#DigitalResilience: Life of a Fake

Article based on false information spread throughout Russian-language online space

(Source: @DFRLab via Pandoraopen.ru)

A fabricated blog post written under a false name about Eastern European history continues to circulate a year after its peak on Russian-language internet.

The origins of the blog post were repeatedly proven inauthentic, but internet users still approached its content uncritically, often misinterpreting it. The case demonstrates the difficulty of disproving false narratives when there is a political or “patriotic” community that is invested in the narrative and when false narratives are only partially addressed.

@DFRLab analyzed the frequency of re-posts and re-publications on Russian media outlets, blogs, forums, and social media.

The Article in Circulation

An article about a Facebook post allegedly written by Veikko Korhonen, a Finnish blogger, in which he “shocked Facebook” with his pro-Russia interpretation of historical events, spiked on the Russian internet in December 2017.

The introduction of the article, titled “A Finnish Blogger Shocked Facebook: ‘This is Why Half of the World Owes Russia Big Time,’” read (as translated from Russian):

Veikko Korhonen — a blogger from the City of Oulu (Finland) was, like most modern Finns, periodically under the corrupting influence of pro-Western history textbooks.
Everything about Russia was covered in mud, the joint Russian-Finnish history was presented as a complete nightmare, and the corrupting influence of the present was constantly supported by stories about aggressiveness and military enmity of its neighbor.
Fortunately, Veikko Korhonen had a very wise and well-educated grandmother, so from an early age he was well aware of the actual course of our shared history.
One day, tired of the constant disputes with anti-Russian-minded compatriots, he wrote a short post on his Facebook page. Whenever he met a Russophobe, he simply gave them a direct link to it.
[Start of Article’s Translation of the “Facebook Post”]
Are you asking about the results of the Russian “aggression”? They are as follows: half of Europe and part of Asia got their statehood from the hands of this exact state.
Let’s remember which exactly:
- Finland in 1802 and 1918 … (Until 1802, it never had its own state).
- Latvia in 1918 (until 1918, it never had its own state).
- Estonia in 1918 (until 1918, it never had its own state).
- Lithuania restored its statehood in 1918 thanks to Russia also.
- Poland restored the state with the help of Russia twice, in 1918 and 1944. The division of Poland between the USSR and Germany was only for a short period!

The article continues to list states that allegedly achieved independent statehood thanks to Russia. Korhonen allegedly concludes:

And finally, the main thing. After the victory in World War II, the USSR played a key role in ensuring that most Western European colonies gained their independence in the process of global decolonization launched by the Union.
The whole history of Russia suggests that it was consistent under any rule and system in upholding the principles of independence and self-determination of nations and peoples. It was the country that in every possible way helped to create a multipolar world in any era and at all times.
Unfortunately, at the same time, very often it sacrificed its own interests, and, if the policy of Mother Russia was like that of the British, at least half the world would now be part of the Russian Imperial Commonwealth of Nations, but the Russian people were swimming in wealth like the sheikhs of Saudi Arabia thanks to the states, countries, and capitals [Russia] freed from other colonialists.
That is why half the world owes Russia big time. And this is why you are all so guilty before this great country.

The article was based on an ahistorical narrative that portrayed Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as the “liberators” of their Western neighbors. In fact, Finland, the Baltic States, and Poland all fought wars of independence against the Soviets and Imperial German forces in 1918–1920, before being parceled out between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939. Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union acted as aggressors and not liberators prior to Finland, the Baltic States, and Poland gaining their statehood.

It was not just the article’s content that was false. On December 21, 2017, independent Russian media outlet Fontanka.ru published a report that not only flagged the content as incorrect, but that also identified the person in the article picture as Environmental Science Professor Atte Korhola from the University of Helsinki. The image used in the false publications was taken from a Finnish article published in December 2011.

Screenshot (left) of the article “A Finnish Blogger Shocked Facebook: ‘This is Why Half of the World Owes Russia Big Time,’” as translated from Russian (Source: Pandoraopen.ru); images (right and bottom) of Atte Korhola’s profile on University of Helsinki website. (Source: University of Helsinki)

The post was already two years old by the time its traffic spiked in late 2017. The account “Sergey Strannik” first published the article on September 7, 2015, on “Kont,” a blogging platform popular with Russian nationalists. A few hours later, an account by the name “perky” posted it on Blogspot. On September 9, 2015, an English translation of the article was published on Lifejournal.com by the account “anrysvat.”

Despite the apparently made-up source, historical inaccuracy, and the age of the post, the article kept resurfacing on Russian forums, blogs, minor websites, and major social media platforms throughout 2018.

The Lifetime of a Fake

The first article to revive the story in December 2017 started trending on Yandex Zen, a personal content feed service run by Yandex.ru, the biggest search engine for the Russian internet. The article has since been removed, but a screenshot by Fontanka.ru proves that it was published on December 17, 2017.

