Born in the shadowy reaches of the internet, most fake news stories prove impossible to trace to their origin. But researchers at the Atlantic Council, a think tank, excavated the root of one such fake story, involving an incident in the Black Sea in which a Russian warplane repeatedly buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer, the Donald Cook.
Like much fake news, the story was based on a kernel of truth. The brief, tense confrontation happened on April 12, 2014, and the Pentagon issued a statement. Then in April, three years later, the story resurfaced, completely twisted, on one of Russia’s main state-run TV news programs.
The new version gloated that the warplane had deployed an electronic weapon to disable all operating systems aboard the Cook. That was false, but it soon spread, showing that even with all the global attention on combating fake news, it could still circulate with alarming speed and ease.
The Original Parody
In the days after the incident in the Black Sea, a Russian writer named Dmitri Sedov wrote an opinion piece, apparently meant to be satirical, that imagined the incident as an electronic warfare attack and described the panicked reaction of one crew member.
The piece was framed as a letter from an American sailor onboard named Johnny to his beloved Mary. It betrays its dubious origins through strangely stilted language and the rather Soviet-style sentiments it contains.
“We thrice cried ‘hip-hip hurrah’ and prepared to show the Russians what awaits them if they raise their hand for the second half of Ukraine,” he wrote.
He also described a drunk officer crying aloud, “Those — Russian Khibiny!” Khibiny being the name of the Russian electronic warfare weapon that can disable radar.
In an apparent attempt to drive traffic to the satirical piece, a series of posts meant to look like a letter from the crew member went up on Facebook in English and Russian, with a link to the original. The researchers found them by using a string of uncommon words that crop up in the article, including “Aegis,” “mysticism” and “shame.”
Given its vast global reach, Facebook can be a useful tool to spread news forgeries. A Facebook spokesperson pointed to the company’s recent efforts to stop the spread of misinformation.
On April 15, 2017, the state-controlled Rossiya-1 broadcast a news report on the program “Vesti” about the 2014 incident, saying that as the plane approached the Cook, “it switched on the equipment, and powerful radio-electronic waves deactivated the whole ship’s systems.”
The main source? The Facebook post from the crew member, which quoted almost verbatim from the original satirical article in Russian. The date was no coincidence. April 15 is Electronic Warfare Specialists’ Day in Russia, one of many such dates set aside to laud specific military services, a leftover from Soviet times.
When a similar description of an electronic warfare attack emerged in the Russian media soon after the original incident, however, the manufacturer of the electronic warfare weapons itself announced that the report was false.
The company, known by its acronym, KRET, published an article in February 2015 saying that the Khibinysystem was not installed on the particular plane and that while it can neutralize enemy radar, the article that said it completely shut down the American destroyer “is nothing but a newspaper hoax.”
But the denial didn’t stop “Vesti” from running the story. Instead, “Vesti” tried to add other sourcing to it by quoting a supposed statement by Frank Gorenc, the former commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, saying that the Russian weapon used against the Cook could paralyze American electronic equipment on missiles, aircraft and ships.
The Pentagon later told a tabloid that picked up the story that the general had never issued such a statement. The Russian state television and radio company that broadcasts “Vesti” did not respond to questions about the story.
The Sun, The Daily Star and others
Once the story had been on such a prominent Russian news program, news organizations and websites around the world quoted it. Some voiced more skepticism than others.
On April 19, two British tabloids, The Sun and The Daily Star, used sensational headlines to suggest that Russia possessed an “electronic bomb” capable of paralyzing the entire American Navy.
The Sun at least hinted at problems with the story, calling it a “bizarre propaganda report” and quoting the Pentagon denying that Gorenc had commented. Another tabloid, The Daily Express, later posted an article suggesting World War III might be at hand.
FoxNews.com soon picked up The Sun’s version of the story. Refet Kaplan, the managing editor of FoxNews.com, said the story was considered “not as a serious report on Russia’s military capability, but as another example of Russian media hyperbole.” That was not set out in the headline or the article, other than an oblique reference to the original as “propaganda.”
After The New York Times asked about the article, it was deleted from the FoxNews.com website.
From there the story was shared widely on social media and alternative media, especially outlets that focus on anti-American and antiglobalist sentiment, and those that specialize in conspiracy theories.