An investigative report from the BBC exposed a Russian disinformation attempt that could have been straight out of the Cold War.
In September 2015, a video appeared online showing a man dressed like a U.S. soldier firing three shots from a Russian-made Saiga 401K rifle at a copy of the Quran.
The video caught plenty of interest in Russia, and sparked anger in Russia’s Muslim community.
According to the new investigation, however, the video was fake. Researchers traced it to Russia’s Agency for Internet Studies, which The Guardian called a “secretive Russian agency that hires people to write pro-Kremlin propaganda on the web.”
The investigation was carried out by the BBC’s Russian-language service. It quotes an Islamic preacher saying, “The religious factor has always been used in the information war.”
It notes the seriousness of the propaganda, drawing out similarities to a 2011 incident, when Florida pastor Terry Jones burned a Quran, which led to riots in Afghanistan that killed at least 11 people including U.N. officials.
The propaganda video claims to show U.S. troops testing a Russian rifle they got “while raiding,” according to the grammatically incorrect captions. It features two dark-skinned men speaking with heavy non-American accents, trying to use stereotype phrases from American youth.
After one of the men fires three shots at the Quran, the other goes up to it, shows its cover, then thumbs through its pages. It concludes with the caption, “This is one more prove that only American weapons are the best ever [sic].”
The BBC notes the video was posted to YouTube and shared on the National Gun Forum by a user, who claimed it was from a friend in the Marines. The user’s account had only been created 10 days before the post, and hasn’t been used since then. The BBC found similar oddities with other YouTube accounts that spread the video.
The investigation points out the alleged U.S. soldier is wearing the wrong camouflage and is wearing an Ops-Core FAST Base Jump helmet instead of a U.S. military helmet.
The BBC also found other images resembling the man firing the gun in the video. Photos of him on Instagram show him geotagged near 55 Savushkina Street, where Russia’s Internet Research Agency is located. The man allegedly works as a bartender in St. Petersburg, and is friends with a woman who works for the Russian propaganda agency.
The video validates claims from the U.S. defense community that Russia is using “hybrid warfare” strategies to further its interests, by blending propaganda and cyberattacks with conventional military operations.
Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, said in a Jan. 22 speech that we’re seeing Russia’s use of hybrid warfare in Ukraine, “with a mixture of military and non-military means of aggression, with deception, with overt and covert actions.”
This isn’t the first time Russia’s Internet Research Agency has been found spreading disinformation targeting the United States.
In June 2015, New York Times Magazine exposed that the Internet Research Agency was behind other fake stories, including one about a chemical company in Louisiana on fire releasing toxic fumes, and another about an Ebola outbreak in Atlanta.
It reported, “The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.'”