Since the term “fake news” exploded into everyday usage sometime in 2016, we’ve witnessed an expanding universe of unreliable information and the methods used to disseminate it.
This year, viewers have had to wade through manipulated videos passed off as real, blogs written by anonymous trolls, and a widely debunked theory with adherents in the White House. That’s not to mention the many routine instances of wrong or misleading info spread by media outlets, politicians, and others.
Here are 10 stories from 2019 of disinformation running rampant.
Fake News In High Places: The 'Meddling Ukraine' Theory
This unfounded theory flows directly from the White House. This year, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly asserted that Ukraine was involved in cyberattacks aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. election and got hold of a politically sensitive server belonging to the Democratic Party.
“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said in his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to the rough transcript. In a November 22 interview with Fox News, Trump said, “You know, the FBI has never gotten that server.... Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company? Why?”
Trump was referring to CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that analyzed the servers compromised in the 2016 attacks. The company is based in California, not Ukraine, and it’s owned by a naturalized American citizen who emigrated from Russia as a child. (CrowdStrike also determined that the cyberattacks during the election originated in Russia, not Ukraine.)
So why have Trump and members of his circle focused on Ukrainian interference? A number of intelligence officials say the White House version of events is the one that Moscow has provided.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and Russia specialist, told a congressional impeachment panel.
Three U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by The New York Times backed up Hill’s testimony. The newspaper quotes them as saying “that Russia had engaged in a years-long campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election.”
Rumors Of 'Reeducation' In Ukraine
A Russian television station raised the specter of potential state-backed crimes against civilians if and when Kyiv regains control of the territories now held by Russia-backed separatists. On Russian state-run TV channel Rossiya-1, presenter Olga Skabeyeva warned viewers of a secret plan for ethnic and linguistic cleansing, purportedly drawn from a Ukrainian government document.
“In short, immediately after Kyiv gains control of the border [with Russia], the residents of Donbas will be deported for total Ukrainization,” Skabeyeva said. “It's very simple: If you speak Ukrainian, you stay. If you don't, then pack your suitcases and go to Russia, at best. In the worst case, there will be forced deportation to Lviv for reeducation by patriots and Banderovtsy,” or Ukrainian ultranationalists.
Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, and the Ukrainian fact-checking website StopFake.org listed several websites describing Kyiv’s alleged plans for the reeducation or forced relocation of ethnic Russians from the Donbas. (Many of the sites are pro-separatist media.)
The secretary of the Ukrainian Security Service, Oleksiy Danilov, told RFE/RL that the document quoted by Rossiya-1 and others simply does not exist.
“Russia keeps producing fakes,” he said. “They need them in order to make claims like this. It’s hard to imagine anything stupider.”
The Phony American Military Blog
An American military commander lambasted Ukrainian soldiers receiving U.S. training as “lazy slackers” of “low intellect.” They were poorly educated, greedy, and corrupt, the officer wrote. They refused to learn English and were drunk most of the time.
In fact, the abuse aimed at the Ukrainian servicemen was the work of an unidentified troll. It appeared in what was described as the personal blog of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tracy, the commander of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine stationed in Yavoriv. The text circulated on Ukrainian and Russian sites before it was roundly debunked by the military unit itself, which said the blog had been written by an imposter.
The original blog, which contained very few posts besides the critical one, was swiftly taken down from the web.
A PR representative for the Ukrainian military, Bogdan Senik, called the fake blog “a provocation.” And the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, wrote: “The content and timing of this disinformation operation strongly suggests its ultimate goal: to spoil U.S.-Ukrainian relations ahead of ongoing security-related negotiations.”
Fake News Hurricane Lashes Climate Activist
In 2019, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg gave new momentum to the environmental movement, spoke before the UN, and was named Time magazine’s Person Of The Year. At the same time, she was subjected to torrents of online hatred and a baffling array of false claims.
According to one theory, Thunberg is a fictional character played by a young “crisis actor” named Estella Renee. (Fact-checking website Snopes says she is not.) Numerous detractors called her a puppet of a PR company or of the Swedish government. Politifact debunked photos purportedly showing the young activist posing with an Islamic State militant and, separately, with billionaire George Soros. And a widely circulated photo appears to show Thunberg mining for gold in 1898, sparking memes that she is a time traveler.
The online attacks on the activist were too widespread to trace to their sources, although at least one NGO has attempted to map lobbyists who have sought to discredit her. Thunberg herself wrote on her Facebook page: “There is at least one new conspiracy theory a day.”
Misleading Claims Over Cancer Fight, NATO Bombings
Russia and Serbia signed a deal to cooperate on cancer research and treatment in September -- an uncontroversial move for the two allies. But several Serbian tabloids led with news that the two countries were also investigating the health effects of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia.
