False MH17 Crash Narrative Spreads from the United States to Russia

Pro-Kremlin media distort interview with Malaysian official to make fabricated claims around the 2014 crash of flight MH17

(Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via YouTube)

Fringe online “media” outlets in both the United States and Russia misrepresented an interview with a Malaysian official regarding the MH17 crash in order to further anti-U.S. and anti-Ukraine narratives.

The case further demonstrates how a disinformation narrative initially constructed by a conspiracy site for the English-language space can be picked up and amplified by pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russian. Broadly speaking, this is a result of the ecosystem of fringe outlets around the world and how they feed off each other, often across languages, to distort the online information environment.

In an article premised on an interview with Malaysian military Colonel Mohamad Sakri, who was responsible for retrieving the black boxes from flight MH17 from eastern Ukraine, English-language conspiracy site ZeroHedge added its own unsubstantiated claims that the interview had not included. In particular, it alleged that the United States planned to use the crash as a pretext to launch an organized NATO operation in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Many pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russia then picked up the story and amplified it in the Russian language space.

The Narrative Migrates from the United States to Russia

ZeroHedge and pro-Kremlin Russian media outlet Komsomolyskaya Pravda incorrectly cited the testimony of Sakri, whose interview appeared in a controversial documentary produced by allegedly independent journalists Max van der Werff and Yana Yerlashova (formerly of Kremlin outlet RT). The documentary aimed to disprove the Dutch-led investigation about the downing of MH17 and discount the evidence pointing toward Russian involvement but lacked any evidence for an alternative explanation for the shootdown. (By contrast, the DFRLab’s friends at Bellingcat have started a podcast that compiles their research on the topic, providing a compelling summary of the evidence implicating Russia in the shootdown.)

On July 23, 2019, ZeroHedge published an article about the new revelations presented in the documentary. ZeroHedge’s account matched with that of the documentary only with regard to the claim that the Colonel went on a “secret” mission to Donetsk, obtained MH17’s black boxes, and refused to surrender them to the United States and Ukraine. The rest of the article, however, diverged from the story as presented in the film by including new “facts” while failing to mention any additional sources for the new information.

In particular, the article claimed without any supporting evidence that the United States was using the MH17 crash as a pretext to organize a NATO invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Excerpt from the ZeroHedge article suggesting that the United States “organiz[ed] a NATO military attack on eastern Ukraine.” The highlighted portions of the text are claims not otherwise presented in the documentary. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via ZeroHedge/archive)

The following day, on July 24, Komsomolyskaya Pravda published an article titled “FBI Agents Wanted to Seize Black Boxes of a Malaysian Boeing.” While the headline matched Sakri’s claims in the documentary, the paragraph elaborating on his statement did not. In particular, in contradiction to Sakri’s statements, the article alleged that: Americans tried to prevent Sakri from entering eastern Ukraine and subsequently tried to “steal” the black boxes from him; and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representatives tried to seize the black boxes from Sakri.

Excerpt from Komsomolyskaya Pravda article alleging that Americans tried to prevent Sakri from entering Ukraine and then tried to “steal” the black boxes from him. The highlighted sections of the text indicate where the article’s account diverged from the documentary. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva via Komsomolyskaya Pravda/archive)

In the documentary, however, Sakri’s statements contradicted these claims, saying:

I talked to my Prime Minister, and he directed me to go to crash site immediately. I said, we have [sic] not allowed to go there until such that [sic] permission from the Ukraine government. So, I take [sic] a small team to leave Kharkhiv, going to Donetsk secretly. So that was the mission I have had [sic] to do, because we could not afford to wait.

[…]

To manage the black box was not that easy. I was request [sic] by USA, who wanted the black box to be given to them in Kharkhiv railway station. I was entered [sic] by the FBI. They approached me to show them the black box. I said “no.” At Kyiv, again the Ukraine government forcing [sic] us to leave the black box to [sic] them. We said “no, we cannot. We cannot allow [sic].”

According to the above quote, it was the Ukrainian government that was restricting Sakri’s access to eastern Ukraine and not the United States, and it was also the Ukrainian government that tried to seize the black boxes instead of the OSCE.

The pro-Kremlin media outlet News Front subsequently merged information from the ZeroHedge and Komsomolyskaya Pravda pieces into a single article, “NATO Was Thinking About Invading in Donbas Because of the Boeing Crash,” published in Russian on July 24.

The article lifted the more dubious aspects, including those not corroborated by the documentary, of the ZeroHedge story.

Matching content from the News Front (left) and ZeroHedge (right) articles alleging that the United States was “organizing a NATO military attack on eastern Ukraine.” (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via News Front/archive, left; ZeroHedge/archive, right)

The article used verbatim text from the Komsomolyskaya Pravda article that wrongly cited Sakri’s testimony alleging that Americans barred him from entering eastern Ukraine.

Verbatim text from the News Front (left) and Komsomolyskaya Pravda (right) articles. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via News Front/archive, left; Komsomolyskaya Pravda/archive, right)

The Narrative’s Spread

The article published by ZeroHedge garnered 1,700 total engagements on social media, while Komsomolyskaya Pravda’s article garnered 555 total social media engagements, according to social media analysis tool BuzzSumo.

Engagement of ZeroHedge and Komsomolyskaya Pravda articles on social media. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

BuzzSumo did not yield any results regarding engagement with the News Front article.

While Komsomolyskaya Pravda’s article contained significant inaccuracies, it was the ZeroHedge article that planted the false narrative that the United States had used the MH17 crash as a pretext for a “NATO military attack on eastern Ukraine.” In addition to News Front, several other pro-Kremlin Russian media outlets, including Utro.ru and Krasnaya Vesna, amplified it further.

Spread of the narrative that the United States used the crash as a pretext for a “NATO military attack on eastern Ukraine.” (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via Google Search)

Most of the articles with false or fabricated claims were published on July 24, 2019. Besides ZeroHedge, the DFRLab identified only one other article that spread disinformation in English: the fringe media outlet cited Essence of Time, which cited an article in Krasnaya Vesna as its source.

While ZeroHedge writes in English, the narrative of disinformation it created gained traction in the Russian language space. This case thus demonstrated the cross-language dissemination of false narratives and, more importantly, the synergy between conspiracy outlets in English and pro-Kremlin fringe media in Russian.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Researcher with @DFRLab and is based in Latvia.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.