Anti-Putin Russian groups stage new cross-border raids into Russia

Pro-Ukrainian forces are conducting incursions into Russian territory, temporarily seizing a village in the border region of Kursk, reminiscent of similar operations in the spring of 2023 but occurring in a very different military and political context.

Ukraine-based Russian militias are again on the attack, staging cross-border raids this week into Russian territory. Pro-Ukrainian forces even claimed on Tuesday, March 12, to have taken full control of a Russian village. The Freedom of Russia Legion, mainly composed of anti-Putin Russian fighters, posted a video showing Russian soldiers deserting Tetkino, a municipality in the Kursk region, on the Russian side of the border. 

Forces from other pro-Ukrainian groups – the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion – also announced incursions into the Kursk and Belgorod regions. These attacks were carried out with the support of “tanks, armoured vehicles, and drones“, according to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group. 

Moscow initially denied the attackers had entered areas inside Russia before stating later that the enemy fighters did not advance very far into Russia and were all driven back. “Thanks to the sacrifice of Russian soldiers, all attacks by Ukrainian terrorists have been repelled,” affirmed the Russian ministry of defence. 

The situation on the ground appears to be somewhat less clear than suggested by Russian authorities. “Currently, there are still battles around Tetkino and pro-Ukrainian forces still seem capable of controlling part of this locality,” says Sim Tack, chief military analyst at Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company. 

Russia’s national guard said on Thursday it was fighting off attacks from pro-Ukrainian groups in the Kursk region, as clashes continued at the border. 

The Russian defence ministry claimed its troops killed 195 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed five tanks and four armoured infantry vehicles, two days after saying it killed 234 Ukrainian troops in another border assault. 

In a joint statement, three pro-Kyiv militia groups called on Russian authorities to evacuate civilians from the regions of Belgorod and Kursk, saying that “civilians should not suffer from the war”. 

The current incursions are “very similar to what happened in the spring and summer of 2023”, notes Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russia-Ukraine war at the University of Glasgow. In that incursion, pro-Kyiv Russian troops had crossed the border – a little further south, in the Belgorod region – and temporarily seized a village before retreating under pressure from Russian artillery. 

At the time unprecedented, last year’s incursions served to put pressure on Russia by highlighting that its national territory was poorly protected. The dynamics of the war were then in Ukraine’s favour, given its army had managed to fend off Russian offensives. The 2023 raids had begun just before the start of Kyiv’s counteroffensive and gave the impression that Ukraine could strike anywhere. 

The situation today is very different. The counteroffensive has fizzled out and Ukraine is now more on the back foot. As Aliyev notes: “Moscow has built a defensive line – similar to the one it set up in Ukraine – about twenty kilometres inside Russian territory.” This line of  trenches extends from the north of the Kursk region to the south of the Belgorod region. 

Before last year, “Russia didn’t have any defensive positions there”, Aliyev adds, meaning incursions could be made deeper into Russian territory. 

Pro-Ukrainian forces chose to attack Tetkino for its vulnerable position.  

“The village captured is not behind the defensive line. It’s a buffer zone, what Russia calls a security zone,” Aliyev says. “On the other side of the border the region is mostly under control of Ukrainians, so it’s not difficult for pro-Ukraine forces to cross the border and occupy that village” 

An attempt to influence the Russian election? 

If taking a border village like Tetkino was a relatively easy objective for the Freedom of Russia Legion and other armed groups of anti-Putin Russians, it remains to be seen how long they’ll be able to stay there. “If they’ve taken armoured vehicles, it’s also in anticipation of a rapid retreat, so they suspect they won’t be able to occupy Tetkino” for long, notes Tack.    

But why expend resources on a raid into Russia instead of strengthening defences on the front line in the Donbas, where Ukraine’s forces are under great duress? Officially, the Freedom of Russia Legion claimed it wanted to “influence the presidential election” to be held March 15-17, according to the Moscow Times 

The pro-Kyiv Russians aim to show their compatriots that there is an alternative to Putin. “It is a way for them to try to prove to the Russians that they have the means to ‘liberate Russia from Putin’,” explains Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna. 

The Ukrainian military leadership also stated that the Russian militia groups had acted on their own without informing Kyiv. According to Tack, this is unlikely “because to be able to move troops and tanks in this region, at least tacit approval from the Ukrainian army is needed. But this helps strengthen the narrative of an operation carried out by Russians to overthrow Vladimir Putin“. 

But the ambitions of the anti-Putin forces are obviously unattainable, Tack says. “These fighters do not have the means to go very far,” he notes, adding that they did not even attempt to break through the new Russian defensive lines. 

Few Russians will even hear about the capture of Tetkino, says Aliyev. “The problem is that most Russian don’t follow independent media or Western mass media. And they will be fed with the Russian propaganda about a Ukrainian failed ‘terrorist’ attempt” against Russia.” 

Kyiv’s ‘diversion capabilities’ 

In this regard, the cross-border raids could even be counterproductive. Coming just days before the Russian presidential election, “these incursions will likely cement the attractiveness of Putin as president”, says Fasola. “The rhetoric of a ‘besieged Russia’ is key to Putin’s platform and these attacks on Russian territory basically prove he’s right, in the eyes of the larger Russian public.” 

But these operations are not useless in the eyes of the Ukrainian high command. “These anti-Putin Russian forces are part of the diversion capabilities at Kyiv’s disposal,” notes Tack. “Each of their operations serves to push Moscow to allocate resources capable of intervening quickly to defend the entry points into Russian territory.”  

The raids are part of “a broader strategy at work in recent weeks”, says Tack. There were attacks against Russian warships in the Black Sea at the end of February, followed by the strike using dozens of drones against the Lukoil oil refinery in Kirichi, near Saint Petersburg. These diversions are intended to demonstrate Ukraine’s disruptive capability, even when pushed into an essentially defensive role on the front line. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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Five things to know about Russia’s upcoming presidential election

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking a fifth term as Russians vote from Friday to Sunday in an election that has already raised transparency and accountability concerns. After two anti-war candidates were disqualified, the remaining three have all supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia is holding a presidential election that is set to hand President Vladimir Putin another six-year mandate despite the upheaval triggered by Moscow’s war in Ukraine. 

After a 2021 constitutional reform altered Russian term limits, Putin could remain in power until 2036. He was first elected president in 2000. 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has said its election observers were not invited to monitor the 2024 vote to ensure an “impartial and independent assessment” of the electoral process. 

Here are five things to know about the Russian election:

No anti-war opposition

The only would-be candidates opposed to the campaign in Ukraine, Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova, who gathered tens of thousands of signatures to support their candidacies, had their applications turned down.

Read moreRussians queue to register election candidate opposed to Ukraine offensive

Other than Putin, there are three registered candidates – the nationalist conservative Leonid Slutsky, the Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov and Vladislav Davankov, a businessman.

They have all supported Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Kremlin critics point out that the role of these three candidates is to channel any discontent and give a pluralist varnish to the vote at a time when the opposition has been greatly diminished by repression.

Read moreDeath of Alexei Navalny decimates the Russian opposition

Independent observers also say the authorities have means at their disposal to manage the results, including vote-rigging, ballot-stuffing and using millions of state employees to back the status quo.

The only unknown factor is whether there could be any protests, as called for by late opposition leader Alexei Navalny and now his widow, Yulia Navalnaya.

Thousands of supporters turned out to pay their respects at Navalny’s funeral in Moscow last month, some chanting anti-government slogans.

His widow has called the elections “a complete fiction and a fake”, and earlier this month urged supporters to show up at the polling stations on Sunday to protest.

“What to do next? The choice is yours. You can vote for any candidate except Putin,” she said in a YouTube video. “You can ruin the ballot, you can write ‘Navalny’ in big letters on it. And even if you don’t see the point in voting at all, you can just come and stand at the polling station, and then turn around and go home.”

Putin’s promises

While the result of the election is not in doubt, the government is campaigning hard, in a bid to strengthen Putin’s domestic and international legitimacy.

The Kremlin chief is in a better position now because of Russian advances in Ukraine amid cracks in Western support for Kyiv, and the Russian economy proving resilient despite heavy sanctions.

Putin has stepped up media appearances in recent weeks, meeting students, visiting factories and even taking a flight in a nuclear bomber.

But the efforts have not come without a cost. According to internal Kremlin documents recently obtained by the Estonian news website Delfi, the government has spent some €1 billion on propaganda ahead of the elections.