Screenshot (left) of the article published on Yandex Zen on December 17, 2017 (Source: Fontankafi.ru); screenshot (right) showing that the article was removed. (Source: Yandex Zen)

Since then, the article has appeared on 40 media outlets and blogs and 409 unique Facebook posts, according to a @DFRLab content analysis performed using Google and Facebook search tools. The article was shared in 729 unique tweets and was mentioned on forums — such as Reddit.com — 213 times, according to social media analysis tool Sysomos.

The article peaked on online media in December 2017. It was republished by 25 media outlets and blogs. The article continued to generate news stories throughout 2018, including four articles in January, one article in March, six articles in April, one article in July, one in August, and two articles in October.

Timeline of article appearances on media outlets and blogs. Note that the second peak of articles happened in April 2018. (Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

Reposts of the article on Facebook also reappeared throughout the year. The number of total mentions — defined as unique articles multiplied by their shares, as each share appears as a new post on a Facebook timeline and creates a mention of the article — spiked in December 2017 and again in April 2018.

Timeline of Facebook mentions. Note that the peaks match the frequency of publications on media and blogs. (Source: @DFRLab via Facebook)

The same trend appeared on Twitter but not on online forums such as Reddit.com, according to Sysomos analysis.

Timeline of Twitter and forum (e.g., Reddit.com) mentions. Unlike Twitter, the article did not spike on forums in April 2018. (Source: Sysomos)

Some publications mentioned that the story about the Finnish blogger’s post was not real but nevertheless shared the story anyway.

Other accounts debunked the story from the start. For example, in the first article published on “Kont” by “Sergey Strannik” on September 7, 2015, another account by the name of “BorisBrooke” commented that the image belonged to Atte Korhola.

Translated from Russian: “A priceless post, if it was not fake. The photo and the surname are forged. [link].” (Source: Kont / BorisBrooke)

The comment linked to an article in Finnish that contained the photo of Atte Korhola used in Sergey Strannik’s post.

Some commenters on the website Pandoraopen.ru also pointed out this fact under the same article when it was republished on December 18, 2017.

Translated from Russian: “There is no source for the article. It seems to be fake from 2015. Here is a heated discussion. [link] Sad, but it is untrue. There seems to be no Finns like that yet.” (Source: Pandoraopen.ru)

Some other commenters responded defensively to the fact that the post was fake. One user, “Artem-Sevostopol,” asserted that the article listed true historical facts.

The first post (top), translated from Russian: “andrei hinkonen: ‘Friends, this article is fake…this photo is stolen, it belongs to a Finnish professor Atte Korhola, and he did not write anything of a kind. Finnish media already wrote about it... A shame for Russia’s propaganda journalism...’” The response post (bottom), translated from Russian: “Artem-Sevostopol: ‘but where is the propaganda journalism here? Is it Channel one or Russia 24 that published it? Who cares who wrote and published it. This is first. But second, is it untrue? These are historical facts!’” (Source: Pandoraopen.ru)

The accounts and authentic readers that amplified the post often overlooked the fact that the author was fake, likely because they were invested in the narrative that the story presented. The debunking of the article did not include any analysis of the historical facts, just the falsehood of the source.

Despite the known nonexistence of the purported author, the article garnered 558 engagements on Facebook and 15 shares on Twitter, according to content analysis tool Buzzsumo.com.

A YouTube channel about Russia’s history, RaVeda, published a video showing and reading the article on January 18, 2018. In the description, the channel mentioned that the blogger referenced was not real, but that the facts it contained were.

Description (in the pink outline), translated from Russian, reading: “P.S. There is no such blogger on Facebook and his photo is not real. Nevertheless, the list of countries mentioned in the text that got their statehood from Russia, is real. Be careful.” (Source: YouTube / РаВеда)

The video garnered 862,433 views, 30,000 likes, and 1,800 dislikes.

Conclusion

The author of an alleged Facebook post featuring an ahistorical timeline of when many states allegedly received statehood from, or with assistance from, Russia was not real. The image of the alleged Finnish blogger, Veikko Korhonen, in fact belonged to Professor Atte Korhola of the University of Helsinki. The article contained an inaccurate description of historical facts and omitted important details.

The inauthenticity of the article has been known since it was originally published in September 2015 and was highlighted in the comment sections and description of the article on YouTube. Responses to the article addressed the author, however, and not the incorrect content. While incompletely debunking the story — just the author and not the content — was insufficient in combatting the proliferation of the article, it remains to be seen whether completely — both the author and the content —and formally debunking the story by a mainstream news organization would succeed.

From December 1, 2017, until November 7, 2018, the article reappeared frequently as a topic of online posts, with identifiable traffic spikes on media, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter in December 2017 and April 2018.

This case further demonstrates that truth may be secondary, if users of online platforms agree with the premise of inauthentic content.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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