Ukrainian media jump the gun on Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap

Anonymous Telegram channels were the source of unsubstantiated reports of the supposed exchange

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Dec 2 · 10 min read
(Source: @r_osadchuk/DFRLab via www.flaticon.com)

Relying on reports from anonymous Telegram channels, Ukrainian media picked up false information on a political prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.

In Russia over the past few years, Telegram has increased its prominence as a source for news as well as for “inside” information on the inner workings of politics. More recently, the platform has grown in popularity in Ukraine. While the guardrails on other mainstream platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are already well under construction, Telegram remains an unchecked medium through which information — true or false, manipulated or distorted — can flow relatively freely.

In this case, Telegram posts played a significant role in the spread of misinformation (if not disinformation) into media coverage and, subsequently, posts on Facebook. After the new Ukrainian parliament was seated, rumors started to spread, in part on Telegram, about an upcoming prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. These posts were subsequently confirmed — erroneously, as it would turn out — by a government official on Facebook. It is difficult to tell, however, whether the Telegram posts alone would have yielded mainstream media coverage without the government official’s mistaken confirmation.

The DFRLab analyzed the dissemination of the unsubstantiated reports and found that they first emerged in several anonymous Telegram channels, were later picked up by news outlets, and benefited from further amplification from influential public figures online.

Before the Telegram arrived

Prior to August 29, when the discussion on Telegram regarding the imminent swap of the prisoners really took off, there was speculation on both Ukrainian and Russian media about what the structure of a prisoner exchange between the two countries might look like.

On August 16, Ukrainian media reported that Volodymyr Balukh, a political prisoner detained by Russia, had been transferred from Tver oblast to Moscow. Three days later, another political prisoner, Mykola Karpyuk, was also reported to have been transferred from his prison. The lawyer for both prisoners suggested that it could potentially be ahead of a possible exchange.

On August 20, different media outlets reported that three more Ukrainian political prisoners detained by Russia had been moved to Moscow from across Russia. The report was based on a Facebook post by Russian human rights activist Victoria Ivleva but lacked confirmation from the prisoners’ lawyers.

On August 22, Russian business news outlet RBC reported that Ukraine and Russia had agreed to “33 for 33” exchange, in which 33 Russian prisoners would be exchanged for 33 Ukrainian prisoners. The media based its reporting on information from an unnamed source and corroborated it by three other unnamed interlocutors and a Ukrainian lawyer, who confirmed that his clients were preparing for an exchange. The information was republished in both Russian and Ukrainian media.

Early on August 28, pro-Kremlin Ukraina.ru appears to have set off the chain of events that led to the Telegram misinformation spiral when it wrote that a prisoner swap was about to happen. That evening, media cited Larysa Sargan, the press secretary of the Ukrainian prosecutor general, claiming that Russian journalist Kirill Vyshinsky had agreed to be a part of what was now being called a “35 for 35” exchange.

Telegram told false stories

Several anonymous Telegram channels served as key sources for amplified media coverage of the expected exchange of prisoners, allegedly taking place overnight on August 29, 2019. The DFRLab analyzed the content in six of Telegram channels: Nezygar, Nezygar Brief, VChK-OGPU, BAZA, Zelenskiy’s Shawarma, and Legitimate — the first four of which were Russian and the two remaining were Ukrainian — over the course of the supposed exchange.

Russian channels

Two of the Russian channels, Nezygar (“Незыгарь”) and its abridged version Nezygar Brief (‘Незыгарь Brief”), focus on Russian politics. The main Nezygar channel features a disclaimer that the “information [it provides] requires additional verification.”

Following the week of speculation about an upcoming prisoner exchange, Nezygar and Nezygar Brief posited that the exchange was imminent and to take place the night of 29th. The instigating Telegram message, published by Nezygar Brief earlier that day and reposted by Nezygar, claimed that a “column of prisoner buses went to Ostafievo airport.” While neutral on its face, this message insinuated that prisoners had been moved to the airport for an exchange. The message was immediately picked up by the Ukrainian outlet Apostrophe without reference to other sources; it was later echoed by pro-Russian outlet Vesti.ua. In both cases, the outlets failed to corroborate Nezygar Brief’s claim.