Read more‘Kremlin Leaks’: Files detail Putin’s €1 billion propaganda effort ahead of presidential vote

However, the Russian president has never taken part in an election debate since coming to power nearly a quarter of a century ago and will not start now.

In his State of the Nation speech last month, he made a long series of budget promises, handing out billions of rubles to modernise schools and infrastructure, fight poverty, protect the environment and boost technology.

The speech laid out a programme of government until at least 2030.

Economic concerns

Even though the economy has held up far better than expected, many Russians are worried about rising prices – particularly for food – and, in general, the instability generated by the war in Ukraine.

Labour shortages have piled up since thousands of young men have either died or are fighting in Ukraine, while hundreds of thousands of other people have fled abroad because they oppose the conflict or to avoid military service.

The authorities have clamped down hard in recent months on demonstrations by the wives of conscripted soldiers who have been asking for their loved ones to be allowed to return from the front.

Calls to vote

Patriotic posters have been plastered around the country, calling on Russians to vote.

The election posters have a “V” sign akin to the one used by Russian troops in Ukraine and the slogan: “Together, we are strong. Let’s vote for Russia!”

The authorities will also organise raffles and entertainment to encourage voters to come out and vote in a country where disenchantment with politics, particularly among young people, is high.

Neighbouring Ukraine and its Western allies are presented as troublemakers in state media and official speeches.

Putin warned in December about possible “foreign interference” in the vote and promised a “severe response”.

Last week, Russia summoned the US ambassador Lynne Tracy, accusing US-funded NGOs of “spreading disinformation” about the election.

According to the Moscow Times, Russia warned of retaliatory measures that could include expelling “US embassy officials involved in such actions”.

Voting in Russia-held Ukraine

In a sign of Russian authorities trying to project normality amid an ongoing conflict, there will be voting in Russian-held areas of Ukraine.

Russia in 2022 declared the unilateral annexation of four regions of Ukraine – even though its troops still do not control them fully.

Kyiv says local inhabitants are now being subjected to threats and violence to force them to vote –something which Moscow denies.

Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine have been able to cast their ballots early.


Three women sit on a bench near a mobile polling station during early voting in Russia’s presidential election, in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on March 10, 2024. Kyiv has warned that residents in Russian-annexed areas have been threatened against not voting. © Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters)

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Another Ukraine: a disinformation platform run by an exiled Ukrainian oligarch in Russia

Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who is close to Vladimir Putin, found refuge in Russia after leaving Ukraine, where he faces treason charges. He runs a Russian-language portal pushing Kremlin narratives on Ukraine and the war, but his latest foray into disinformation has run into its own challenges.

Every day, new phrases hammer home messages from Another Ukraine, a Russian-language portal launched in the summer of 2023: “Russia is Ukraine’s only salvation,” “They wanted NATO and are ready to die for Western interests.” The news is uniformly negative.

The project is officially led by Viktor Medvedchuk, a leading figure pushing pro-Kremlin interests in post-Soviet Ukraine, but it is orchestrated behind the scenes by Ilya Gambashidze’s Social Design Agency, a Russian IT company closely linked to the Kremlin whose digital disinformation campaigns are now targeting international opinion. The digital platform claims to “unite the dynamic forces capable of reversing the situation and pulling the Ukrainian people out of the impasse in which they find themselves”.

Read moreIlya Gambashidze: Disinformation soldier or king of Russian trolls?

Medvedchuk is certainly no stranger to intrigue and disinformation. For 20 years, the oligarch had been a conduit for Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, in both the political sphere and the media. His close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin have made him a reviled figure in his home country. The two men, about the same age, have known each other since the early 2000s. Putin had just come to power in Russia and Medvedchuk was chief of staff for Ukraine’s then president Leonid Kuchma.

Their relationship took on a personal dimension when Medvedchuk became Putin’s “kum”, a term of kinship in Slavic culture, a link cemented when Putin was chosen as godfather to Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter.

Medvedchuk likes to emphasise this personal bond with Putin to show off his own importance. 

Placed under house arrest in May 2021 after being charged with treason, he escaped and went on the run just days after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.   

The eventual recapture of the man branded a “traitor” in Ukraine caused a sensation: dressed in camouflage clothing, disheveled and weak, Medvedchuk’s release from jail was eventually granted in September 2022 when he was included in a prisoner exchange. Kyiv saw the release of 215 soldiers, including 108 from the Azov regiment captured in Mariupol, while 55 Russians were also freed. The transaction was unbalanced, but as they say in Russia, “Svoïkh nie brossaïem”: We don’t abandon our own.

‘Alternative narrative’

Russia provided a refuge for Medvedchuk, as it had for another disgraced Ukrainian, former president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych, toppled by the Maidan revolution (2013-2014), was convicted in absentia for high treason after fleeing to Russia. 

Stripped of his Ukrainian nationality, Medvedchuk, 69, realised he had no future in the country. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further marginalised Ukrainian forces loyal to Moscow. The Opposition Platform–For Life party, co-founded by Medvedchuk, was banned; the three television channels he unofficially controlled were also suspended.

Putin would have been infuriated by this turn of events. “He took it as a personal affront,” said one of his longtime associates, speaking anonymously, as cited by the Russian media outlet Verstka. “Medvedchuk and his channels played the role of a bridge and offered hope for resolving the Ukraine issue through political methods.” Medvedchuk’s exile meant the Kremlin lost its key means of influence in Ukraine and the country moved further away from the Russian orbit. 

According to Verstka, Medvedchuk fueled the ideological narrative the Russian leader wanted to hear, assuring him that there was enduring pro-Russia and pro-Putin feeling in Ukraine.

Medvedchuk’s misadventures in Ukraine did not mean an end to his involvement with his former country. When the Kremlin again attempted to regain control of the “Ukraine issue”, it was Medvedchuk who was given the job, with the aim of imposing an “alternative narrative”.  

Despised in Ukraine, Medvedchuk is not held in high regard in Russia either. However, “Medvedchuk’s allegiance and loyalty are crucial to explain why Putin has always relied on him,” said Ukrainian journalist Maksym Savchuk, author of a book dedicated to the oligarch’s connections.

In January 2023, the former Ukrainian MP broke his silence by writing a column in the newspaper “Izvestia”, where he presented the main ideas of the Russian camp. Medvedchuk positioned himself as a representative of the “peace party” against a Ukrainian elite labeled as “neo-Nazi” and belligerent, manipulated by the West. State media made an effort to bolster his stature. He appeared on Russia’s Channel One, where he was presented as “one of Ukraine’s most famous opponents”.

Ukraine’s ‘dead end’

Despite losing all credibility as well as his media holdings in Ukraine, Medvedchuk continues to propagate disinformation and pursue his own interests. Yanukovych was considered a capable manager; Medvedchuk, on the other hand, is known as an “ideas guy”. According to Meduza journalist Andrey Pertsev, he is indebted to the Kremlin but also aims to capitalise on his status as a privileged intermediary for Putin. “He is arguing the merits of his approach to obtain funds and is negotiating new deals in Russia,” Pertsev said.

Another Ukraine is the latest outlet for Medvedchuk’s ambitions. Officially, it is a public organisation located in central Moscow, a few metres from the ministry of foreign affairs. It specialises in targeted information, which it uses to try “to interact with Ukrainians with pro-Russia convictions, inside Ukraine and beyond its borders”, according to Savchuk.

Another Ukraine’s team is composed of journalists and commentators from the 112 Ukraine channel, banned in 2021 by the authorities in Kyiv, as well as disgraced political figures and “political technologists” – a Russian term for those engaged in political manipulation. 

Almost all are accused in Ukraine of separatism or treason. The nature of the project remains nebulous: Another Ukraine defines itself as a “movement” with Medvedchuk as “chairman of the council”. “It seems to me that they, themselves, do not know exactly what its true purpose is,” Savchuk noted. 

On the Another Ukraine website, the oligarch regularly publishes posts on Ukrainian domestic politics, the conduct of the war, and the need for an entente with Russia. However, “Medvedchuk is just the public face of this project,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Austria. Shekhovtsov said its communications strategy was entrusted to the Social Design Agency led by Gambashidze, one of the key figures of Russian disinformation campaigns targeting an international audience. 

