Russia's state media machine has a major new enemy to contend with: the internet.
Russian defense officials on Monday promoted a video that they claimed showed a Ukraine-owned Buk antiaircraft missile system rolling through the streets of Krasnoarmeisk, Ukraine, shortly after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. To prove their point, Russian officials pointed to a billboard in the video that supposedly contained an address in Krasnoarmeisk.
The evidence, Russian officials not-so-subtly implied, is that the Ukraine-owned missile system may have shot down MH17, thus exonerating Russia from suspicions that it may have provided eastern Ukraine rebels with the missile system presumably used against the civilian airliner. "We have several questions to ask in this connection," Lieutenant-General Andrei Kartapolov, head of the Main Operations Department of the Russian Army General Staff, said at a news conference. "What kind of a launching system is this? Where was it transported? Where is it now? Why was it loaded with an incomplete set of missiles and when was the last time it fired?"
The video, however, does not appear to take place in Krasnoarmeisk. The filmed billboard, it turns out, doesn't say what the Russians claim it says.
As the tweet above shows, the circled text, which is the address Russian officials claim is on the billboard, doesn't appear to be there at all. The billboard instead matches much more closely with the original ad, which is pictured on the top left and doesn't contain an address in Krasnoarmeisk.
The Interpreter outlined other evidence, largely gathered by various people on social media, that the video doesn't take place where Russians claim:
- The video shows trolleybus lines, which Krasnoarmeisk doesn't have.
- If the Buk system really was the one that shot down MH17, it would have needed to travel 60 to 70 kilometers through densely populated territory after the plane came down. The Interpreter argues that this seems very unlikely to have happened without anyone spotting the vehicle.
Now, it's possible Russian officials genuinely mistook the billboard's text and other parts of the video. But this wouldn't be the first time Russian officials and Russian state media have trumpeted ideas that don't match the available evidence.
The Russian state media, for instance, has built a very strange narrative in their coverage of MH17, as The New Republic's Julia Ioffe explained:
Did you know Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?
There is a lot of mystery still shrouding the downing of MH17. But what the Russians are saying doesn't seem to have much proof around it — to the point that Twitter users can quickly debunk Russian claims without much effort.