Russian video of woman describing attacks on Ukrainian refugees in Germany is baseless, police say, sparking misinformation fears

She did not know the boy, the woman said, but learned of his fate from a friend. “People, he’s dead,” she laments. “I can not imagine.”

His claims, according to the German authorities, are false. In the 90-second video, the woman does not identify herself, reveal her location, or explain the basis of her account. Police noted there was no evidence of such an attack, describing the video as “intended to stir up hatred”. District attorneys are investigating.

That hasn’t stopped the woman’s outcry from gaining viral attention this week, as her video has become the latest salvo in a battle against online truth and persuasion that’s unfolding alongside the War of Russia in Ukraine.

The woman’s subsequent apology did not stop her baseless claims from spreading online. Instead, his discredited claims have continued to buttress the efforts of Kremlin-aligned voices to justify Russia’s assault on Ukraine and to stoke divisions within Germany’s Russian-speaking minority, which includes nearly of 1.2 million people who speak mostly Russian at home, according to federal estimates.

A German counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing law enforcement case, said the “video itself and the manner in which it was disseminated “carries the hallmarks of disinformation being disseminated” either by Russian state actors or by non-state actors acting on behalf of Russia.

Asked this week about the proliferation of online propaganda, a German Defense Ministry spokesman told reporters: “We are aware of it and are monitoring it.” A German lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, said that one of the reasons the government has been reluctant to release details of its arms exports to Ukraine is that it fears retaliation in the form of Russian intelligence operations, pointing to a 2019 brazen killing in a Berlin park that authorities say was ordered by the Russian state .

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

Ilya Yablokov, a Russian digital media expert at the University of Sheffield in Britain, said the TikTok video matched Russian goals. “This is disinformation aimed at the Russian public to reinforce the idea that Russians are being treated unfairly abroad,” he said.

Experts said the uncertainty surrounding the identity and goals of the woman in the video further illustrates how false information can be weaponized, regardless of the author’s intentions. And the fallout from the video, they said, shows how the corrections don’t get as much attention as the underlying lie.

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

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

Responding to her apology video, some TikTok users criticized her for spreading false information. But others clung to his original claims. “Tell me honestly, who scared you?” one wrote in Russian, skeptical of his 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 dipping the heads of two young boys into buckets of water and flashing their smiling faces to the camera. Police said they are investigating whether the name on her account reflects her true identity.

It’s hard to assess whether the apology was genuine without knowing more about the woman, said Julia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit that tracks online misinformation. What is more remarkable, she said, is that the woman’s efforts to correct herself attracted no attention in the pro-Kremlin media ecosystem that had seized on her spurious claims.

Those claims started to take off Sunday night, Smirnova said. It was then that a pro-Kremlin channel on Telegram, whose title can be translated as “Release Z Kraken”, published the video and warned that similar incidents could occur in other countries. The channel has operated under that name since at least 2017, Smirnova said, meaning its use of “Kraken” predates pro-Donald Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s adoption of the term in his chimerical quest to undo the 2020 US election results.

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

One of the first posts in German to air 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 later shared on 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 Donbass region, grim details of the alleged attack were presented as proof that Ukrainians were the aggressors and Russians the victims.

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

And it was a favorite topic, she said, among Patriot Media Group media. The conglomerate’s board is chaired by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg oligarch accused of funding the Internet Research Agency, the company accused of interfering in the 2016 US election. Prigozhin has denied such accusations.

According to analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Germany is not the only place where widely circulated but unsubstantiated videos allegedly have anti-Russian incidents.

At the same time as debunked claims about the attack at Euskirchen train station gained traction, Telegram channels and pro-Kremlin media shared a TikTok video about alleged violence by Ukrainian refugees in Latvia. This time the alleged victim was a 70-year-old man, also speaking Russian, as well as a woman and her young son. The claims are unsubstantiated, 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 that Russian state media and pro-Kremlin media have been sending Russians for years.”

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

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