Testing storylines 

Another Ukraine aims to appeal to that part of the Ukrainian population favourable to Russia and establish a connection with it, according to Shekhovtsov. One method involves taking the pulse of this population and measuring its reaction to various narratives. The project uses the image of the Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657) monument in central Kyiv, a symbolic choice given the dual legacy of the Cossack leader: While some consider him a symbol of the Ukrainian state, Another Ukraine lauds him for seeking protection from Moscow. 

In a 2021 publication of collected works, “Histoire partagée, mémoires divisées” (Shared history, divided memories), historians Volodymyr Masliychuk and Andrii Portnov note the inscription that paid homage to Khmelnytsky in Russian on the monument’s pedestal: “Russia, united and indivisible.”   

The project also manages “assistance centres” for Ukrainians who are temporarily in Russia and willing to settle there permanently.   

But according to Savchuk – who investigates corruption for Radio Svoboda, the leading international broadcaster in Russia and a division of US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – this new influence operation is not working. “In Ukraine, the project is seen as a collection of pariahs who Medvedchuk is feeding rubles so they will do what they used to, not so long ago, on his now-defunct television channels,” he said.   

Moreover, Another Ukraine is only accessible online inside Ukraine by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

Nevertheless, the movement has ambitions to extend its influence beyond Ukraine and Russia. In December it announced the opening of a Serbia division – headed by Dragan Stanojevic, a pro-Russian populist MP who has long done business in Ukraine.

Savchuk described the move as a “mutually beneficial collaboration”. “For Stanojevic, this branch is a way of appearing even closer to Putin among his electorate; for Medvedchuk, it is proof that his organisation is influential and that it is taking on an international dimension,” he said. “The fact that the Ukrainian government demanded its closure gave Another Ukraine even greater prominence – people started talking about it.” 

But turning Medvedchuk into a respected figure, recognised as a credible interlocutor abroad, may be an overly ambitious goal.

“I don’t think the Social Design Agency will be able to improve his image, even though that would be a fundamental goal if the project is to be effective,” said Shekhovtsov. “The public face of Another Ukraine should be a personality who gives interviews to the international media, someone who people want to know better. And here, that’s not the case – not in the slightest.”

This article has been translated from the original in French

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‘Pallywood propaganda’: Pro-Israeli accounts online accuse Palestinians of staging their suffering

Since Hamas carried out its deadly attack on October 7 and Israel began retaliatory military operations in Gaza, a parallel war is being fought online. A barrage of disinformation, fake news and misinformation has swarmed social media feeds. Pro-Israeli accounts on social media are using the term “Pallywood” to accuse Palestinians of faking their suffering.  

Amid the thick fog of this information war, one word has consistently come out from behind the haze. Pro-Israeli accounts online have been deploying the word “Pallywood” as a means to undermine the plight of Gazans. 

A blend of the words “Palestine” and “Hollywood”, the term insinuates that stories of suffering coming from Gaza are contrived or embellished for propaganda purposes. The accusations range from hiring crisis actors, to doctoring footage and editing it in a dishonest way that misrepresents reality.  

Detractors argue the pejorative term is a deliberate attempt to delegitimise the very real hardships endured by Gazans, and to dehumanise Palestinian lives.  

A Gazan caught in the crosshairs 

At the heart of the Pallywood claims made by pro-Israeli accounts online is one young Gazan in particular, Saleh Al-Jafarawi. He has repeatedly been accused of being a “crisis actor” working for Hamas who allegedly stages scenes to make himself look like a victim.  

Al-Jafarawi has been actively posting videos on Instagram since the start of the war to document what is happening on the ground in Gaza. But he got caught in the crosshairs of disinformation when pro-Israeli accounts started sharing videos showing an alleged Al-Jafarawi in a hospital bed one day, and walking the streets of Gaza the next.  

The claim that Al-Jafarawi had faked an injury spread like wildfire, with official government profiles taking part in its circulation. Israel’s official X account also shared the story in two separate tweets, which it then deleted some hours later.  

Hananya Naftali, who used to work under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of his digital communications team and is now a leading pro-Israeli influencer, also re-tweeted the viral video on October 26. 

In Naftali’s post, two videos have been edited side-by-side. The video on the left depicts a man walking through rubble and has a green banner above it that reads “today”. On the right, a man lies in a hospital bed with an amputated leg while a red banner on the top of the video reads “yesterday”. Naftali called the video “Pallywood propaganda”, claiming the Palestinian man was “miraculously healed in one day” from Israeli strikes. 

But the two videos are of two different men. The video on the left is of Al-Jafarawi, a Gazan YouTuber and singer. The video on the right is of Mohammed Zendiq, a young man who lost his leg after Israeli forces attacked the Nur Shams refugee camp in the West Bank on July 24.  

Though the claim has long been debunked by various news outlets, Naftali has not deleted his post. And claims about Al-Jafarawi have continued to spread.  

“[Pallywood] is certainly a form of disinformation,” says Dr. Robert Topinka, a senior lecturer at Birkbeck University in London who has carried out extensive research on disinformation. “It’s being deliberately spread to confuse… It’s purposeful. Why else would it continue to be spread after it’s been so clearly debunked?” 

Al-Jafarawi can still be seen in a compilation of photos aimed at discrediting his coverage of the war in Gaza. A mosaic with nine different photos purports to show Al-Jafarawi taking on different “roles”, but they are images from different dates, taken in different settings, and are not proof he is an actor, something French daily Libération has thoroughly fact-checked. The state of Israel reposted the compilation on November 6 and has not deleted it from its X account so far.  

As for the misidentified Palestinian man who lost his leg, Zendiq, he has received an avalanche of online abuse. His family now fear for his life.  

‘Dilute’, ‘dehumanise’ and ‘undermine’ 

For Shakuntala Banaji, an expert on disinformation and media professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science who has been monitoring false claims online since the war broke out, Pallywood “is insult added to injury”.  

“We don’t really need those kinds of false reports, since the accurate reporting is there,” says Banaji, referring to the journalists on the ground in Gaza. Though no foreign reporters have been allowed into Gaza and at least 53 journalists have been killed in the enclave according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, many are still risking their lives to document what is happening.  

For Topinka, one of the reasons why disinformation like Pallywood is created is to dilute the inhumane aspects of conflicts or events. More than 14,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to the Hamas-run health authority. “These events are so horrifying that people almost don’t want to believe them,” explains Topinka.  

But in the case of Israel and Palestine, there are also strong political motivations that drive the spread of disinformation. “Pallywood is propaganda. It’s overwhelmingly clear that Gazans are undergoing incredible suffering right now. There’s endless evidence for it,” says Topinka. “So to make it seem as if people are inflating the suffering helps to tell a different story about what’s actually happening. It makes it seem like less of a humanitarian disaster,” the researcher explains.  

Pallywood is being used in the context of real trauma, loss and grief. To reduce this suffering to fake theatrics, Banaji believes, “fits with the entire lexicon of the dehumanisation of Palestinians”. Even the use of the word itself is, Topinka believes, very intentional. Bollywood and Nollywood (terms that refer to the Indian and Nigerian film industries), he argues, “capture a kind of cultural dynamism, where communities and cultures have created their own film industry outside of Hollywood”. 

“But in Pallywood, it’s a reversal of positivity. The idea is that Palestinians are uniquely deceptive. It’s meant to capture a culture… but in this case, in a negative way,” he says.  

Aside from dehumanising and diluting Palestinian suffering, the spread of disinformation like Pallywood has tangible consequences, not only on the lives of those who fall victim to it, but also on larger efforts for peace. “It can end up undermining campaigns for a ceasefire or even undermine diplomatic efforts,” warns Topinka.  

Pallywood’s comeback and Indian influence 

It is not the first time Pallywood has been used to discredit Palestinian suffering. The term was first coined more than a decade ago by Richard Landes, a US historian based in Jerusalem

In 2005, Landes produced an online documentary called “Pallywood: According to Palestinian Sources”, and since then, has largely popularised the term that has now even been adopted by Israeli authorities. Landes continues to use Pallywood in the context of the ongoing war, and recently spoke to the Australian Jewish Association about its invention. 

“It is now being re-weaponised,” says Banaji.  

Logically Facts, a UK company specialised in combatting disinformation, analysed social media data across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit from September 27 to October 26. It found that the volume of posts citing Pallywood “increased steadily in the days after October 7”, and that the term was mentioned over 146,000 times by more than 82,000 unique users between October 7 and October 27. The country with the most mentions was the US, followed by India and Israel.  

