It is a grim measure of the frequency of crisis events in recent years, and the ubiquity of online disinformation, that when a major story breaks — a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, or an act of war — the writers and editors at Snopes can typically predict what comes next. Recycled videos and photographs, stripped from their proper context, and the same old tropes, all designed to inflame or confuse, or even amuse, the reader.
Each fresh crisis brings its own new styles and variants of misinformation, of course, which require careful and patient analysis. However, we can quickly recognize much of what appears online for what it is — unoriginal and inauthentic. So it was during the week of Feb. 21, when Russian troops began their invasion of Ukraine.
The following is a rough overview of the familiar disinformation trends and recurring memes that the Snopes team recognized and addressed, in the opening days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Images: Rehashed, Recycled, and Repurposed
Misleading, decontextualized, and even fabricated photographs and video footage have long been a feature of conflicts and crises. Our collective experience and institutional memory of such major events means we're immediately on the lookout for similar inauthentic content, with every new crisis.
For example, back in February 2019, a video emerged online that appeared to show an Indian air strike against Islamic militants in Pakistan. However, upon further inspection, Snopes was able to determine that the footage actually came from a military simulation video game called ARMA 2. Similarly, when a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020, we addressed rumors about a viral clip that was presented as showing the attack on Soleimani, but in fact originated with another video game.
So, in February 2022, when widely shared social media posts appeared to show Ukrainian forces firing missiles at Russian artillery, in the context of the invasion, it grabbed our attention and prompted some digging. As it turned out, the video clip originated in yet another video game, this time ARMA 3 — the sequel of the game that gave rise to the fake Pakistani footage three years earlier. A different crisis on a different continent, but the same misinformation techniques.
On Feb. 25, we encountered a case of "art imitating life" when social media users enthusiastically shared a clip that appeared to show the "Ghost of Kyiv" — purportedly a Ukrainian fighter pilot responsible for shooting down six Russian military aircraft during the conflict. In reality, the fake footage came from Digital Combat Simulator, though its creator said it had been intended as a tribute to the legendary fighter pilot, whose exploits have not yet been confirmed as fact.
Troll Tropes: Sam Hyde and 'Bernie Gores'
Sam Hyde is an American comedian whose face and name, or variations of it, have been linked with mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and other major news events, for several years, as part of a protracted and now grimly predictable collective acts of trolling. Those acts are popular among the alt-right and far-right pseudo-satirical, "post-ironic" internet users who frequent online forums such as 4chan.
In November 2017, for example, such individuals — typically young men — delighted in promoting apparently earnest posts that named "Samir al-Hajid" (a crudely modified version of Hyde's name) as the suspected shooter in a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Trolls have also named Hyde as a suspect in several other mass shootings such as those in: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Las Vegas, Nevada; Orlando, Florida; and San Bernardino, California. In 2017, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, inadvertently named Hyde as a suspect in the Sutherland Springs shooting, during a live interview with CNN.
So in February 2022, when social media users shared what looked like a Ukrainian passport described as belonging to a "fallen Azov leader," we immediately recognized the photograph as Hyde's:
The fake passport appears to have originated on 4chan and Twitter, sometimes along with clues as to its pseudo-satirical origins, but screenshots of it were subsequently disseminated on Facebook, without such context.
Hyde's face also featured in bogus social media posts that actually originated in authentic news reports published by the Irish Times and the Times of London. In one particularly egregious example, trolls digitally edited an authentic photograph of a real Ukrainian soldier, 29-year-old Andrey Valerievich, who died near Kramatorsk in Donetsk in May 2020, according to a Facebook tribute posted by the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi:
Hoaxers superimposed Hyde's face on to Valerievich's, edited the flag patch to show the Russian flag instead of the Ukrainian, and posted the resulting image online with the caption "Russian airborne troops have reported [their] first casualty":
In a similar vein, trolls promoted another recurring hoax involving "Bernie Gores" — a fictional character whose name is a play on words which, when pronounced in a certain way, forces the speaker to utter an exceptionally offensive racist phrase. While "Gores" does not exist, the man in the photograph typically associated with him does. He is a YouTube personality and gamer named Jodie Johnston, who is also known as "Wings of Redemption."
Since August 2020, trolls associated with the gamer and alt-right subcultures have used photographs of Johnston, along with the fictional "Gores" name, typically describing him as the victim of various disasters and acts of violence including: the August 2020 Beirut explosion; the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021; and a devastating tornado in Kentucky, in December 2021.
So when the name and face appeared again in February 2022 — this time "Bernie Goranov" as a "journalist" killed in Ukraine — we understood the background and could place it in the broader context of crisis-related alt-right trolling:
Crisis/Opportunity for Conspiracy Theorists
Because Snopes has been writing about disinformation for so long, we know that another common feature of global events is that conspiracy theorists and bad actors frequently take advantage of the uncertainty, confusion, and fear that surrounds major crises, in order to advance and spread their theory of choice.
In 2020, for example, conspiracy theorists used the COVID-19 pandemic to fuel and promote pre-existing, fear-mongering about the "New World Order," mass surveillance, vaccination, and involuntarily implanted microchips and tracking devices. Similarly, conspiracy theorists repeatedly seize upon mass shootings to promote their baseless claims about gun control and authoritarianism.
Similarly, in February 2022, conspiracy theorists seized upon Russia's air bombing of military targets in Ukraine to advance an old, baseless piece of Russian propaganda — given new life by COVID-era conspiracy theorists — that the United States has been developing a top-secret network of laboratories for producing biological weapons including coronavirus itself and, most insidiously of all, that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was in fact a heroic campaign to disarm those biolabs.