Russian social media narrative disproven using digital forensics. Here’s how:
On June 14, a story started making rounds on social media networks alleging that a US B-52 bomber accidentally dropped a B-61 nuclear bomb on a town in Lithuania, causing an apartment building to be engulfed in flames. The story was quickly spotted by the Strategic Communications Department of the Armed Forces of Lithuania, who sent around an email warning of its spread.
The first story online appeared on the community news section of wn.com and originated with a user named “johnkeller”, who posted a second story on the incident a day later:
The first fake story did not cite a source, but the second alleged the news originated with a release from the U.S. Department of Defense and included a screenshot of the alleged release.
The screenshot is fabricated. It appears the fabricated screenshot was photo-fabricated using the template that the U.S. Department of Defense’s DoD News services publishes typical online stories with, such as:
The story was also posted on Reddit. The insertion point on Reddit appears to be the same person who wrote the wn.com because of the similar username — “johnkeller68”.
It was quickly dismissed as a fake story by other redditors and did not spread any further. Despite lack of interest, johnkeller68 posted another eight posts on the story in an attempt to draw attention to it.
An identical copy of johnkeller’s story was also posted on a review platform Panjury.com by a user named “travis turner”.
Shortly after the article first appeared on wn.com, the narrative was also picked up by Lithuanian and Russian language news outlets.
Once the outlet realized the story was fake, a disclaimer was added marking it as “fake news”.
One other Lithuanian outlet did the same:
A well-known fake news site published did not take the same precaution and published the without adding a disclaimer or taking the story offline when it was proven as indeed fake:
It appears the fake story in Lithuanian was spread by Romualdas Palionis, whose identity could not be immediately confirmed. He was credited for sharing it in several articles. Romualdas also uploaded a video on Vimeo, supposedly showing the fire caused by the accidental ordnance.
The footage, however, appears to be a recycled clip from a video showing a fire that took place in Lithuania in January 2015.
The story was also picked up by several Russian language outlets. It was first posted on a website for the Russian community in Latvia on June 15 and has not been retracted since.
Identical copies of the article were also posted on news2.ru.
It remains unclear who the people behind the fake story are, which means that neither their motivation, nor allegiance are known. It does, however, serve as a good case study to underscore the importance of thorough verification by media outlets before publishing. A positive takeaway here was the response of Reddit users who immediately identified the story as fake and refused to upvote it or spread it further.
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