“I’ve been monitoring day and night,” Banaji concurs. “90% of the Pallywood content that is coming out … appears to be coming from pro-Zionist, pro-Israel accounts,” which, according to Logically Facts, is being driven by users based outside of Israel and Palestinian Territories.  

India accounts online are a major driver. The country has seen a massive disinformation campaign targeting Palestinians since the start of the war. 

“Many of these people are paid trolls, but many of them are unpaid anti-Muslims who have a stake in seeing Israel exonerated,” Banaji argues, referring to the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party. “[In the UK], there are Indian accounts pretending to be either Muslim or Israelis, spreading disinformation on behalf of the Israeli state, the IDF or British Zionist organisations,” Banaji explains. 

But despite official voices like the state of Israel or the Indian government amplifying disinformation like Pallywood, and the exhaustion that comes with monitoring the never-ending rush of her feed, Banaji believes there is a way to rebuild trust in institutions. “I wouldn’t be working on disinformation and teaching about media if I thought all was lost,” she says.  

Banaji often tells her students about her four-point plan to combat disinformation. Step one is “for people to learn how to do rigorous research for themselves”. Step two is finding “media organisations which maintain a presence on the ground and a balance in reporting”. Step three is reporting misinformation online “because it can get taken down but only if many people report it”. And step four is “trying to re-humanise groups of people”.  

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How Indian authorities ‘weaponised’ a New York Times report to target the press

NewsClick, a defiantly critical news site, has been in the Indian government’s sights over the past few years. But there was little to show after extensive financial probes – until the New York Times published a report which enabled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration to use the press to attack the press. 

Shortly after breakfast time on Tuesday, October 3, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was outside his home in Gurgaon, a suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi, seeing his son off for the day when the police showed up at his place.

“Nine cops arrived at 6:30 in the morning,” recounted the renowned investigative journalist and writer in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “I was surprised. I asked them, why have you come? They said, we want to ask you a few questions.”

True to their word, the police did have relatively few questions. But they were repeated over 12 hours at two venues, according to Guha Thakurta.  

After around two hours of questioning at his Gurgaon home, the veteran journalist was taken to the Delhi police’s Special Cell – the Indian capital’s counter-terrorism unit – and questioned again before he emerged around 6:30pm local time to a phalanx of news camera teams.

Guha Thakurta was among 46 people questioned during sweeping media raids that dominated the national news cycle, made international headlines, and sparked a series of condemnations from press freedom groups across the world.

The crackdown targeted NewsClick, an independent news site founded in 2009 known for its hard-hitting coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies. The list of those questioned included the NewsClick’s founder-editor, staff, former staffers, and freelance writers, as well as non-journalist contributors such as activists, a historian and a stand-up comedian. The police seized computers, mobile phones and documents during the raids. 

After an entire day of questioning, NewsClick’s founder-editor Prabir Purkayastha and human resources chief Amit Chakravarthy were arrested under the country’s draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), also known as the “anti-terror law” in India. The two men remain in custody while the others were released by Tuesday night. NewsClick’s New Delhi office has been shut down and put under a police seal.

Since Modi came to power in 2014, India has been nosediving in the international press freedom rankings, settling at 161 out of 180 countries on the 2023 Reporters Without Borders index. Some high-profile cases of media clampdowns make the news; many more pass unnoticed outside human rights circles.

Read moreAmid threats, Indian TV anchor battles on, but for how long?

What makes the latest raids noteworthy though is that they are linked to a New York Times report on a global network receiving funds from US tech billionaire Neville Roy Singham, allegedly to publish Chinese propaganda. NewsClick was one of the news organisations named as funding recipient. The report did not suggest the Indian news site had committed any crime.

NewsClick has denied the allegations in the report. The news site maintains that it does not publish any news or information at the behest of any Chinese entity, nor does it take directions from Singham on its content. A police investigation into the site’s alleged Chinese funding is currently underway.

In its report, “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul”, the New York Times unravelled a shadowy network allegedly propagating Chinese government talking points by funding left-leaning organisations across the globe via US NGOs. “Years of research have shown how disinformation, both homegrown and foreign-backed, influences mainstream conservative discourse. Mr. Singham’s network shows what that process looks like on the left,” noted the US daily. 

But in India, the process of press clampdowns and intimidation of the left looks very different. 

Years of assaults on liberal democratic values under the Modi administration have been propelled by a government discourse that vilifies dissenters as treasonous “anti-nationals”. 

The labelling of journalists, academics, activists and opposition figures includes vague associations, without evidence, to minor Maoist peasant uprisings in rural India. Disgraced dissenters are then booked under repressive anti-terror laws bereft of basic safeguards, according to international rights groups.

On the international stage, though, many of the violations pass unnoticed – or more precisely, unmentioned – since India is viewed in the West as a counterweight to China.

With the Ukraine war exposing splits between the so-called Global North and South, the focus in many Western capitals is on disinformation networks that lead to Moscow and Beijing. This is particularly marked as the US heads to the polls in 2024 with Donald Trump as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

But India is also heading to critical general elections next year. As Modi makes a bid for a third term, there are fears that his campaign will once again instrumentalise deteriorating ties with a neighbouring country to whip up a nationalist wave. In an ironic twist, the Modi government’s weaponisation of a report by a leading US daily – functioning under press freedoms enshrined in a mature democracy – is now threatening the very values that the West professes to uphold.

Same questions asked again – and again

The scale and planning of Tuesday’s raids sent an immediate signal across India that the state’s investigation of NewsClick – which has dragged on for more than two years without any charges – had gone up a notch.

“What happened is unprecedented. We’ve seen the police take coordinated action across the national capital region and also outside Delhi. Literally hundreds of police participated, they were summoned very early in the morning or probably late the previous night,” said Guha Thakurta.

The police’s questions appeared to show little understanding of the role of journalists in a democracy. “I was asked if I was an employee of NewsClick. I said no, I’m a consultant,” he explained.

The veteran journalist was then asked if he had covered a series of recent anti-government protests, including a farmers’ strike and demonstrations against a controversial citizenship law. “They were very polite. But the fact is, they kept asking the same set of questions. They were asked by different people, different officials, at various levels,” recounted Guha Thakurta.

Condemnations from press rights groups followed immediately, with the Press Club of India saying it was “deeply concerned” over the raids and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calling it “an act of sheer harassment and intimidation”.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (L) speaks to writer Arundhati Roy (R) and Aproorvanand, a Delhi University professor (centre) during a protest at Press Club of India in New Delhi on October 4, 2023. © Altaf Qadri, AP

In Washington DC, a State Department spokesperson was asked if the US was aware of concerns about NewsClick’s China ties alleged by the New York Times.

“We are aware of those concerns and have seen that reporting,” Vedant Patel told reporters, adding that he could not comment on the veracity of the claims. “Separately,” he noted, “the US government strongly supports the robust role of the media globally, including social media, in a vibrant and free democracy, and we raise concerns on these matters with the Indian government, with countries around the world.”

There are no known legal proceedings in the US against Singham based on the New York Times report. In India, commentators note that even if the funding allegations against NewsClick turn out to be true, any Chinese funding of an investment by a listed US company in a business venture is legal.

Social media sites meanwhile are awash with links to news reports on Modi’s private fund, the PM CARES Fund, receiving funding from Chinese companies.

Investigating Adani and stories untouched by Indian media

The questioning of NewsClick freelancers, editorial consultants and contributors – who are not responsible for funding or financial decisions – has raised eyebrows, since many have done in-depth reporting on issues that are either ignored or superficially covered by the country’s mainstream media.

Guha Thakurta, for instance, is considered one of India’s leading, and certainly bravest, investigative journalists. A former editor of the once-prestigious policy journal Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Guha Thakurta resigned from the post in 2017 following differences with the publisher after he co-authored an article on the Adani Group.

The conglomerate, led by Modi-ally Gautam Adani, was the subject of a high-profile investigation by US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research, which accused the group of using opaque funds to invest in its own stocks. The company denies any wrongdoing. Adani denies any improper relationship with the Indian prime minister.

