Russian video of woman describing attacks by Ukrainian refugees in Germany is baseless, police say, spurring fears of disinformation | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack

She didn’t know the boy, the woman says, but learned of his fate from a friend. “People, he died,” she laments. “I cannot imagine.”

Her claims, according to German authorities, are false. In the 90-second video, the woman doesn’t identify herself, disclose her location or explain the basis for her account. Police said there was no evidence of such an attack, describing the video as “intended to stir up hatred.” State prosecutors are investigating.

That didn’t stop the woman’s outcry from gaining viral attention this week, as her video became the latest salvo in a battle over truth and online persuasion playing out in parallel with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

A subsequent apology from the woman didn’t stop her baseless assertions from spreading online. Instead, her discredited claims continued to underpin efforts by Kremlin-aligned voices to justify Russia’s assault on Ukraine and stoke divisions within Germany’s Russian-speaking minority, which includes nearly 1.2 million people who speak predominantly Russian at home, according to federal estimates.

A German counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing law enforcement matter, said the “video itself and the way it has been disseminated” bear the hallmarks of disinformation spread “either by Russian state actors or by nonstate actors acting on behalf of Russia.”

Asked this week about the proliferation of online propaganda, a German Defense Ministry spokesman told reporters, “We’re aware of it and watching it.” A German lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, said one reason the government has been reluctant to publicize details of its arms exports to Ukraine is that it fears retaliation in the form of Russian intelligence operations, pointing to a brazen 2019 killing in a Berlin park that authorities said had been ordered by the Russian state.

Germany, in particular, is on high alert for information warfare by Moscow. It is the main target of Russian disinformation in the European Union, according to a report issued last year by the bloc’s disinformation watchdog.

Ilya Yablokov, an expert on Russian digital media at the University of Sheffield in Britain, said the TikTok video squared with Russian objectives. “This is disinformation aimed at the Russian domestic audience to strengthen the idea that Russians are being unfairly treated abroad,” he said.

Experts said the uncertainty surrounding the identity and aims of the woman in the video further illustrate how false information can be weaponized regardless of its originator’s intentions. And the fallout from the video, they said, shows how corrections fail to command as much attention as the underlying falsehood.

Shortly after police debunked the video, its creator recorded a second video on TikTok, saying she had been misled. The person who provided her the information, she explains, “hates Ukrainians.”

“Guys, forgive me,” she continues. “It’s just that right now in Germany, a lot of bad things happen with us Russians and our children, that I just believed.”

Responding to her apology video, some TikTok users criticized her for spreading false information. But others clung to her original claims. “Tell me honestly, who scared you?” one wrote in Russian, skeptical of her apparent change of heart.

A request for comment sent to the woman’s TikTok account went unanswered. The only other video on her account shows her playfully dunking the heads of two young boys into buckets of water and displaying their smiling faces to the camera. Police said they were seeking to determine if the name on her account reflects her true identity.

Whether the apology was genuine is difficult to assess without knowing more about the woman, said Julia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit tracking online disinformation. What’s more notable, she said, is that the woman’s efforts to correct herself gained no attention in the pro-Kremlin media ecosystem that had seized on her fallacious claims.

Those claims began to take off Sunday evening, Smirnova said. That’s when a pro-Kremlin channel on Telegram, whose titled can be translated as “Release Z Kraken,” posted the video and warned that similar incidents could unfold in other countries. The channel has operated under that name since at least 2017, Smirnova said, meaning its use of “Kraken” predates the term’s adoption by pro-Donald Trump lawyer Sidney Powell in her quixotic quest to overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. election.

Within an hour, according to Smirnova’s analysis, the post had been copied by a broad array of channels voicing support for Russia’s war. On the original channel, meanwhile, the post had been viewed more than 415,000 times by Tuesday, she said.

One of the first German-language posts to circulate the video came from German Russian blogger Alina Lipp, who runs a Telegram channel called “News from Russia,” according to Smirnova.

Lipp’s German description, later deleted, was then shared in numerous German-language channels that promote conspiracy theories, Smirnova said. Lipp did not respond to a request for comment. On Facebook and Twitter accounts, with locations ranging from Germany to Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, the lurid details of the purported attack were offered as proof that Ukrainians were the aggressors and Russians the victims.

The original post from “Release Z Kraken” was also shared on VK, a Russian social networking service, according to screenshots shared by Smirnova. It was displayed as part of the evening news program on TVC, which is owned by Moscow’s municipal government, she said.

And it was a favorite topic, she said, among outlets within the Patriot Media Group. The conglomerate’s board of trustees is chaired by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg oligarch accused of funding the Internet Research Agency, the company charged with interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Prigozhin has denied such accusations.

Germany is not the only place where widely circulated but unsubstantiated videos have alleged anti-Russian incidents are taking place, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s analysis.

At the same time that debunked claims about the attack at the Euskirchen train station were gaining traction, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and media outlets were sharing a TikTok video about purported violence by Ukrainian refugees in Latvia. This time, the purported victim was a 70-year-old man, also speaking Russian, as well as a woman and her young son. The claims are uncorroborated, Smirnova said.

“The impression left by the videos is that Russians abroad, especially in European countries, are in danger,” she said. “This is a message Russian state media and pro-Kremlin media have been sending to Russians for years.”

David L. Stern and William Noah Glucroft contributed to this report.

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