Russia uses fake rape stories to create hostility to NATO troops
The current Russian information warfare comes in many shapes and forms. Some of the methods involve highly contemporary technology, such as bots and hackers, others rely on emotional narratives. Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis already presented how Russia is exploiting the Nazism narrative in the Baltic States, which is deeply connected to Russian historical identity and emotions. This time we are looking into a new pattern of disinformation – accusations of rape. The trend that started as the Lisa story in Germany keeps reappearing in the region, followed by instances in Lithuania and Ukraine. These stories are usually debunked very fast, but the emotionally charged narratives usually do damage faster than it can be controlled. These stories have similarities to the crucifixion narratives in Ukraine, nonetheless they are more believable and therefore much more common. VIPA analyzed the recurring patterns of soldier rape narrative, its reach in the social media and the possible outcomes it generates. Here is what we found.
The Original Lisa Case
The very first fake viral story regarding this narrative appeared in Germany. The 13-year-old Russian-German girl named Lisa had gone missing for 30 hours and was reported by Channel One Russia to have been raped by migrants. This fake case of Lisa dominated the German public discussion for a couple of weeks on January, 2016. The story turned out to be fake but was intensively reported in Russian domestic and foreign media, and ended in diplomatic tensions between Germany and Russia. Here is how the story unfolded:
The unfolding of the ‘Lisa case’ story from the Russian side.
The media storm that surrounded the fake story of a raped girl in Germany served as a wake up call for Germany and the Western countries. After this event, for the first time it was clearly seen how the links between Russia’s domestic and foreign media information campaigns work and what impact it can bring. The rape narrative, proven to be very successful and effective, was used rather frequently ever since. Here are some other examples of its use in the region.
Lithuanian Lisa Case
The following attempt to use the narrative for diplomatic tension building happened in Lithuania on February 14, 2017. Only a few days after the German Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) battle group was stationed in Rukla, Lithuania, a similar story targeted them. Emails claiming that German soldiers had raped an underage Lithuanian girl were sent to the Chairman of the Lithuanian parliament and various Lithuanian media outlets. Even the local pro-Russian outlets in Lithuania and the Baltics responded by admitting that this was a fake story, such as Vesti.lv and BaltNews.lt.
Meanwhile, the main Lithuanian media-outlets cold-headedly responded to this provocation with investigative journalism articles. Lithuanian Ministry of Defense released a public statement explaining the situation, Czech General Petr Pavel, head of NATO's military committee, got out ahead of Lithuanian investigators and blamed the incident on Moscow. The story fell flat before it was able to inflict any damage. Due to effective and timely responses the Russian media was unable to amplify the story and it went basically unnoticed in Russian media and on Russian social-media.
Lithuanian Instructors in Ukraine
Another story that touched upon Lithuania allegedly happened in Ukraine. Only this time, Lithuanian soldiers were claimed to be the ones who raped underage girls. This story received relative success with the domestic Russian-speaking audience. At one of the press conferences a media representative, Colonel Andrej Marochko of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”, claimed that three Lithuanian military instructors serving in eastern Ukraine raped two underage girls. The alleged incident took place in the village of Teploe, Luhansk district on September 12.
Video report of an alleged rape. Video Source – YouTube
According to Colonel Marochko, the local police advised both victims to keep their mouths shut about this event. He also claimed that this crime upset the locals so much that they became violent towards Lithuanians. Allegedly, a few Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers seeking for revenge beat up the Lithuanian military instructors. According to the Colonel, this incident showed the true face of the foreign aid that Lithuania and other NATO countries are providing. Articles supporting the story went even further with their statements. Komsomolskaya Pravda in their article claimed that Lithuanians do not count Donbas inhabitants as people, whereas Top News argued that foreign powers (NATO) are carrying out a genocide against the locals.
This story had no proof and there was no logic behind it. Lithuanian instructors who came to train Ukrainian troops were stationed at Yavoriv Combat Training Center in Lviv district. No Lithuanian troops ever took part in the ATO and were stationed more than 1000 kilometers away from the alleged crime scene.
Though this fake story was not picked up by Ukrainian or Western media, pro-Kremlin media did their best to promote it. The first wave of promotion took place on September 18 and involved well-known Russian media-outlets such as Regnum and Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Interestingly, the story resurfaced again more than a month later, on November 1. Few minor media outlets, together with various blogs and other websites, published the same story while counter-attacking the Western media’s claims about the story’s fakery. Lithuanian news portal Delfi and investigative research team Bellingcat were mention as trying to cover up the story.
Differently from the September 18 amplification, this time the story also received a push on Russian social media – VK. A large number of identical or slightly similar posts claiming the same facts as the published articles or just promoting them.
Ukrainian Soldiers in Donbas
The rape narrative pushed against Ukrainian soldiers is very commonplace on Russian social media. New false stories pop-up regularly, achieving limited results.
One of the latest examples happened on March 21, 2018, during the recent press conference of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”. Colonel Marochko claimed that Ukrainian soldiers gave a lecture in one of the schools in Western Donbas about detecting explosives. Allegedly, after the lecture, two Ukrainian soldiers tried to force a 16-year-old schoolgirl into the car and take her with them. Marochko continued to argue that these soldiers wanted to rape the girl, but she was rescued by her classmates. Allegedly, after the incident, Ukrainian servicemen tried to convince the witnesses that they had no illicit motives and were not going to take the girl away, and also demanded not to spread this fact.
Video report claiming that Russian soldiers tried to rape a schoolgirl. Video Source – YouTube
The story appeared on VK in a large number of different posts. However, most of the posts failed to reach large audiences, judging by the views and likes on the posts.
It can be clearly observed that a few different posts were made and cross-promoted by troll accounts. These posts re-told the Marochko’s argument, promoted articles in fringe social media regarding the story and sparked limited hate-filled discussions in the comments section.
More of these bold accusations towards Ukrainian troops can be easily found online. As these narratives tend to become less successful in the Western media ecosystem, they are reframed for the local audiences.
Rape is a very serious crime and should be addressed seriously, but Russian media seem to be using this seriousness in information warfare to achieve their foreign policy goals. These stories tend to serve a simple purpose of alienating local population from the soldiers, especially foreigners from NATO countries. Usually these stories have no evidence to back up the claims and even use the same generic pictures to support the posts and articles. As effective as these narratives might appear at first, with time they become less effective, especially as used in the same repetitive manner. It is important to understand and identify the recurring fake hostile narratives, as the knowledge of the maneuvers help to react swiftly and effectively. A certain decline in the trustworthiness of these stories can be observed. The Lisa case took Berlin by surprise in January 2016, but a year later a similar story was effectively stopped before it could do any damage in Lithuania. Rape accusations will continue to reappear as a highly emotionally charged narrative, nonetheless they should be taken with a grain of salt, as even the established Russian media-outlets seem to be spinning these fake accusations. Untangling Russian narratives and disinformation patterns is crucial as these show no signs of disappearing any time soon.
Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a Digital Forensic Research Associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.