Guha Thakurta was the only Indian journalist whose work was mentioned in the Hindenburg report. The 68-year-old journalist is also the author of the book, “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis”, which investigated irregularities by the Ambani business dynasty, which also has close links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Paranjoy [Guha Thakurta] is the only person in the Indian media doing any serious investigation of the Adani Group,” said Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist and former leader of a leftist political party. “He has nothing to do with Chinese propaganda. He was questioned because he’s refusing to be a propagandist for the Indian government.”

Krishnan was under the spotlight last year when she wrote an article chastising the Indian left for supporting Modi’s neutral position on the Ukraine war. In her latest piece, published on Friday, Krishnan slammed the New York Times for failing to provide context in its coverage and ignoring her warnings that the Modi administration would use the Chinese funding allegations to crack down on NewsClick.

In its response to Krishnan’s article, published in independent Indian news site Scroll, the New York Times said it “published a thoroughly reported story showing the [Singham] network’s ties to Chinese interests. We would find it deeply troubling and unacceptable if any government were to use our reporting as an excuse to silence journalists.”

Krishnan is not mollified by the response. “The New York Times story is being weaponised by the Indian government,” explained Krishnan. “Because it’s the New York Times, the government is able to ride on its credibility to create a hysteria, a frenzy that this is evidence of journalists funded by China.”

Funding probes give way to terrorism questioning

The terrorist allegations following Tuesday’s raids are a new, disturbing twist to the Indian state’s ongoing NewsClick probes.

Since 2021, the news site has been investigated by numerous government agencies, including the finance ministry’s Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Delhi police’s Economic Offences Wing and the income tax department. 

After more than two years, none of the enforcement agencies have filed money laundering complaints or legal charges against NewsClick.

By invoking the anti-terror UAPA in its NewsClick investigations, the government has increased its capacity to legally harass and silence a small, underfunded news site, according to experts.

But in a statement released after the raids, NewsClick vowed to keep up the fight to survive. “We have full faith in the courts and the judicial process. We will fight for our journalistic freedom and our lives in accordance with the Constitution of India,” said the organisation.

‘The China connection’

As the NewsClick case looks set to go into the courts, the ruling BJP is already scoring political points off the controversy.

The politicisation started just days after the New York Times report was published, when a BJP parliamentarian claimed, without providing evidence, that China was financing NewsClick as well as the opposition Congress party.

On Tuesday, as the police were rounding up Guha Thakurta and dozens of others, the BJP was already linking NewsClick with Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi.

“Chinese Gandhi” said a BJP post on X (formerly known as Twitter) displaying overlapping circles representing the opposition party, NewsClick and China.

The instrumentalisation of the China allegations comes amid setbacks in India-China ties after Xi Jinping skipped the G20 summit hosted by New Delhi last month.

Anti-China sentiment is rising exponentially in India, according to the Pew Research Center, firing up a Hindu nationalist base that does not take kindly to signs of New Delhi’s weakness on foreign policy. In the lead-up to India’s last general elections in 2019, Indian air strikes on Pakistan just months before the vote swept Modi to a landmark victory.

Krishnan hopes the China funding allegations do not turn into an election issue ahead of the 2024 vote. “I trust that the Modi government will not succeed in using this in its favour as an election issue because everyone in India can see is that this is an unprecedented crackdown on journalism,” she said. “I think the election issue will be the crackdown on journalists, and not allegations of China funding.”

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Ukrainian drones won’t wake up Russia, but they won’t enrage it either

When the embarrassing truth gets too big to sweep under the rug, the Russian state switches its tactics and tries to exaggerate instead of minimalising. But this is not producing the intended result, Aleksandar Đokić writes.

On 30 July and then again on 1 August, Ukrainian drones flew over Moscow’s “Moskva City” late at night, when all the life seeps away from the busy luxurious business centre, and managed to fly into the daunting skyscrapers twice. 

The damage, deemed to have been minimal, was contained to one floor being demolished. Yet, in the online world of Russia’s rich and powerful, only cheerful information about river trams starting to operate on the Moskva River got through.

On the real estate website for the business centre’s OKO Tower, once the tallest building in Russia and Europe, where wealthy Russians can still purchase apartments, there were no news about the drone attacks. 

Nobody said anything about any drones, at least not officially; unofficially, everything was clear and obvious to every Muscovite. 

At first, nothing happened

On the morning of the first strike, however, Russian journalists scrambled to interview some of the residents of OKO, knowing very well that fear is still a potent clickbait, even in the in-your-face autocracy that Russia has become since the invasion.

One unnamed member of Russia’s financial elite described his experience during the drone attack like this: “I woke up from the tremors in the apartment on my floor in the OKO Tower, approximately in the middle of the tower. They vibrations were substantial, to be honest.” 

“I had to pack my things; my documents had already been assorted. I went down to the first floor, and the concierge said that this was not the first explosion. I then went down further to the parking lot, got into the car and left the complex in a hurry,” the anonymous man said. 

Judging by the photographs taken by eyewitnesses on the scene, the pavement around the buildings was littered with scattered debris as well as government documents — one of the struck towers hosts the departments of the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Digital Development.

Russian media buried the news about the attack at first. Then, the Russian Ministry of Defence came out with a statement saying that control over all renegade drones was taken over, forcing them to land by using military electronic jamming equipment. 

Then, it was ‘the new 9/11’

This is the usual behaviour of the Russian media and security authorities: ignore the humiliating attack as much as possible and minimise its effects on delegitimising the autocratic Kremlin regime. This is then followed by a triumphant statement from the Ministry of Defence, in essence turning shame into victory. 

This kind of alchemy can hardly work on anyone capable of rational thinking, but those citizens who fervently follow Russian TV programs aren’t known for being fully rational actors.

The aggressive and threatening statements from the powers that be came only after the second drone attack struck the same spot within Moscow’s inner city ring. 

On 1 August, the infamous Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova compared the drone attacks on “Moskva City” with the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. 

Her statement, already blown way out of proportion, is even more cynical considering waves of deadly drone attacks Russia has launched against Ukraine over the past year and a half, whose indiscriminate nature has caused numerous civilian casualties.

This, however, illustrates a much bigger propaganda strategy at play in Vladimir Putin’s Russia today.

When the truth gets out, it’s better to blow it out of proportion

When the embarrassing truth gets too big to sweep under the rug, even for the proverbial babushkas following the news, the Russian state switches its tactics and tries to exaggerate instead of minimalising.

Yet, these two media or propaganda strategies aren’t accidental or a product of confusion or incompetence. 

They represent two distinct signals that the Russian establishment is trying to send to its citizens. 

The first comes down to the desire to make the society docile, obedient, and passive: “Nothing is happening, our security services firmly control the situation, our army is winning on all fronts”. 

The second strategy is its opposite. It’s meant to get the society more involved in the war effort, and portray the war as an existential struggle in which total participation is necessary.

Russia has no political scientists, only ‘political technologists’

Why are both strategies employed by flicking them on and off intermittently like light switches?

Contrary to popular belief, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine does not rely on loud-mouth TV show anchors or editors like Vladimir Solovyov or Margarita Simonyan to shape its message. 

The duo are just loudspeakers with deep pockets. Real Russian propaganda comes from its behind-the-scenes technocrats. 

In Russia, there are no political scientists. They are called “political technologists” and, methodologically, rightly so. 

They are not meant to objectively study the socio-political processes; their main purpose for the state is to frame the message and outline the general signals sent to society. 

These technocrats loosely follow the teachings of a little-known Soviet propaganda guru Georgy Shchedrovitsky. 

Contemporary technocrats simplified Shchedrovitsky’s political and economic managerial techniques into transmitting topically selected keywords mean to stimulate public opinion and collective emotions. 

Putin’s managers of thought actually believe that society can be almost freely engineered, while its political orientation can be swayed at the right moment and by the right message.

The messaging has failed

Russian state media operate in line with this teaching. They send one message, awaiting the appropriate result. When a different outcome is desired, they start transmitting a completely different message. 

Naturally, human beings do not actually function one-dimensionally as Russian propaganda technocrats believe. Yet, it is why they think this is true.

First of all, it is the rigid hierarchy of Russian society the top commands — the bottom obeys — which shapes these beliefs.

Secondly, their worldview is skewed. Humans, in their mind, are simplified to the level of machines. Insert the right input, and receive the desired output. 

It is not the success of this technocratic propaganda school of thought which keeps Russian society docile. It is the lack of democratic political culture which produces the effect. 

On the other hand, a positive outcome — for the democratic world — is that this passivity of the Russian society also makes waging total war in Ukraine impossible in the long term. 

