Shortly after a U.S. military plane crashed in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan, pro-Taliban sources as well as Iranian and Russian media began circulating unproven claims related to the cause of the crash and the identities of the passengers.
The dissemination of these claims by disparate actors illustrated how information can be used a tool for geopolitics, especially when presented in an informational vacuum wherein little verifiable evidence is available. In such instances, any narrative — regardless of whether it is ultimately proven true or not — has a higher likelihood of broader dissemination.
While the facts around the crash are still unknown, entities known for spreading disinformation have filled in the gaps with their own unverified narratives. Among those filling the information void, the Taliban used the incident as an opportunity to exaggerate its military wins amid stalled peace negotiations with the United States. Iranian and Russian media, meanwhile, capitalized on an unproven narrative appearing on a fringe news site as a means of identifying a successful anti-U.S. operation.
The crash occurred around 1:00 p.m. local time on January 27, 2020, in the Dih Yak District of Ghazni Province in central Afghanistan. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, while also reporting that United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials had been on the plane. Iranian and Russian media, meanwhile, reported that Michael D’Andrea, head of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center, had been killed in the crash. As recently as Thursday, February 6, independent media outlet The Asia Times published an article speculating on this prolific claim. U.S. officials confirmed that a U.S. military plane had crashed but disputed that it had been downed by enemy fire. On January 30, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper identified two U.S. servicemen who had died in the crash but did not name any CIA officials or comment on whether any were on the plane.
Much of the coverage from Iranian and Russian media claiming that D’Andrea had been killed in the crash cited an article from the website VeteransToday. According to the Oxford Internet Institute, VeteransToday is a “junk news” website known to republish “Russian-origin content,” such as from the Russian-government funded geostrategic journal New Eastern Outlook: an entity the DFRLab analyzed in a previous Facebook takedown. The DFRLab did not find any indication to suggest that VeteransToday itself was a Russian state-sponsored effort, however.
The crash and the Taliban’s claims
On January 27, Shahamat, a website known for amplifying Taliban-sponsored content, reported that the Taliban took responsibility for downing the aircraft. That same day, a Telegram post including a photo of crashed airplane mentioned that the Taliban now possessed an unspecified “new anti-aircraft weapon,” allegedly created by the Taliban itself, but did not reference the plane in the body of the text.
A U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesperson, however, denied that the plane was felled by “enemy fire.”
The Taliban are known to issue false claims, often inflating casualty numbers as a means of bolstering their support. This tendency, when mixed with a lack of official or verified information, provides reason for some skepticism.
In this case, pro-Taliban Telegram accounts claimed that the “invader” aircraft was carrying CIA officials at the time of the crash, a claim the CIA has yet to rebuke. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, however, identified two servicepeople from the U.S. Air Force on board the aircraft in a statement, though he did not mention whether any non-military personnel were also on the airplane and took care to refer to the incident as an “accident,” thus implying doubt in whether the plane was even shot down. He concluded the statement by saying that the cause of the crash was “under investigation.”
Meanwhile, VeteransToday tweeted out that the “CIA Middle East chief, Soleimani Killer and Bin Laden Hunter” had been killed in the crash. The tweet’s image featured an inset showing a man in a white shirt and tie, implying that the man was the CIA official in question. Instead, the photo is a screen shot of actor Fredric Lehne in Zero Dark Thirty, playing a character that was inspired by D’Andrea. The photo in the tweet is almost an exact match to a promotional image from the movie uploaded to the Internet Movie Database.
Iranian media pick up the unproven claim on D’Andrea’s death
Over the next few days, Iranian media outlets picked up on a more specific claim: citing junk news website VeteransToday as their source, they claimed that Michael D’Andrea, director of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center, had died in the crash.
VeteransToday appears to have been the first outlet to publish the information, judging by the timestamps of the outlet’s tweets, a Google Cache of the article in Google Search results, and the attributions from Iranian media linking back to the site.
Notably, PressTV, an English news and documentary network operating under the Iranian government’s Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) corporation, also picked up the story while citing VeteransToday as the source of the information.
Mehr News, a popular Iranian media outlet, amplified the claim by similarly citing VeteransToday. The metrics shown in the image above reflect engagement on social media platforms outside of Iran with select stories regarding D’Andrea’s supposed death, as Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked in the country.
Russian media join bandwagon on D’Andrea claim, citing Iranian sources
Russian media, in turn, then picked up an unsupported narrative claiming D’Andrea had been on the plane at the time of the crash from Iranian sources and amplified it still further.
At the time of publishing, the DFRLab had identified more than 20 Russian outlets that amplified the claim, many of which cited Mehr News as the original source. Some of them also posted photos of actor Frederic Lehne, implying they were photos of D’Andrea rather than a fictional depiction of him from Zero Dark Thirty. Izvestia, for example, ran the same photo of Lehne shared by VeteransToday but credited it to Mehr News.
In the immediate aftermath of the plane crash, outside of Secretary Esper’s statement, there was little information coming from official U.S. sources on what had transpired. As a result, entities that frequently disseminate disinformation — pro-Taliban accounts and websites, fringe and pro-government Iranian media, and fringe Russian media — rushed to fill the information void. The latter two — Iranian and Russian media outlets — seized on a distinct disinformation narrative that appeared to have originated on a “junk news” site. These three entities — the Taliban, Iran, and Russia — are known for being unreliable narrators at best, and thus their rush to propagate narratives that serve their own interests in an information vacuum should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, regardless of what — if anything — is ultimately verified.
Kanishk Karan is a Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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