The potential use of nuclear weapons is often mentioned in the context of the war in Ukraine. As a rule, reporting on this topic is followed by sensationalist and manipulative headlines that try to attract clicks.
Early in the morning on February 24, 2022, the Russian army attacked several cities in Ukraine, and since that moment, the media has been intensively reporting on the war taking place in this country. Occasionally, a possible nuclear war is also mentioned in the context of this conflict.
Although it is difficult to predict whether such a scenario will ever come true, the media have so far repeatedly written in their headlines about the use of nuclear weapons as something certain or even misled the readers that it was something that had already happened.
Tests presented in the headlines as actual nuclear attacks
While announcing Russia’s military exercise, which envisaged testing the reliability of strategic nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, on February 18, some web portals from Serbia equipped their articles with sensational headlines claiming that “Putin is launching a nuclear attack”.
A BOMB FROM THE KREMLIN! PUTIN LAUNCHES A NUCLEAR ATTACK!? The world is on its feet, the West is stumbling, and fear is spreading because of the “suitcase with a red button”… (Informer)
PUTIN LAUNCHES A NUCLEAR ATTACK?! A bomb from the Kremlin, the West is in shock, the WORLD IS REALLY ON THE EDGE NOW! (Republika)
In these articles, however, it was stated that it was an exercise that, as they reported, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, would attend. It was also stated that the Western media reported that the Russian Federation would also test a nuclear missile on that occasion. So, it is clear that headlines that talk about the nuclear attack and war in no way reflect the essence of the text that tells the story of a military exercise.
Manipulating statements about the possibility of using nuclear weapons
The potential use of nuclear weapons is a topic that was often discussed by politicians, state officials, analysts and other actors in the previous period. When conveying their statements, the media in our area often use sensationalist headlines that do not correspond to the content of the articles they publish.
On March 10, the web portal Informer published an article with a title that asserted that nuclear war is possible, while the text contains a statement from the interlocutor who claims the opposite.
NUCLEAR WAR IS POSSIBLE! “We cannot in any way allow this to happen”, Russia announced, IT WOULD LEAD TO THE END OF HUMANITY!
The text states that Igor Vishnevetsky, the deputy director of the Department of Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, said that nuclear war is impossible and rejected suggestions that “limited” use of nuclear weapons could be possible.
On May 5, a web portal called B92, on the other hand, published an article with the following title:
A nuclear attack on Ukraine: announced by the ministry
The title of the article, combined with the illustration, leads the readers to the conclusion that the nuclear attack has already happened. The article actually talks about how realistic the option is for Russia to launch a nuclear attack on Ukraine. Among other things, the statement made by Aleksandar Gruskor, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, is reported, who answered the question of whether and under what conditions the use of nuclear weapons is possible. In the comments on the Facebook post of this article, many Facebook users have warned that it is a sensationalist title.
The deputy of the Russian National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, also spoke about Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons, which was reported by almost all regional media. On May 12, he said on his Telegram account that supplying Ukraine with weapons increases the probability of a conflict between Russia and the NATO alliance and emphasized that “there is always a risk that such a conflict will turn into a full nuclear war”.
Most media equipped their articles reporting Medvedev’s message with headlines stating that he warned of a possible nuclear attack. Some stated that he threatened a nuclear attack. The web portal Alo claimed in the titles of its articles, published on May 12 and 13, that Medvedev had announced a nuclear war.
DISASTER! THE MOMENT OF DIRECT CONFLICT BETWEEN RUSSIA AND NATO IS APPROACHING Medvedev announced a nuclear war (May 12)
THE WORLD HAS FROZEN One of Putin’s closest collaborators openly about the disaster: Medvedev announced total nuclear war (May 13)
And while Medvedev spoke about “increasing the likelihood of a direct and open conflict between NATO and Russia”, web portals Srbija danas, Crni Bombarder, Kurir and Volim Podgoricu attributed to him in their headlines a quote that he did not utter.
MEDVEDEV ISSUED A FIGHTING WARNING: “The war in Ukraine will turn into a direct conflict between Russia and NATO” (Srbija danas)
MEDVEDEV: The war in Ukraine will turn into a direct conflict between Russia and the NATO pact (Volim Podgoricu)
One of the ways to achieve the sensationalist effect of the title is to combine different unrelated statements, leading the readers to the wrong conclusion. This is the title of the article on Startnews(.hr) web portal, which was published on March 21, 2022:
Nuclear war is possible! 91.5 million people could die in the first few hours alone. “I thought, ‘Putin would never do that’. And then he did just that!”
The article is a shortened version of the text published by N1 Slovenia, which talks about Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons. Texts from two parts of the article, one relating to an earlier simulation of a nuclear conflict, and the other, which is the opinion of a BBC journalist on whether Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is realistic, are manipulatively combined in the title, the aim of which is to lead readers to the wrong conclusion.
At the beginning of April, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, spoke with the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, which was reported by numerous media outlets in our region, conveying the statements of the President of Serbia. Among other things, Vucic referred to Serbia’s vote for the proposal to exclude Russia from the Human Rights Council. He said that Serbia was blackmailed, stating that this country was threatened by sanctions, which he called a “nuclear strike”.
Speaking about Serbia’s vote to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council, Vucic says that Serbia was blackmailed.
“We are facing a ‘nuclear strike’ on Serbia, and that is sanctions against Serbia”, he warned.
Many media have equipped their articles on this topic with headlines claiming that Serbia is threatened with a “nuclear strike”, while omitting the clarification that it is about sanctions. Although these are actual Vucic’s words, in this way, the readers are still deliberately misled that it is a real nuclear attack. You can see examples of different versions of these titles on the links (1, 2, 3, 4 ).
In addition to sensationalist and manipulative headlines, the media often resorted to inadequate illustrations on these and similar topics in their reports.
In the article about the Russians dropping a vacuum bomb in Okhtyrka in the Sumy region, numerous media outlets in our area, such as N1, used the stock photo of the nuclear bomb explosion, which was taken from the shutterstock website.
We rate the titles of Informer’s and Republika’s articles in which the testing is presented as a real nuclear attack as clickbait.
The same rating is given to the titles of the articles published by B92, Sandzak Bosna and CG vijesti, which lead readers to conclude that a nuclear attack has already occurred.
The title of the web portal Informer, in which it is claimed that nuclear war is possible, while the text actually contains a statement from the interlocutor who claims the opposite, we assess as clickbait and disinformation.
The titles of the articles published by Alo (.rs) in which it is claimed that Medvedev has announced a nuclear war are rated as clickbait and disinformation. The titles on web portals Srbija danas, Crni Bombarder, Pink, Kurir and Volim Podgoricu received the same ratings because of the claim that Medvedev said the war in Ukraine would turn into a direct conflict between Russia and NATO.
The title of Startnews (.hr) is rated as clickbait and manipulation of facts.