Russians may not rebel, but they won’t fight or work 12-hour shifts in weapons factories en masse as well. 

This is why the followers of Shchedrovitsky’s teachings have failed. They did not manage to flick the total war switch in Russian society, and their messages fall on deaf, disinterested ears.

Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. He was formerly a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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We need to learn that if it’s online, it doesn’t have to be true

By Yoan Blanc, Co-director, C’est vrai ça?

Investing in education and the development of critical thinking is more important than ever, as it will help to limit the risks of disinformation posed by the advent of technologies such as the internet and AI, Yoan Blanc writes.

In its new report on education and technology, published on 26 July 2023, UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report discusses the risks and opportunities that new technologies hold for the future of education. 

The report points out that only around half of 15-year-olds in OECD countries are able to tell facts from opinions. 

With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), more than ever, educators play a vital role in teaching the critical thinking and autonomy needed to navigate new technologies.

As we have observed in recent years, disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories have gained ground. 

While it is worrying to see the often-morbid impact of fake news, we also need to consider how susceptible people are to these theories, and the lack of education about technology, which leads some people to think that “if it’s on the Internet, it must be true”.

Pre-existing issues, a smouldering fire that just needed oxygen

A pre-existing situation has made it easier for people to buy into the idea. 

Disinformation campaigns haven’t enjoyed the success they have based solely on a particular set of circumstances. 

The COVID-19 crisis merely acted as a catalyst, stoking a fire that had been smouldering for quite some time due to a number of factors that slowly came to light.

As the latest RSF report shows, freedom of the press is under threat in many countries, including those that were once regarded as democratic. 

Public confidence in the press has rarely been so low, and the work of journalists is often denigrated, even though they are the foundation of a healthy democratic system. 

The media has become polarised in recent years, favouring ideology and punchlines over in-depth debates on social issues.

The lack of digital literacy and critical thinking

It’s hard to properly account for the surge in fake news. The general public has very little understanding of how social media work and sometimes takes falsely sourced or openly conspiracy-themed publications at face value. 

Acquiring easily implemented methodological tools would undoubtedly help to avoid these pitfalls.

The main reason fake news goes viral is a lack of critical thinking. Part of the population doesn’t know how to think critically and doesn’t analyse the information they are given.

Social media is the favourite channel for spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation. 

It allows for swift and massive dissemination thanks to its sharing functions and algorithms that highlight the sort of “divisive” content that generates reactions (the more intense the emotion, the more viral the information). 

There is also the question of social media moderation, which is at best inadequate, at worst non-existent, and essentially based on user reports, with the impending risk of a “militia” effect. 

The reports they make are processed by people who often don’t speak French, leading to bizarre situations where overtly racist content can be allowed to remain online. 

Worse still, as content deletion is sometimes based on the number of reports received, journalists’ or fact-checkers’ accounts or publications are regularly deleted or suspended as a result of massive reporting campaigns.

How can we fix this?

Citizens’ initiatives that complement the work of the press need to take shape to counter fake news on social media. 

Because while disinformation’s main weapon is virality, it is still possible to mitigate the viral impact of a publication by reacting quickly to provide simple, accessible, and well-sourced explanations.

C’est vrai, ça?, for instance, has over twenty volunteers working on a citizens’ initiative to check LinkedIn posts. 

With an average of 10 fact-checking operations a day and 70,000 followers, they help prevent the spread of fake news or at least encourage critical thinking by providing sourced commentary.

This is where education comes in

To stem the tide of disinformation upstream, there is a solution that is both simple on paper and yet terribly difficult to implement in practice: education.

Training teachers to work with and use new technologies so that they can pass on critical thinking methods to their pupils, whether it be social media or content-generating artificial intelligence tools accessible to the general public (ChatGPT, Midjourney, etc.). 

Here too, partnerships could be devised between schools and community associations to train students in the use of new technologies, to encourage them to question what they consult and to use the tools at their disposal to reflect rather than just consume. 

The Internet and artificial intelligence are formidable instruments, providing access to information that was previously unavailable. 

But like any other tool, they need to be properly mastered. Access to knowledge and education has always been a means of empowering people. 

Whereas in the past, the challenge for the public was to gain access to the knowledge needed to contradict dogma, today, the challenge is to sort through the mass of information. 

We have to invest in knowledge to solve this once and for all

Learning the basic techniques of OSINT (Open-Source Intelligence) — how to detect texts or images generated by artificial intelligence or how to analyse a source of information — are all skills that are accessible from a very young age and help protect the human mind against manipulation.

Investing in education and the development of critical thinking is more important than ever, as it will help to limit the risks of disinformation posed by the advent of technologies such as the internet and AI.

To achieve this, we need genuine political commitment and enlightened governance to analyse the risks and work together to develop effective standards that protect us all from fake news.

Yoan Blanc is the co-director of C’est vrai ça?, an independent civic initiative that brings together private citizens who want to fight back against fake news.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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No, this isn’t a recent video of Bashar al-Assad walking freely through Damascus

A video said to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walking without escort through a joyous crowd in Damascus has been circulating online since April 25. However, this is an old video and one that actually shows the president during an orchestrated event in a secure location.

If you only have a minute

  • A video said to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad interacting with a seemingly joyous public in Damascus has been circulating online since April 25. 
  • Those who share this video claim that it is proof of Assad’s popularity in Syria. Some of them have even claimed he is more popular amongst his people than Western leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron.
  • Turns out, this video was filmed back in 2017. By looking at its coordinates, we discovered that it was filmed in a secure location in Damascus during an official event. 

The fact check, in detail 

The footage that has been circulating on Twitter of late shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, smiling, shaking the hands of passersby and posing for pictures. At the start of the video, he is outside, before entering a building filled with stands selling a variety of products. “Syrian president Bashar Alassad casually walking around without guards,” reads one caption on the video, which has the TikTok logo. 

Don’t believe anything they tell you about Syria, it’s all lies!” reads the caption on a post featuring the video shared on April 25 by an account that regularly posts pro-Russian propaganda. It has since garnered more than 120,000 views. The posts claimed that this video was proof of the Syrian leader’s popularity. Some of the posts compared this to the dismal ratings of some Western leaders. 

On May 2, this far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron.

This far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron on May 2, claiming that Assad is more popular in Syria than Macron is in France. © Twitter/@MyLordBebo

A number of French-language accounts that regularly share content critical of Macron also picked up this post. Here are two examples from May 2 and May 5.

The French-language accounts that shared this video also compared the Syrian dictator to the French president.
The French-language accounts that shared this video also compared the Syrian dictator to the French president. © Observers

A 2017 video made by Assad’s team 

To find out more about the video in question, we began by looking into the TikTok handle that appears on the video.

Turns out, this account is a propaganda account that often shares videos promoting the Syrian president and videos that support the Syrian government’s perspective.

This TikTok account, which has been inactive since February, previously shared a lot of propaganda videos created by Syrian government. The videos are in both English and Arabic.
This TikTok account, which has been inactive since February, previously shared a lot of propaganda videos created by Syrian government. The videos are in both English and Arabic. © TikTok/m.syria.alassad

However, the video that has been circulating online isn’t recent: it was posted on this TikTok account on July 5, 2022.

The video that has been circulating on Twitter does, indeed, appear on this account. However, the video is actually from 2022.
The video that has been circulating on Twitter does, indeed, appear on this account. However, the video is actually from 2022. © TikTok/m.syria.alassad

But even though the TikTok account posted this video in 2022, it turns out that the actual event took place much earlier. 

We used the tool InVid WeVerify (check out how by clicking here) to find previous instances of the video posted online, without the TikTok logo and caption.  

An official Twitter account of the Syrian Office of the President tweeted the video in June 2017, explaining that the video shows Assad shopping at a “‘Made in Syria’ festival”. The video also appeared in a local news article, shared on June 8, 2017.

There are also other images of this event, like the ones that appear in this article by the Iranian press agency Tasnim. The article explains that the event took place at al-Jalaa Hall in the Damascus neighbourhood of Mezzeh. 

A controlled visit to a secure event 

Using this information, we were able to find the coordinates of the site visible in the video. If you type “صالة الجلاء” (al-Jalaa Hall in Arabic) into Google Maps, then you’ll find a result that is really in the Mezzeh neighbourhood. 