On August 30, the Nezygar channel continued to spread details about the exchange and supplemented its original information with messages forwarded from other channels. The only original messages published by the Nezygar Brief channel reported that an airplane had departed for Ukraine in the early morning hours and that 26 captured Ukrainian sailors were “already somewhere in Ukraine.”

The main Nezygar channel outlined the mechanics of the exchange and shared a Facebook post it attributed to the Ukrainian prosecutor general confirming the completion of the swap. The prosecutor general’s post, however, was in fact merely a repost of another Facebook post from a member of the city of Bucha’s municipal council — another case of somebody neglecting to corroborate the information. The channel also forwarded a video with a military airplane landing in Kyiv that it alleged was carrying prisoners, but the date of the video was as unclear as the purpose of the plane, given that the video does not show anything other than a plane taxiing on a runway.

Even after Nezygar published an official rebuttal from the president of Ukraine’s office stating that no exchange had taken place, in direct contradiction to the Facebook post from the Bucha councilmember, the channel continued to spread rumors that the prisoners had supposedly arrived in Ukraine and a partial exchange had taken place. Meanwhile, the channel contradicted itself by also blamed the Ukrainian side for a failure to swap any prisoners.

Nezygar and Nezygar Brief also forwarded and republished content from a third Telegram channel, VChK-OGPU, nine times on August 30. VChK-OGPU (“ВЧК-ОГПУ”) is a Russian channel dedicated to exposing Russian criminals and corrupt state officials. It did not have any posts on the exchange, or on Ukraine overall, on August 29, the day before the rumored swap. On the night of August 30, however, it started injecting news of the prisoner swap into its feed, attributing the information to unnamed sources. The channel was the first to allege that the exchange had concluded per “Ukrainian sources.” Additionally, the channel published information on the Donbas reintegration secret protocol, the start of the exchange based on the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Facebook post, and the cultural advisor from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine’s alleged attendance at the prisoner exchange.

Despite the release of an official Ukrainian government statement that the swap had not taken place, the channel continued to speculate that the exchange will continue later that day, or that there were problems on the Ukrainian side. Overall, VChK-OGPU dedicated 86 percent of the content on its channel on August 30 to the prisoner swap.

The last Russian Telegram channel that played a critical role was BAZA, a news aggregator that posted mostly on Russian news and politics. This channel had only a couple of posts about the supposed exchange. A message about an “unidentified airplane” landing at the Moscow airport supported the earlier message in the Nezygar channel about a “prisoners’ column” that was headed to the same airport. Other messages from August 29 discussed the search for high-profile Ukrainian prisoner Oleg Sentsov, who would ultimately be released on September 9, in Russian prisons.

Ukrainian channels

Ukrainian Telegram channels had fewer views than their Russian counterparts, but they nonetheless added to the speculation. The first such channel was “Legitimate” (Легитимный). On August 29, Legitimate elaborated on the internal politics of the exchange. The following morning, on August 30, the channel remained largely silent on the possible swap but, following the office of the president’s official statement later in the day, spent considerable effort to spread rumors. Posts from this channel were forwarded by both VChK-OGPU and Nezygar.

The other Ukrainian Telegram channel to spread misinformation was Zelensky’s Shawarma (Шаурма Зеленского), a cynical reference to a photo he posted while en route to visit a town where two miners had died. On August 30, it posted the message, “This is it. The swap has started. Ours are departing home. Will be meeting them in the morning.” An hour later, the message was forwarded by Nezygar.

All six of the Telegram channels posted anonymously and did not name their sources. Moreover, an investigation by Russian outlet Proekt.media revealed that some of these channels often take monetary compensation in exchange for posts.

Public figures and officials corroborated the exchange

Several opinion leaders amplified the false information on the exchange or anticipated the swap. Ahtem Chiygoz, a Ukrainian Member of Parliament (MP) from the European Solidarity Party, was the first non-anonymous source to state on August 29 that the swap would take place within a day or two. Ukrainian media cited his interview, and the Nezygar channel amplified it.

Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian Duma MP currently living in exile in Ukraine, posted to Facebook and Twitter on August 30 at 12:32 a.m. that the exchange would occur later that day. Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, wrote in his Telegram channel that the airplane with Ukrainian prisoners should soon land in Kyiv.