The rumors were fueled by comments by Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko. "Russia is also ready to investigate the consequences of the NATO bombing, which are more than obvious to cancer patients," the Serbian daily Blic quoted him as saying at the signing of the agreement.
Some Serbian politicians and activists are pushing for legitimate research into the long-term effects of the bombing, especially the use of ammunition containing depleted uranium. But there have been no conclusive studies so far. And the Russian-Serbian agreement, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, makes no mention NATO’s 1999 military campaign or any research into its health consequences.
The Case Of The Slurring Speaker
A short video of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, went viral in May, apparently showing the Democratic leader slurring her words. Was she intoxicated? Medicated? Unwell?
None of those, it turned out.
The video had been slowed down, and the pitch of the audio adjusted, distorting Pelosi’s voice and movements.
Millions of people saw and shared versions of the video, which originated on a Facebook page called Politics WatchDog. Commenters called Pelosi “drunk” and “a mess.” Mainstream media set out to reveal the distortion, but Facebook refused to remove the original version, arguing, “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true." (Toward the end of the year, the social-media giant launched a new policy of flagging suspect posts as “false information, checked by independent fact-checkers.”)
The doctored video drew comparisons to a more high-tech threat: deepfake videos, in which artificial intelligence helps fabricate realistic footage of virtually anyone saying anything. But the lightly altered Pelosi video showed that sophisticated tools aren’t needed to make potentially damaging manipulations go viral.
'War Crimes' Photo Exposed As Porn
In May, ahead of a Kosovar parliamentary vote on Serbian war crimes, a lawmaker showed reporters an image that she claimed showed Serbian soldiers raping an Albanian woman. But reverse-image searches found that the image was a still from a porn movie, apparently featuring a wartime rape scene set in Iraq.
The incident rattled many Kosovars. Some feared that it would be used to discredit genuine accusations of sexual violence during the 1998-99 war. Officials and nongovernmental organizations say some 20,000 women and men in Kosovo were victims of rape by Serbian forces during the conflict.
As special prosecutors launched an investigation into the claims, the lawmaker, Flora Brovina, said an activist had given her the image and told her that the alleged victim was alive and living in Kosovo. But Brovina also apologized publicly to victims of sexual violence and their families, saying she accepted blame for not verifying the authenticity of the image.
Putin's Universal Robots
President Vladimir Putin observed “Russian military robots” designed by cadets at an elite military boarding school, according to a report by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. A video showed the president admiring one cadet’s “invention.”
But as the independent news site Znak reported, the robots were neither Russian nor invented by students. Russian social-media users had identified the models as Korean-made, build-it-yourself toys available for purchase on Amazon.
The EU’s anti-disinformation site notes that this was not the first misleading robot story backed by the Kremlin. Last year, state-run TV Rossiya-24 aired scenes of an android named Boris, described “as one of the most advanced robots,” dancing with schoolchildren. Boris later turned out to be a guy in a robot suit.
'Buying Babies' In Brussels
“Gays from the whole world convened in Brussels to attend a ‘livestock’ bazaar: to buy children,” declared a now-deleted tweet from NTV, a Russian network controlled by state-owned Gazprom. “If there’s money, a child will be up for sale.”
The report suggested that it was possible to buy an actual child at a conference held in Brussels in September. In fact, the event in question was aimed at matching gay couples with potential surrogate mothers. (Surrogacy is legal in Russia and some European countries. Buying children is not.) NTV also described the conference as an event for wealthy elites. That characterization contradicts the mission of the conference organizer, Men Having Babies, which offers support -- including financial guidance -- to gay people seeking to become parents.
The EU Vs. Disinfo website described the report as proactive disinformation, intended to obscure the facts and provoke strong emotions, and places the story within a larger Russian-backed narrative of “the alleged moral decay and degradation of the West.”
'Theory And Practice' Of Homosexuality In Estonia
In a separate attack on LGBT freedoms, privately owned Channel 5 in St. Petersburg reported that Estonia is the victim of “a social and moral occupation,” and that Tallinn is the “gay capital of Scandinavia.” The broadcaster found that "the spread of gay education in the Estonian capital can no longer be stopped. It is fashionable in Estonia and follows recent developments in Europe."
In order to portray Estonia as a country of eroded morals, Channel 5 reporters posed as activists and investigated a course on LGBT history at Tallinn University. The university, they reported, teaches gay issues “not only in theory, but also in practice,” leaving the details up to viewers’ imaginations. Reacting to the Russian broadcast in the Estonian newspaper Postimees, the course’s instructor said there was indeed a practice component: interviewing members of the LGBT community.