Pro-Kremlin outlets boost content that casts doubt on Ukrainian rape victims
- Pro-Kremlin media used the firing of an official to discredit Ukrainian rape victims, even though this official was not the only source of information. Two pieces of content that cited the same article were republished on many other websites. Russian intelligence controls at least one of the republishing websites.
- After articles from RT and Moon of Alabama came out on May 31, 2022, English-language websites started to publish content claiming Ukrainian reports of rape were not valid. Outlets backlinking to this story included those that Miburo, a malign influence research group, and the federal government have identified as part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem. The Moon of Alabama article was linked to and mentioned significantly more often than the one from RT.
- The dismissive stories came out after the Ukrainian government let go of Lyudmila Denisova, a human rights official. Denisova “did not set up humanitarian corridors and the exchange of prisoners,” the Ukrainian government said. Instead, she focused on sharing stories about sexual assaults, for which she could not share evidence. This performance was unacceptable to the Ukrainian government.
- In sexual assault crimes, officials and law enforcement often cannot share more information without exposing the victim to further trauma. The Epstein trial is an example of this. Evidence of rape as a weapon in this war did not come from the dismissed official alone. The most compelling evidence is physical. Medical examiners found evidence of rape among victims of mass killings in Bucha.
- On June 6, at the 9056th meeting of the UN Security Council, representatives from Ghana, Brazil, Belgium, and Germany condemned the behavior of Russian soldiers in response to reports of them weaponizing rape against Ukrainian civilians.
Story timelines and network analysis
On May 31, RT.com and Moon of Alabama published stories. Both outlets portrayed the claims about war crimes, including the accusations of sexual assault of adults and children, as totally without merit. RT is a popular outlet under the control of the Russian state, but that article didn’t attract as much attention as the piece published on Moon of Alabama.
Moon of Alabama is a pro-Kremlin website that at least one extremist researcher has reported to Hoaxlines is popular with QAnon and other conspiracy groups. Before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Moon of Alabama had been referenced or shared by pro-Kremlin, QAnon, and White Supremacist groups. Belarusian KGB, Russian-language channels, and hyperpartisan English-language channels cited Moon of Alabama.
Hoaxlines found at least 53 backlinks to the Moon of Alabama article within the first week, meaning that 53 other locations had likely backlinked or republished the Moon of Alabama article.
The Zero Hedge article was republished on influential websites like Global Research (1.3 million visits in the past three months) and InfoWars (8.5 million visits in the past three months) and was translated into many other languages.
- Zero Hedge was the first significant outlet besides RT to write about this story. It did so on June 1 and backlinked to the Moon of Alabama.
- The Zero Hedge piece was republished or cited by dozens of other websites like Global Research, Freedom of Thought, Sott.net, and Infowars on the same day, June 1.
- By June 2, six different Substack publishers had backlinked to the story: SÁT-CỘNG, a Skeptic, Strange Sounds, Eric Rosen, Lioness Of Judah Ministry, and Richard Duke.
- Other language outlets picked up the story rapidly, too.
- RT contributor Caitlin Johnstone published an article on June 1 on a namesake website, Medium, and Substack. A video with an audio version was published on YouTube on May 31, ahead of the articles.¹
- The cross-posted article cited Moon of Alabama.
- The Strategic Culture Foundation was among the websites republishing or backlinking Johnstone’s article. The U.S. Treasury describes it as “an online journal registered in Russia that is directed by the SVR and closely affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
- Strategic Culture Foundation republished an abridged version of the Johnstone article that backlinked to the version published on the open-publishing platform Medium on June 2.
- The following day, June 3, Strategic Culture published a different piece from Pepe Escobar, which backlinked to the Johnstone article from June 2.
- With its backlink to the Johnstone article, the Escobar article was distributed across a dozen websites that frequently republish pro-Kremlin content.
- Some outlets like Newsnet.fr, Sott.net, and The Alt World republished or backlinked to the Johnstone and Escobar articles.
- Zero Hedge republished the Escobar article that first appeared in Strategic Culture, according to the Telegr.ph version. Thus, the backlink direction went Caitlin Johnstone → Strategic Culture → Strategic Culture → Zero Hedge.
The Alt World (June 1).
