As with any conflict or international crisis, Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided fertile ground for online misinformation to grow and spread.
False claims were being spread by pro-Russian and even pro-Ukrainian accounts even before Moscow launched its full-scale invasion on 24 February.
Amid an online war of propaganda, both state authorities and individual social media users continue to share misleading rumours.
And the subject of misinformation has appeared to evolve over the last six months of fighting. Euronews’ social media newsdesk, The Cube, takes a look at five of the most viral false claims.
1. Outdated clips and the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’
Within hours of Russia launching its invasion, misleading videos of unrelated explosions were watched by thousands of people.
A number of users quickly shared footage of blasts in Tianjin, China, and Beirut, Lebanon — claiming it showed Russian bombs hitting “Ukrainian headquarters”.
The clips were widely spread on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms, with the dramatic — but unrelated — footage capturing users’ attention.
At the same time, other social media users began sharing unfounded folk stories about Ukrainian acts of bravery.
Arguably the most famous of these concerns the so-called “Ghost of Kyiv” fighter ace, who is claimed to have single-handedly destroyed six Russian planes in a matter of hours at the very start of the invasion.
Outdated footage from video games or military exercises was shared alongside the rumour, garnering millions of views.
The claim was even amplified by Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko before the country’s military confirmed in May that the “Ghost of Kyiv” was a “superhero legend”.
While uplifting stories of bravery can offer hope to citizens during wartime, analysts say that fanatical misinformation can actually be harmful and provide an inaccurate picture of the war. Some even suggest that misleading, seemingly folksy stories can distract people from genuine acts of heroism.
2. Denial of war crimes and of any war at all
Pro-Russian users have often repeated the Kremlin’s original position that the invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” to “denazify” and “demilitarise” a “Neo-Nazi state”.
Many have downplayed allegations of Russian war crimes or even claimed that the war is a supposed “hoax”.
In one widely shared video, a news reporter could be seen standing in front of lines of body bags, one of which was moving.
However, the footage did not show invented war casualties in Ukraine, but a “Fridays for Future” climate change protest in Vienna in February, three weeks before the invasion began.
Days later, another viral video of a mannequin claimed to be proof that Ukrainian authorities had “staged” the mass killing of civilians in the town of Bucha.
The misleading clip showed a prosthetic doll being dressed and prepared by two men. Nadezhda, an assistant director for a Russian television programme, confirmed to Euronews that the video showed their film set near St. Petersburg and not Ukrainian military personnel.
“The information being given [to Russian citizens] is one-sided, it has nothing to do with reality, it is as badly done as any fake,” she told Euronews.
Other examples of Ukraine war misinformation have centred on “crisis actors” — people who are supposedly hired to act out the role of terrified or deceased war victims.
One false claim suggested that a well-known beauty blogger had “acted” as the pregnant victim of a deadly attack on a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol on 9 March.
Russia has shifted its stance on the attack, accusing Ukrainian Azov nationalists of staging a “hoax” bombing at a “non-operational” hospital. Its unfounded claims were later removed by both Facebook and Twitter.
Moscow has continually issued blanket denials that they have committed war crimes, despite mounting independent evidence.
Russian diplomats and pro-Kremlin social media users have continued to spread unfounded claims of “hoaxes” or “crisis actors” after missile strikes on Kramatorsk, Kremenchuk, and Vinnytsia.
3. Volodymyr Zelenskyy — drugs, deepfakes and green screens
As missile strikes first hit Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy published a defiant video on social media, stating that he would not flee the country.
His presence in the Ukrainian capital and his nightly video addresses dispelled rumours he had left.
Some users falsely claimed that the Ukrainian president was using a green screen or film studio to appear as if in Kyiv when he was actually hiding in exile.
Many of the photos actually showed Zelenskyy filming a hologram for various digital technology conferences across Europe.
And as the months of war draw on, he has become a more frequent target for Russian disinformation.
In March, Zelenskyy was the subject of a deepfake video, created using artificial intelligence (AI) to make it appear as though someone said something they had not.
In the edited footage, the Ukrainian president supposedly encouraged his citizens to “lay down arms” and surrender.
Experts told Euronews that the deepfake was the “first used in an intentional and broadly deceptive way” and marked a shift in misinformation around the Ukraine war.
Soon afterwards, a similarly edited video of Vladimir Putin also appeared online, where the Russian President supposedly told soldiers to “go home while you’re alive”.
Other edited clips have also been shared online by pro-Russian supporters in an apparent effort to discredit the Ukrainian president. The claims and allegations became more diverse and, at times, more bizarre.
One doctored video falsely suggested that Zelenskyy keeps mounds of cocaine on his desk during video conferences when the original footage on his own Instagram showed his desk empty.
Another mistranslated interview from 2019 portrayed the Ukrainian president as a drug addict when he actually stated that he is “addicted to coffee” and “does not take drugs”.
Since the start of the war, Russian state media have frequently attempted to falsely paint Ukrainian leaders as “drug addicts” and “Neo-Nazis”.
4. Finland and Poland dragged into the information war
False claims about the war in Ukraine have spread abroad to include foreign countries and the NATO military alliance.
As fighting continued into May, social media users falsely suggested that European Union member states were about to engage in the conflict.
One video — with a digitally added BBC News logo — alleged that Poland’s military general had signed an order to put army sections on “full alert”.
The BBC later confirmed that it had produced no such story and that its branding had been used to create a fake video. Polish government officials also accused Moscow of launching information attacks against the country.
Another misleading video alleged that Finland was sending dozens of tanks towards its eastern border with Russia, escalating tensions.
The footage actually showed a freight train carrying equipment to western Finland for annual military exercises.
5. Misinformation follows refugees abroad
According to the UN, more than 6.5 million refugees left Ukraine since the war broke out until mid-August.
Many have moved on from immediate border nations into western Europe, and online misinformation has followed, trying to discredit them.
A digitally edited video falsely accused Ukrainian refugees of burning down a home in Germany while they were attempting to set fire to a Russian flag.
Further investigation revealed that the footage of a house fire dates back to 2013, several years before the war in Ukraine began.
Other pro-Kremlin users falsely claimed that German authorities had invited Ukrainian nationals to stay at a former Nazi concentration camp using doctored images. The Sachsenhausen Memorial denied the rumours as “fake”.
Recent misinformation has also tried to suggest that European nations have become angry with Ukrainian refugees and their countries’ support for Kyiv.
Footage of motorists dragging away environmental protesters near Rome was shared misleading to claim that Italian citizens were “tired” of “stupid” Ukrainian demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Russian state media falsely claimed that 25% of UK hosts want to evict their Ukrainian guests after six months. No specific poll question was surveyed.
The false claims about Ukrainian refugees mark the latest trend in online misinformation since the war broke out in Ukraine.
Pro-Russian voices have tried to portray that its invasion is supported by many Ukrainians and are now working to discredit those refugees who fled the war to seek support in western Europe.
Since February, the Kremlin has stepped up efforts to control the narrative about the war, dismissing and downplaying allegations of war crimes.
Kyiv has also been at fault for amplifying folksy stories or urban myths and downplaying negative media coverage.
But the war in Ukraine has so far undoubtedly been a breeding ground for all types of misinformation — from images that have simply been taken out of context to digitally edited videos that use artificial technology to spread falsehoods.
Six months on, the online war of information is being fought out just as fiercely as the battles on the ground in Ukraine.