Close attention to Russia’s actions abroad and its treatment of opponents at home mean a few words from President Vladimir Putin can set off a firestorm of criticism on social media.
Even when it turns out he didn’t quite say them.
Paradoxically, Kremlin-funded media outlet RT helped generate a welter of anti-Putin memes by misquoting a remark he made about the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish jets last week.
At a press conference following the first day of the UN climate summit in Paris on November 30, a reporter from Russia’s state-run First Channel asked Putin whether he had met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putin said that he had not, and went on to talk about the November 24 downing of the Su-24 bomber, whose pilot was killed after parachuting from the plane. Turkey says the Russian jet flew into its airspace despite repeated warnings -- a claim corroborated by U.S. officials -- while Moscow insists it remained over Syria at all times.
"As for the subject of the downed Russian jet, of course this issue was brought up at almost all my meetings. I gave the relevant explanations and talked about what had happened,” Putin said in Russian. He added that other leaders “listened attentively and the majority share at least the thesis that there was no need to attack the unprotected (nezashchishchyonny) Russian bomber, which was no threat to Turkey."
RT was one of a number of media outlets that misquoted Putin. In a Russian-language news item, RT quoted him as saying the Russian bomber was “defenseless” (bezzashchitny) -- which struck many as an unusual way to describe a heavily armed warplane.
The inaccuracy was later fixed in the news item, though the original version was still visible on Google.
In addition, the phrase “defenseless bomber” was used in an RT feature story, though not as a direct quote.
RT has not acknowledged its mistake on Twitter.
The inaccurate Putin quote spread like wildfire on Twitter. Social media users wrote sarcastic comments illustrating how “defenseless” Russian Su-24M really is.
Some even pulled out a famous photo of Putin from a 2012 presidential election victory speech during which he shed a few tears -- due to icy winds and not emotions, his spokesman later said.
The tearful Putin was photoshopped behind a picture of a flying jet and accompanied by the words: “There was no need to attack the defenseless Russian bomber!”
Defenseless and unprotected have different meanings, and Putin may have meant that the Russian bomber was not escorted by fighter jets for protection.
But some social media users were angered by Putin’s actual words, finding “unprotected” an unusual adjective to describe an armed warplane.
“Unprotected bomber and its vulnerable and fragile bombs,” reads this tweet from Russian opposition activist Leonid Volkov.
Others accused Putin and Russia -- whose 2-month-old campaign of air strikes against fighters opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has also killed civilians -- of hypocrisy.
“How can one attack an unprotected Russian bomber? It’s just like striking an unprotected bakery or a market,” a Twitter user wrote, referring to air strikes on October 25 and November 29 that reportedly killed civilians at a bakery in Homs and a market in Ariha, Syria.
As of December 1, “defenseless bomber” continued to get many more mentions than “unprotected bomber” on Twitter.