#ElectionWatch: Doctored Video Goes Viral Ahead of Elections in Moldova

A doctored viewed half a million times ahead of the local elections in Chisinau

(Source: @DFRLab)

On May 20, Moldova will hold an early local election in the country’s capital Chisinau following the resignation of Chisinau’s mayor Dorin Chirtoaca, who relinquished his duties in protest against the current Moldovan government.

Ahead of the elections, Moldovan fact-checkers observed a rise in disinformation spreading on social media, with a highly impactful example being a video posted by the newly registered digital media outlet Stiri Pespuse earlier this week.

On May 7, a digital media outlet that registered in February 2018 named Stiri Pespuse, posted what appeared to be an Al-Jazeera Arabic news segment to its Facebook page. The segment caimed that mayoral candidate and leader of the pro-European Party Dignity and Truth Platform (PPDA) Andrei Nastase proposed to lease the city of Chisinau out to the Prince of Abu Dhabi for 50 years.

(Source: Stiri Pespuse / Facebook)

The video was in Arabic and included Romanian subtitles. @DFRLab found, however, that the Romanian translation was completely inaccurate, and did not match the journalist’s monologue in Arabic.

(Source: Arabic translation to English by Siham Gaiz, Romanian translation to English by StopFals.md)

Whereas the original monologue in Arabic focused on the strained UAE-Yemen relationship and went on to discuss the size of Chisinau and its water pipelines, the Romanian subtitles told a very different story. According to the subtitles, the mayoral candidate Andrei Nastase came up with a proposal to lease the city of Chisinau to the UAE for 50 years, which is not true. The glaring discrepancy between the two texts showed that this was not likely an honest translation mistake, but rather an intentional attempt to spread a false story about a mayoral candidate. This falls squarely into what @DFRLab defines as disinformation, or the deliberate spread of false information.

In fact, the video itself was manipulated and edited. @DFRLab compared the video shared by Stiri Pespuse and the original Al Jazeera video and found that the Stiri Pespuse cut and edited the original video to create the false impression that a mayoral candidate was going to lease Chisinau to the UAE.

Two things are necessary to expose and explain either disinformation or “fake news”:

1. Proof that the claims made are false.
2. Proof that the falsehood was deliberate.

Both are evident in this case.

We found that one of the images on the studio screen was replaced with an image of Chisinau’s city sign to create the illusion that the journalists was indeed talking about Moldova, when in fact, the news segment covered the geopolitical tensions between the UAE and Yemen.

On the left, the doctored video to suggest the news segment was about Chisinau, Moldova. On the right, the original news segment showing footage from Yemen. (Source: @DFRLab)

Spread

The doctored video was watched more than 303,000 times on Facebook alone.

The video was also highly popular on OK.ru, a Russian social networks site popular among Moldova’s Russian-speakers. On OK, it was watched 248,590 times.

(Source: OK.ru)

Apart from Facebook and OK.ru, the video was also uploaded on YouTube, where it was watched another 1,300 times.

In total, the video was watched more than half a million times online ahead of the elections in Chisinau, home to 685,900 Moldovans, meaning that most of Chisinau voters have likely seen the video circulating on various social media networks.

Source

The source of the doctored video appears to be the newly-registered digital media site, Stiri pe Spuse. According to site’s WHOis data, the website was registered on February 9, 2018. It is unclear who runs the site or the outlet’s Facebook page as Stiri pe Spuse has no named journalists, editors, or contributors. A phone number listed on Stiri pe Spuse’s “About” section on Facebook was not available.

Conclusion

The popularity of the doctored video shows how fast a sensationalist piece of falsified content can spread through social networks ahead of the elections. It was noteworthy that the fake video was watched more than half a million times across multiple platforms, but an article debunking the hoax published by the StopFals.md was only read by less than 900 people at the time this article was written. This goes to show that once a hoax gains traction in the digital engagement space, very little can be done to curtail its spread or undo its impact.

This is not the first time that the @DFRLab observed mistranslated subtitles being used to spread disinformation. Back in March 2018, @DFRLab wrote about a video with false subtitles spreading in the Ukrainian information space. The video alleged to depict Lithuania’s Minister of Defense Raimundas Karoblis recognizing Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation.

Both serve as stark reminders for citizens to remain vigilant and skeptical when consuming information online from new or unverified sources. Only this can produce digital resilience across society.


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

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.