There is an al-Jalaa Hall in the Mezzeh neighborhood. It’s near a stadium with the same name.
There is an al-Jalaa Hall in the Mezzeh neighborhood. It’s near a stadium with the same name. © Observers

Online, there are 360° images of the hall, which seems to often be used for events. These photos indeed show the location where the Assad video was filmed. 

Thanks to the photos available on Google Maps, we were able to determine that the video was, indeed, filmed in al-Jalaa Hall. In both these pictures and the video, the ceiling is painted with Syrian colors, the green paint on the walls is the same and there is a giant portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
Thanks to the photos available on Google Maps, we were able to determine that the video was, indeed, filmed in al-Jalaa Hall. In both these pictures and the video, the ceiling is painted with Syrian colors, the green paint on the walls is the same and there is a giant portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. © Observers

In the outside shots, the Syrian president walks under a sign for the computer engineering department at Arab International University. 

This sign features the logo for Arab International University, a private Syrian university. It also mentions the computer engineering department.
This sign features the logo for Arab International University, a private Syrian university. It also mentions the computer engineering department. © Observers

Turns out, this building is located right behind al-Jalaa Hall, which means that the outside shots were filmed right by the hall, likely during the same visit.

On Google Maps, you can see that the AIU computer engineering department (in white) adjoins al-Jalaa hall (in pink). The entire video was filmed in the same spot.
On Google Maps, you can see that the AIU computer engineering department (in white) adjoins al-Jalaa hall (in pink). The entire video was filmed in the same spot. © Observers

So this video doesn’t actually show Assad wandering in the streets of Damascus. It was filmed at an official event organised by the Damascus Chamber of Industry, according to this article published in the local media.

The Syrian president, thus, isn’t in a street but in a university and sports facility that is easy to secure. As you can see from these images on Google Earth, recorded a few weeks after the event, there are only a few entrances to the hall. 

These satellite images taken a few weeks after Assad’s visit to the site show that there are only six entrances to al-Jalaa hall. It would be easy to secure the premises.
These satellite images taken a few weeks after Assad’s visit to the site show that there are only six entrances to al-Jalaa hall. It would be easy to secure the premises. © Observers

Moreover, this area is located in an extremely secure area, home to a number of official buildings, embassies and the military airport. Even the headquarters of the Department of General Intelligence and the Air Force are located in this neighbourhood. The Department of General Intelligence is one of the main security services in the country, known for its brutal methods and systematic use of torture in its detention centres.

Bodyguards in civilian clothes

Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at CNRS and a Syrian specialist. He says that this would be far from the first time that Assad met with the “public”, who turned out to be carefully selected in a secure location. 

Videos of this type are always a part of his communication strategy, trying to create a narrative that he is close to his people. Before the war, for example, he regularly organised surprise visits to restaurants. During those events, the security was always reinforced with bodyguards at the entrance. And the people were screened ahead of time. On that note, you might notice that there are very few people in this video. 

The captions on the posts featuring this video, however, claim that the Syrian president went out in public without bodyguards. 

However, in the version of the video shared by the office of the president, you can see a man who appears twice and seems to be watching Assad intently.

There is a man acting strangely, who keeps just a few metres behind Assad when he enters al-Jalaa Hall. He seems on edge and keeps his eyes fixed on the president.
There is a man acting strangely, who keeps just a few metres behind Assad when he enters al-Jalaa Hall. He seems on edge and keeps his eyes fixed on the president. © Observers

The man is wearing a distinctive striped polo shirt, with a black collar, which makes it possible to spot him in the version of the video shared by this Syrian site, which includes sequences cut in the version shared by the Office of the President.  

In this longer sequence, you can see that the man continues to follow Assad. While it is impossible to know for sure if he is a bodyguard, his behaviour and his habit of keeping just a few metres from the president at all times makes it likely that he is one. 

In a longer version of the video shared by the Syrian media, you can see a man following Assad during the entire visit. It seems as if there were actually bodyguards at this event.
In a longer version of the video shared by the Syrian media, you can see a man following Assad during the entire visit. It seems as if there were actually bodyguards at this event. © Observers

In conclusion, this video doesn’t show the Syrian president interacting with the general public in the street, as claimed by a number of accounts that shared the video. It was actually filmed during an official event in a secure location where Assad was almost certainly under high protection. 

This video has been circulating amidst a tense political backdrop: Syria is in the process of officially reintegrating the Arab League, after being ousted in 2011 when the Syrian government’s crackdown on a popular movement led to a devastating war. During the conflict, Assad’s regime was condemned for numerous war crimes against both combatants and civilians.

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Why are so many Slovaks falling for Russian propaganda?

The Russian embassy’s official account in Slovakia is a conspiracy theorist’s paradise.

Their Facebook page has amassed around 5,000 posts in just one year, featuring a range of content from the bizarre and widely debunked theory that the US is controlling the spread of COVID-19 through international biolabs; to posts promoting tourist destinations in Russia, and even calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offensive names.

The Beacon Project, an initiative by the International Republican Institute that tracks disinformation activities of Chinese and Russian embassies in Europe, has dubbed the account the most virulent diplomatic social media presence in Europe when it comes to undermining the Ukrainian war effort.

What’s even more concerning is that the embassy could be reacting to popular demand, as Slovaks rank among the highest in the EU when it comes to pro-Russian stances.

“A lot of narratives about the decadent West and liberal democracy being a threat to our identity and culture resonate among Slovaks. Slovaks are also prone to believing various conspiracy theories, and with Bulgaria we are leaders in the EU when it comes to ascribing to Russian narratives,” says Katarína Klingová, a senior researcher at the Bratislava-based Globsec think-thank.

In 2020, Globsec conducted a poll on the Slovak public’s reactions to pro-Kremlin narratives and found that 78% of the public in the country believed they were traditional Slavic brothers with Russians, while seeing Russia as a key political and military force on the continent.

“The Russian embassy is very active both online and offline, especially at anniversaries of historical events – end of WWII, Slovak National Uprising, where they actively cooperate with the veterans, and organise commemoration events reminding Slovak of how Russia helped Slovakia in its history,” explains Klingová.

Moscow’s good boys

Independent local news outlet Dennik N secured video footage of pro-Russian journalists being co-opted by employees of the Russian embassy in Bratislava after the invasion of Ukraine last year and paid to promote Kremlin talking points.

In the video, Sergey Solomasov, the deputy military attaché at the embassy, is recorded telling a journalist working for Hlavné správy – a conservative Slovak paper that often runs pro-Russian articles – to target specific people in the country for its disinformation efforts.

The scene is not unlike similar ones featured in Russia-themed spy movies. The two men are seen walking through a seemingly empty forest, with Solomasov casually smoking a cigarette as he gives out his orders and the journalist nodding away.

“I told Moscow that you are a good boy… Moscow decided that you will be hunting two categories of people. First, the people [in Slovakia] who you know love Russia, who want to cooperate, who want money and who have confidential information.”

The second group Solomasov wants him to target are people who are on the fence about supporting Russia, and tells him to take them to sporting events or to restaurants.

Klingová explains that while three Russian diplomats were expelled from the country after the incident, the Hlavné správy journalist is only one piece in a wide network of disinformation sources.

There are estimated to be 253 disinformation-peddling and largely pro-Kremlin outlets in the country, and more than 1800 Facebook pages and open groups sharing pro-Russian propaganda.

“Pro-Kremlin narratives are also voiced by many domestic political leaders and parties, and some public representatives including the Prosecutor General of the Slovak Republic [Maroš Žilinka],” Klingová said highlighting that domestic politicians should also be blamed for this.

Slovakia is slated to hold elections later this year, and some political leaders have already started parroting rhetoric similar to that of Russian politicians such as talking points promoting an anti-LGBT agenda.

Pro-Putin peace marches

What is even more puzzling when it comes public attitudes in Slovakia is the fact that a large part of the government currently in power and the president are fiercely supportive of Ukraine.

“The government is completely in line with the rest of the EU and perhaps even more proactive than other countries, and our President Zuzana Čaputová is one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine,” said Grigorij Mesežnikov, the president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Bratislava.

In sharp contrast to this, some citizens have been holding what they call “peace marches” or protests calling for an immediate end to the war and arms deliveries, and chant “Putin is our president, Putin is our hero!” at these events.

“I think they have somehow picked out Slovakia as the weakest in the chain of central European countries, where the conditions are the most favourable for spreading their propaganda,” said Mesežnikov.

