Many within the United States have focused their attention on Russia’s social media based misinformation campaigns as of late. However, it’s important to understand that the online effort to persuade and divide the American people throughout and after the 2016 presidential election is far from an isolated aspect of the nation’s overarching foreign policy. In many ways, Russia, as well as its predecessor the Soviet Union, has long relied on managing the perceptions of the global populous and how they view their own government, as well as the governments of opponents like the United States.
Recently, Russia’s remarks regarding the use of sanctions on North Korea to dissuade Kim’s development of nuclear arms indicated that the United States, not Kim’s regime, was acting as the aggressor, with Putin going so far as to say he’d like to see all sanctions levied by the U.S. and United Nations dropped. Similarly, Russian officials have accused the American military of running ISIS fighters out of Iraq and into Syria, where they serve as reinforcements against the Russian-led anti-ISIS campaign. Now, Russia has claimed to have “irrefutable” evidence that the United States is actually assisting ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria by providing air support. There’s just one problem… that proof has turned out to be an image taken from a video game.
“This is the irrefutable evidence that there is no struggle against terrorism as the whole global community believes. The US are actually covering the ISIS combat units to recover their combat capabilities, redeploy, and use them to promote the American interests in the Middle East,” The Russian Foreign Ministry wrote on Twitter.
They accompanied the tweet with this image:
That image in particular caught the attention of a number of internet sleuths, like Elliot Higgins who promptly pointed out that the image is a poorly cropped shot from a YouTube video advertising a game called, “AC-130 Gunship Simulator – Convoy engagement.” You can even see a portion of the disclaimer written over the YouTube footage that says, “Development footage. This is a work in progress. All content subject to change.”
The other images included in the Russian Foreign Ministry statement also proved to be fake, though they weren’t from a video game ad. They were both taken from actual combat footage out of Iraq, more than a year before the Boukamal battle Russia claimed they came from.
Russia hoped to shine a light on a deal brokered between U.S. backed Syrian forces and local tribal leaders within Syria to ferry ISIS fighters and their families out of Raqqa as it fell. A reported 50 rented trucks, 13 busses and over 100 ISIS vehicles were permitted to leave the city in late October; the BBC has reported that the U.S. coalition was aware of the permitted retreat, and even monitored it as it was underway. According to the BBC’s report, which aired on Monday, as many as 250 fighters, as well as around 3,000 civilians, were permitted to flee under the agreement.
The U.S. State Department did not contest these reports, saying that the effort was not led by the Coalition but was honored by U.S. forces in order “to minimize civilian casualties in the fight that remained to liberate Raqqa.” With 250 fighters among 3,000 ISIS family members, it would have been near impossible to target only combatants without killing a significant number of civilians.
According to the State Department, everyone that was permitted to leave was subject to search before being released. Army Maj. Gen. James Jarrard said that under the deal brokered in Raqqa, “what we did do with the SDF, is we did take all of those [ISIS] members and we enrolled them biometrically, so that we are able to track them.”
Russia, always eager to find a way to paint the United States in a negative light, could have portrayed this move as a violation of statements made by senior U.S. officials, who have made it clear on multiple occasions that their intent is to destroy ISIS and not permit any foreign fighters the opportunity to return to their native countries. U.S. reports indicate only as many as four actual ISIS fighters were permitted to leave during the brokered exodus, but local reports indicate that it was likely more.
However, by using inflammatory language and obviously faked evidence, Russia utterly undermined their position on the topic, as well as garnering a great deal of social media abuse. Twitter users have continued to send the Russian Foreign Ministry videos from video games, claiming they too have found evidence to support the Russian position, despite Russia pulling down the original post.
All of which just goes to show, although Russia may have been at the misinformation game for a long time, even old pros can occasionally make mistakes.
Images courtesy of Twitter, YouTube