- Other authors published in The Alt World have ties to Russian state-affiliated media like Scott Ritter (article; work for or shared by the Russian state), Alastair Crooke (article; content creator for Strategic Culture, a sanctioned SVR-run outlet), Eva Barlett (article; RT contributor), and Dilyana Gaytandzhieva (article; a content creator for SouthFront, an FSB-operated outlet).
The Francophone Saker (June 1).
- The French-language version of The Saker republished the Moon of Alabama article but also linked to Johnstone’s article.
- The Francophone Saker is part of the Saker family of websites (The Saker in various languages) that disinformation research organizations have called “a franchise for an international network of pro-Kremlin outlets.”
- Hoaxlines assesses the site as a “partner” based on our definition, independent researchers, the U.S. State Department’s mention of the website in “Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem,” and The Saker’s partnership with SouthFront, “an online disinformation site registered in Russia that receives taskings from the FSB.”
- SouthFront, according to the U.S. federal government, “targets military enthusiasts, veterans, and conspiracy theorists” and has been sanctioned by the U.S. for “acting on behalf of the FSB.”
Sott.net (June 1).
- Sott.net backlinked and republished the Substack version of the Johnstone article. It then published an article from Zero Hedge on the same topic, taking the same stance. This may indicate editorial decision-making is outsourced RSS aggregation.
- Sott.net also republished Strategic Culture’s Escobar story.
- On the French-language version, fr.Sott.net, the Escobar story was republished but sourced from Reseau International.
- Reseau International is an outlet known for publishing content from the GRU via InfoRos.
- Hoaxlines assesses Sott.net as a “partner” because of its previous partnership with SouthFront, “an online disinformation site registered in Russia that receives taskings from the FSB.” As mentioned earlier, SouthFront “targets military enthusiasts, veterans, and conspiracy theorists” and has been sanctioned by the U.S. for “acting on behalf of the FSB.”
Consortium News (June 1).
- Consortium News is an outlet categorized as “hyper-partisan left” by Ad Fontes Media, which uses evidence-based assessment and bipartisan reviewers.
- According to Consortium News, the outlet has a history of processing “donations from North America” for Russia Insider.
- The outlet denies Russia Insider was part of Consortium News and stated, “Russia Insider republishes our stories…without our permission and against our wishes.”
Lew Rockwell (June 2).
- Rockwell founded the Mises Institute, described as “a concerted effort to disseminate climate opposition discourse, featuring a clear spike in published articles during 2019.”
- The MCFC’s assessment of the Lew Rockwell website was poor. “Overall, we rate Lew Rockwell questionable based on extreme right bias, promotion of propaganda, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and failed fact checks.”
The articles undermine victims’ rape and sexual assault claims by presenting a dismissed official as evidence that the claims were fabricated. Evidence that rape has been weaponized is strong, and physical evidence has already been collected from victims. Russian soldiers have uploaded images of many types of crimes, and intercepted calls from soldiers suggest that rape is widespread.
Some victims have chosen to speak publicly, but we should not blame them for not wanting to share details. For too many unfortunate women, Russian soldiers appear to have murdered them after the assault. Their fates are known only from the evidence left behind. Some families decide to tell their lost loved ones’ stories. In late April, medical examiners found evidence of rape among the deceased:
Forensic doctors carrying out postmortem examinations on bodies in mass graves north of Kyiv say they have found evidence that some women were raped before being killed by Russian forces.
Sima Bacchus, Executive Director of UN Women, stated on April 11, 2022:
The war has forced millions of Ukrainian women and girls to leave their homes, jobs, and schools in the middle of the night and flee from bombs and shelling. Among those who remained, there are many victims—gang rapes, murders, and other crimes are reported. A whole generation of Ukrainian women has been traumatized. At the same time, thousands of Ukrainian women helped their compatriots survive the war by staying at their jobs. The Security Council today discussed the consequences of the war for children and the female half of Ukraine.
Katerina Turtle, head of the Ukrainian human rights organization La Strada, said:
We know that many of these crimes are unlikely to be solved or will never be solved. Many of the victims were killed by Russian occupiers, who tried to cover up these crimes. We know about all these atrocities, and we want you to hear that the Russian invaders in Ukraine use violence and rape as a weapon.
- A Decade of Deceit: Over ten years of pro-Kremlin narratives from a single Twitter user.
- After Putin’s bungled invasion, Russian state media still ran a now-deleted victory article.
- Search “Caitlin Johnstone” returns 112 articles on RT.com. The oldest result was a 2017 article about Julian Assange in which Johnstone is quoted.