Why the love for Russia?

Most people would lump Slovakia in with the rest of central Europe, where criticism of Russia and its policy is high – mainly due to the experience of 20th century wars and subsequent communist rule.

“Slovakia has deviated from other Central European countries when it comes to perceptions of Russia and public attitudes when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine,” explains Mesežnikov.

This is not merely a question of public attitudes, he insists, because Slovakia plays an important role in NATO security chain along Ukraine’s borders. Just last Friday, Slovakia delivered 3 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian air force – which is crucial since Ukrainian fighters are trained to fly these planes.

If figures like former PM Robert Fico, who is against arms deliveries and often parrots pro-Russian ideas, get re-elected at the end of the year, this could seriously disrupt NATO’s plans for weapons deliveries.

According to Mesežnikov, “the agents of Russian influence in Slovakia are not marginal politicians or insignificant voices. Some of the most prominent politicians in Slovakia, such as the former speaker of parliament, are the most virulent supporters of Russia and Putin’s actions.”

He also warns that the signs of this undercurrent of blind Russian support has been present in public discourse in the country for centuries.

Going back to perhaps even the 19th century, Slovak leaders “dreamt about Russia as the protector of Slovakia and of all Slavic nations, especially the smaller ones. I think these notions were wrong at the time and continue to be, but they have unfortunately been inherited over many generations,” he explains.

“Unfortunately, all of this is bad for Slovak democracy. This rhetoric and these beliefs pull the country away from universal values and more towards insular values and ethnic politics,” concludes Mesežnikov.

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How fake media accounts in Afghanistan are used to push Taliban propaganda

Since the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan in August 2021, numerous accounts mimicking or trying to present themselves as media outlets have popped up online. These fake accounts share content that appears to be authentic, often using the same graphic signature and style as the real media outlet. But on closer inspection, researchers from the NGO Afghan Witness found that their posts have no basis in reality and serve to undermine opposition groups in Afghanistan and clamp down on independent media.

Since December 2022, researchers at Afghan Witness – a human rights project dedicated to documenting and verifying events in Afghanistan – have identified several of these fake accounts and the messages they are trying to share. Their analysis centred on one fake Twitter account, @AF_Inter5, which presents itself as the news media Afghanistan International.

‘It will erode trust in the opposition movement’

Tom Stubbs, Senior Analyst for Information Operations at Afghan Witness, told the FRANCE 24 Observers more. 

The content revolves around denigrating both Afghan International and opposition within Afghanistan. And a lot of the stories they were sharing weren’t backed up in any other media. Normally, when you have a news story from Afghanistan International or other news agencies, we can actually follow that up and we can understand the nature of what they’re saying is true. But what this fake account was doing was just made up. 

The @AF_Inter5 account’s posts often extol the Taliban’s impact on Afghanistan, after the group reclaimed control of the country in August 2021. 

One post, published on March 1 and viewed more than 57,000 times, claims that the former top-ranking army commander of the Republic of Afghanistan and former Deputy Interior Minister for Security, Khoshal Sadat, said that the arrival of the Taliban ended the Republic, as well as “espionage, nationalism and insurgency”. 

However, there is no other record of this statement in English, Persian or Pashto-language media. And the image shared in this post dates back to 2020, before the Taliban took control of the country. 

Posts also undermine the rival National Resistance Front (NRF), which constitutes the main organised resistance to Taliban control.

Another tweet, published on March 11 and viewed more than 20,000 times, claims that the leader of the NRF, Ahmad Massoud, told the New York Times that his organisation has close relations with the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a part of the Islamic State organisation active in Afghanistan. 

A tweet published on March 11 claims that the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan said that his group had close relations with the Islamic State organisation in the country. © Observers

However, Massoud has never been interviewed by the New York Times nor said that the NRF has a good relationship with ISKP. This claim serves to link Afghanistan’s self-proclaimed only legitimate resistance movement fighting for democracy with ISKP, a UN-designated terrorist organisation.

Another tweet claimed that an NRF commander had visited Israel to discuss bilateral goals, despite no other evidence in the media that this visit occurred.

Stubbs explained how this content reflects common Taliban talking points.

It will erode trust in the opposition movement because if people are believing what this fake account is saying about the opposition movement, they’ll believe that [the NRF] is dealing with Afghanistan’s enemies and people who want to destroy Afghanistan, that they’re dealing with the Islamic State. It really degrades people’s opinion of the NRF. 

The narratives shared in this content also vary drastically from that which is shared by the real Afghanistan International, a media outlet which claims to “provide balanced, and impartial news, about all for all Afghans, including all voices from across the political, social and business sectors inside Afghanistan and around the world”, according to its website.

Afghanistan International is a UK-based broadcaster and media outlet that emerged from the parent company of Iran International when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Iran International has been criticised for alleged ties to the Saudi state through its parent company funding, though the media outlet denies this.

Although the fake account had only 6,500 followers at the time of writing, its posts sometimes receive over 50,000 views and numerous comments and shares. 

A poorly copied fake account

After noticing the traction that @AF_Inter5 had online, the Afghan Witness team began analysing its content and posting behaviours. It was immediately evident that the account was fake, thanks to several clear indicators on its page. 

First, the account is not verified on Twitter, unlike the official Afghan International account, which is verified through Twitter Blue. The fake account has a different bio and email address – notably a Gmail address, and not a “” address. And the account was created in November 2021, several months after the Taliban took over the country.

The fake account also has posted far fewer times than the real Afghanistan International account: 236 tweets versus 34,230 tweets on the real account.

Finally, the fake account’s cover photo shows a CNN newsroom, while the real account has an Afghanistan International graphic with text. 

A comparison of the fake Afghanistan International account (left) and the real one (right). Afghan Witness
A comparison of the fake Afghanistan International account (left) and the real one (right). Afghan Witness © Afghan Witness

That being said, the account’s tweets look very convincing. They follow the same graphic formatting as the legitimate Afghanistan International’s breaking news tweets, with a logo and edited text on a photo.

An image posted by @AFIntlBrk, the real Afghanistan International Twitter account (on the left) and an image posted by @AF_Inter5 (on the right).
An image posted by @AFIntlBrk, the real Afghanistan International Twitter account (on the left) and an image posted by @AF_Inter5 (on the right). © Afghan Witness

>> Read more on The Observers: How to investigate a Twitter account or suspicious tweets

According to the Account Analysis tool, which allows you to see statistics about a Twitter account’s posting patterns, @AF_Inter5 tends to post between 6:30am and 8:30pm Afghanistan time – certainly not a 24/7 outlet as it claims.

A comparison of the posting behaviours for the fake Afghan International account (above) and the real account (below), which posts 24/7. All times indicated are in GMT+1.
A comparison of the posting behaviours for the fake Afghan International account (above) and the real account (below), which posts 24/7. All times indicated are in GMT+1. © Observers

All of @AF_Inter5’s posts were posted on Twitter for Android, which could point to it being run by an individual or group of individuals who are supportive of the Taliban. In contrast, the real Afghan International account posts from Twitter’s web client, Tweetdeck, and several social media clients – more typical of a newsroom social media outlet managed by several staff members. 

Contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the media outlet Afghanistan International confirmed that they are not at all affiliated with the @AF_Inter5 account and “have been trying to take it down for some time without much luck”.

‘The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine’

Stubbs says the Afghan Witness has no indication that those posting on @AF_Inter5 are part of the Taliban. Nonetheless, the account typifies several important aspects of the Taliban’s online propaganda campaign.

We’re seeing that the Taliban are labelling Afghanistan International as fake news when they publish stories that criticise the Taliban. And they are incredibly quick to jump on news stories that they feel are unfair. And so having these fake accounts really chimes into the wider information operation that the Taliban is trying to create – they’re trying to erode trust away from independent news sources.

The information environment within the country is being eroded at such a massive rate. The official news sources that people can trust are diminishing. So it just means that there’s going to be one less source that people can look for. The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine rather than a free and independent media, as was prior to August 2021. What we’re seeing is effectively a revolutionary movement trying to rapidly erode a free media environment in a way that’s never really done in the world before. Quite often restrictions on the press are gradual, but what the Taliban are doing is incredibly rapid.

Online propaganda operations are nothing new for the Taliban, and many believe they were key to helping the group regain control of the Afghan territory. 

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