Anna Islamova, a Bucha city councilmember and aide in the previous parliament, updated her Facebook status on the morning of August 30 to say that the Ukrainian prisoners were flying home. This post was subsequently deleted the same afternoon. The deletion, however, only happened after the newly appointed prosecutor general of Ukraine, Rouslan Riaboshapka, had shared it to her own Facebook page. This repost was subsequently cited widely by national and international media as confirmation of the swap. It was Riaboshapka’s repost that led mainstream media in the two countries to treat the reports as reliable, despite no actual corroboration, thus requiring the government to chime in officially before the misinformation got any further out of hand.

Official rebuttal statements

Ukrainian government sources published two statements about the exchange. In the first, Ukrainian Security Service Press Secretary Olena Gitlyanska wrote on her Facebook page early in the morning of August 30 that the negotiations had been going but did not provide a timeline.

The second statement came from the President of Ukraine’s office later that same morning. It confirmed the process was ongoing, but disputed the reports of a concluded prisoner exchange as incorrect.

Mainstream media

Several media reported on the swap based only on the Telegram messages or unconfirmed statements by non-state actors. In Ukraine, independent outlet Apostrophe was the first in the country to publish on the alleged exchange on August 29 by citing Nezygar’s message about a military column moving toward the airport. A similar story was published by pro-Russian Vesti.ua that same day. The first Russian publication to report on the alleged imminent exchange was Kasparov.ru, an independent analytical outlet founded by former international chess superstar Garry Kasparov, which also ran with the story on August 29.

Shortly after midnight on August 30, Apostrophe published a follow-up story indicating that the exchange had just started and provided links to the Vesti.ua publication and the message in the Zelensky’s Shawarma channel. The post was updated several times, in part by adding former Russian MP Ponomarev’s statement. Roughly an hour later, Ukrainian news aggregator Dialog.ua noted that the exchange had begun, citing unsubstantiated reports from several Telegram channels.

The first Ukrainian reputable media organization to report on the alleged exchange, Liga.net, wrote that the swap might be executed on August 30, citing Ponomarev and “several anonymous Telegram channels.”

That same morning, Ukrainian news agency UNIAN published an article about the swap, citing the Prosecutor General’s statements and the VChK-OGPU Telegram channel. Minutes later, the Ukrainian media outlet New Time (Новое время) reported that the exchange had already finished, citing Nezygar, VChK-OGPU, and Riaboshapka.

The most engaged-with publication on the exchange was from tsn.ua, an outlet with a TV news program of the same title. The article claimed that the process had started according to social media, citing Chiygoz, Ponomarev, Riaboshapka, and the Nezygar, BAZA, and VChK-OGPU Telegram channels.

Compared to Ukrainian media, Russian media dedicated far less attention to the news of the alleged exchange. Russian outlets Interfax and Echo of Moscow published brief reports of the exchange, citing the Prosecutor General’s Facebook page and Ukrainian media outlets.

Conclusion

The mistaken announcement of the prisoner exchange on the night of August 29–30 turned out to be premature, with the exchange eventually taking place a week later on September 9. The messages from anonymous channels claiming the exchange was underway or completed were unconfirmed, but nonetheless widely cited without corroboration. It is unknown whether these messages ultimately encouraged public officials to further amplify the unsubstantiated reports.

Many media outlets cited insider information from the anonymous channels alongside comments from government sources to advance their stories, neglecting to consider the veracity of the claims being made. At the time of publishing, the identities of the administrators for the channels and their sources have yet to be revealed.

While the increased attention from Ukrainian media on the swap is understandable given the nationality of the prisoners involved, the high publishing ratio in Russian channels not connected to the topic was suspicious; for example, the VChK-OGPU Telegram channel posted almost exclusively on corruption and criminality in Russia, so the fact that it covered this story indicated a possible desire to inject uncertainty or falsity into the coverage.

In the end, the Telegram channels persist and continue to publish supposed insider information on Ukrainian and Russian domestic politics.


Roman Osadchuk is Research Assistant, Eurasia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Ukraine.

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

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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