeast Europe. Besides sharing official allegations from Russian sources, Sputnik Serbija also produces its own disinformative content that fits into the already existing inaccurate narratives.
Both public media from Serbia and the entity of the Republic of Srpska broadcast Russian propaganda narratives about events in Ukraine, mostly from Sputnik. In many cases, the Radio-Television’s public service of the Republic of Srpska appears almost like an official gazette of the Russian government, and its content is fully aligned with propaganda narratives coming from Russia and the Russian state media.
- “Danijel Simic reports for RTRS from the independent republics DNR and LNR” – RTRS
Reporting conducted by RTRS and many other media in the Republic of Srpska is known for its fondness for Russia’s activities, including the invasion of Ukraine. This time, in addition to creating and sharing content that can be characterized as Russian propaganda narratives about the war in Ukraine, RTRS went a step further and sent journalist Daniel Simic to the “independent republics of Donetsk and Lugansk”. There, he reported exclusively from the Russian perspective. Other media outlets from BiH mostly sent journalist teams to the borders of Ukraine, from where they reported on Ukrainian refugees, as well as to active battlefields.
- Conversations with Putin – 24.2.2022, RTRS
On the day of the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, RTRS aired Oliver Stone’s documentary “Interviews with Putin”. It shows the life of Vladimir Putin from childhood and presents him as “a hard-working, mild politician who wishes the best for his country and the world”.
- “The West is only worsening Russian-Ukrainian tensions” – February 17, 2022, Stav
The media close to the authorities in the Republic of Srpska were not the only ones to manipulatively report on the situation in Ukraine. On February 17, 2022, the BiH weekly Stav, funded by a Turkish company close to the President of the Republic of Turkey, published an article to portray Western diplomatic activities and diplomats as incompetent in the context of easing the Russian-Ukrainian tensions. The article makes fun of the Western media for frequent announcements of an invasion of Ukraine, claiming that such reporting makes the situation in this country even worse. In addition, the author justifies “Russia’s fears” about its own security issues and emphasizes the West’s unwillingness to find a solution, while portraying the Turkish president as a deeply concerned and “ideal mediator between Russia and Ukraine”.
Disinformative allegations that belong to pro-Ukrainian false narratives mostly arise spontaneously on social networks. These refer to primarily visual content that was not created in Ukraine, but it was used to present situations from the war, and is related to raising the morale of the Ukrainian army and civilians.
- “A brave girl from Ukraine told a Russian soldier: Return to your country – February 27, 2022, Dnevni avaz
On February 27, 2022, the website Dnevni avaz published an article entitled “A brave girl from Ukraine told a Russian soldier: Return to your country”. The article featured a video that had previously gone viral on social networks. The video, which is claimed to have been taken in Ukraine, was actually made in Palestine ten years ago.
- “The Ghost of Kyiv destroys the Su-35 fighter plane” – February 25, 2022, Social networks
Unconfirmed allegations about a pilot of the Ukrainian army who allegedly shot down several Russian planes have spread on social networks and websites around the world. The pilot is symbolically called the Ghost of Kyiv. There is still no independent confirmation that this pilot is real, but it is clear that one of the recordings claimed to be showing him is not authentic. A video showing the battle of jet planes, with allegations that it shows the Ghost from Kyiv, was published on social networks and websites. This video was also published on the official Twitter account of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on February 25, 2022, where it is presented as an authentic image from the battlefield, but without allegations that it shows the Ghost of Kyiv. Several fact-checking websites have found that this is not authentic footage but a video from the video game called Digital Combat Simulator World.