Untangling viral misinformation and explaining where it comes from, the damage it causes and what we should do about it.
When footage of a heavily pregnant Marianna Vishegirskaya climbing the stairs of the bombed-out Mariupol maternity hospital went viral, the Kremlin was quick to act.
Vishegirskaya, a Ukrainian beauty blogger, was not pregnant, the Kremlin claimed; she was just an actor playing a role. In fact, they claimed she was playing two roles, as they claimed she was also depicted in different clothes lying on a stretcher outside the hospital.
Both allegations were blatant lies, part of a widespread attempt orchestrated by the Kremlin to paint the bombing as staged by Ukrainian forces and deflect global condemnation of its airstrike on a maternity hospital.
But two months after the attack, the Kremlin no longer describes Vishegirskaya as a “crisis actor”. Now she is part of her propaganda campaign to convince Russian citizens – and the world – that the war crimes she has committed in Ukraine are justified and that Ukrainians welcome Russian troops with open arms.
“You haven’t forgotten Marianna from the Mariupol maternity ward, have you?” tweeted the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Geneva on Thursday morning.
“She has a message for anyone who believes in ‘kidnapping’, ‘held at gunpoint’ and other boogeyman stories about Russia that the West and its ‘free press’ want people to believe,” adds the tweet.
In the attached video, Vishegirskaya is seen standing on a street she claims is in Donetsk. She is interviewed by an anonymous woman, who asks her: “Hi, Marianna, please tell us if you are being held captive here.
Vishegirskaya responds, “No, I am not. We moved to Donetsk on our own initiative,” adding that this was his hometown. She says no one threatened her and she is safe.
At one point, the camera pans to show an unidentified man holding a baby, presumably Vishegirskaya’s child, born two days after Marianna fled the Mariupol maternity hospital.
When asked if she has another message to share, Vishegirskaya replies: “People who move to Donetsk and Russia do so on their own initiative. No one forces anyone or moves anyone against their will.
However, there is evidence that the Kremlin forced many Ukrainian refugees into Russia following its invasion.
In March, the Ukrainian government said up to 400,000 people had been forced against their will to leave besieged Ukrainian cities and travel to Russia, with kyiv saying they could be held hostage.
This week, as the battle for control of Mariupol entered what is likely its final days, General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, told Sky News that he feared “that we can also see the sight of Ukrainian prisoners parading through Moscow. next Monday during their victory parade.
But this is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to use Vishegirskaya to deny the spread of disinformation and propaganda.
Three weeks after the Mariupol hospital was bombed, a video of Vishegirskaya was uploaded in which she claimed there was no airstrike on the hospital, suggesting that the hospital was in was actually attacked by Ukrainian forces, a narrative that the pro-Kremlin media were pushing hard at the time.
In response to the Kremlin’s efforts to reframe its narrative around Vishegirskaya, Eliot Higgins, founder of investigative site Bellingcat, which closely tracks Russian disinformation, tweeted: “Russian propaganda knows no bounds or depths, which it has demonstrated time and time again since long before this conflict began. Only the most hopelessly naive or blatantly biased would take anything they claim at face value.
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