From Johnny Depp crashing his car while on a Russian bender to a supposedly imminent post-election American civil war, a variety of Polygraph.info fact checks resonated with audiences interested in messages and information emerging from Russia in 2018.
Polygraph.info covered Russian information and misinformation through 2018, finding many instances of disinformation but also reporting when Russian government statements and media reports included the truth.
Here are the top five most-visited fact checks on the website, which include military, historical, political and cultural topics:
#5: Russian General's Claim of 71 Missiles Downed Countered by Experts, Evidence
On April 14, Chief of Staff of the Russian Defense Ministry, Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoy, claimed that Syria’s air defense system had successfully intercepted 71 U.S. French and British cruise missiles.
That statement came in response to coordinated airstrikes targeting the chemical weapons capabilities of the Syrian regime following alleged chemical weapons attacks perpetuated by Damascus.
Rudskoy further said the strikes were conducted under the fake pretense of an “imaginary” chemical attack, claiming they had hit civilian targets.
All his claims were found to be false.
Brian G. Williams, the author of the book “Counter Jihad. The American Military Experience in Afghanistan Iraq and Syria,” told Polygraph.info the claim Syria shot down 71 cruise missiles was “in the realm of fantasy.”
No international observers found evidence any civilian objects had been targeted by the U.S.-led strikes against three Syrian chemical weapons facilities.
As for his charge the chemical attacks in Syria were staged? That recurring claim has long since been debunked.
All in all, none of Rudskoy’s claims held water.
#4: Russia Predicts Next Presidential Election Could Cause a Second American Civil War
In the run-up to the November 2018 U.S. midterm elections, the news agency RIA Novosti and several other Russian media outlets ran more than 30 stories predicting civil war in the U.S. The RIA Novosti report in particular had attributed predictions of a coming U.S. civil conflict to American and not Russian political scientists.
Polygraph.info found a far more nuanced presentation of ideas when investigating those claims.
For example, one historian cited by RIA Novosti’s report, Niall Ferguson, had noted a “cultural civil war" being waged in the U.S, while concluding that armed conflict in the U.S. was not imminent.
Another article cited by RIA Novosti compared the situation in America currently to that of Lebanon, which suffered civil war in 1975. That piece similarly made no prediction on a coming American conflict.
While the guessing game concerning a U.S. civil war has been raging since the collapse of the Soviet Union, none of those predictions have come to pass.
As for the latest attempt by Russian state media to find signs of a new U.S. civil war: It was found to be misleading.
#3: Putin’s “Surgeon” of the Night Wolves Issues “End of the World” Message to Slovakian President Kiska
When Slovak President Andrej Kiska called the Russian Night Wolves a threat to national security after the notoriously pro-Putin biker club set up shop just 43 miles from the Slovak capital of Bratislava, group head Alexander “the Surgeon” Zaldostanov lashed out.
After spinning a conspiracy about “democracy and [George] Soros” shaping minds for “ultimate control over the world,” Zaldostanov said the club’s headquarters in Slovakia had been opened not by Russian citizens, but by Slovaks.
That claim was false. The Night Wolves have long benefited from the Kremlin’s largesse, having received tens of millions of rubles (and possibly more) in direct financing and presidential grants.
In the Russian government entrepreneur’s registry, Zaldostanov is listed as the owner or manager of more than 11 currently active firms in Russia and a founder or a co-founder of about 60. Those firms owned in part or in full by Zaldostanov, including the Night Wolves, received 60 million rubles from state coffers between 2011 and 2018. Due to a lack of transparency, those figures could be higher.
From taking part in the annexation of Crimea to riding through Europe honoring the “liberating role of the Soviet Army” at the End of World War II, the Night Wolves publicly support Kremlin policy.
As for Slovakia, drone footage showed the biker club's headquarters in fact resembled a military fortress, equipped with artillery, heavy armored vehicles and even tanks.
So while Zaldostanov warned of Kiska’s “hypocritical and unprincipled satanic world order,” the order he was backing in Slovakia appeared anything but peaceful.
#2: Russian TV May Have Cropped Photo to Support Conspiracy Theory
On September 5, British authorities named two suspects in the Salisbury and Amesbury poisoning case, releasing photographs of the two men whom Bellingcat, the open source investigative journalistic website, later identified as Russian Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU) agents Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (aka Ruslan Boshirov) and Dr. Alexander Mishkin (Alexander Petrov).
Among the materials released by the British government were two separate photographs, one of each suspect passing through a customs control corridor at London’s Gatwick Airport.
At the time, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, appeared on state TV to criticize the photographs for having the same time stamp, saying it would have been impossible for two people to occupy the same space at the same time. The two men, in fact, were walking through different (albeit similar) corridors simultaneously.
While comparing those photos on the Russian TV program, part of the upper left-hand corner of one of the photos could not be seen.
The cropping of that photo masked the fact that the two pictures were taken from different camera angles (and therefore corridors) – demonstrating that they were in fact different locations. At the time, Polygraph.info reported that it was impossible to know if the cropping for TV consumption was coincidental.
Regardless of motive, the cropped pictures supported a false claim.
#1: Russian Media: Actor Johnny Depp Had Car Accident and Paid Dates with 40 Girls While in Russia
In May, Russian media was active in covering American actor and musician Johnny Depp as he visited Russia as part of a European tour with the rock band Hollywood Vampires.
Of particular note were stories that sailed back west and appeared in the English-language media, including reports that he had a car accident in St. Petersburg and private dates with 40 Russian girls in Moscow, for which the girls had to pay $1,000 each.
While tabloid fare can be standard from Moscow to New York, Slate Magazine ended up sharing an embedded tweet form the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA), commonly known as “the troll factory,” which led the magazine to investigate “how and why” the Russian media intentionally target popular Western personalities.
And while Polygraph.info could not say if the stories about Depp were part of an IRA campaign, the fact that Russian tabloids and official government media alike took part in tabloid-like coverage of Johnny Depp raised more questions than answers.
As for the Russian media claims about Depp’s wild ride in Russia, including a crashed car and dozens of $1,000 dates? All of them turned out to be false.
“This Russian disinformation operations that affected the 2016 United States presidential election are by no means over,” wrote Renee DiResta in a New York Times op-ed story on Tuesday, December 17.
DiResta, director of research for a cyber security company that analyzed social media campaigns, concluded: “Russian interference through social media…is a chronic, wide spread and identifiable condition…”
DiResta’s focus in developing one of two reports for the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee was on social media. Other reports and experts point to Russian state media – TV outlets both inside and outside Russia, and Russian state media websites.
In a 2018 report, the Rand Corporation concluded: “Russia is engaged in an active, worldwide propaganda campaign.”