Defensive Disinformation as Decoy Flare: Skripal and Flight MH17

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The best way a military plane can defend itself is by popping out bursts of multiple false heat targets. The method – known as decoy flare – confuses and distracts approaching heat-seeking missiles. A similar technique will traditionally be applied by pro-Kremlin outlets when Russia’s authorities have a particularly bad case and find themselves in a defensive position.

The Salisbury nerve agent attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal is the most recent example of the decoy flare disinformation method put in use. In the course of just three weeks, the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign has disseminated so far 25 different theories, which are even contradictory to one another; but that does not matter when the strategic aim is to confuse audiences, and not to convince them about a single narrative.

But it only buys you time…

A massive bombardment with distracting disinformation does not, however, guarantee protection from the truth in the long run; it buys time, but has an expiry date. Those who follow the current Skripal case will perhaps find comfort knowing that the disinformation campaign targeting the tragic downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014 has by now been succesfully neutralised: detailed facts have been established around the killing of 298 innocent passengers and crew; but also the disinformation claims, which pro-Kremlin outlets and Russian government sources disseminated following the incident, have been debunked.

Earlier this month, a particularly vivid case of MH17-related disinformation was brought to a final end thanks to the efforts of an ambitious journalistic investigation project.

Catch ‘Carlos’ if you can

A mysterious, allegedly Spanish air controller, who called himself ‘Carlos’ and claimed to have been employed at Kyiv’s airport, was used by RT (Russia Today) and other pro-Kremlin outlets in the wake of the MH17 tragedy in order to throw suspicion of the downing of MH17 on the Ukrainian side. And while the claims made by ‘Carlos’ had already for some time been proven wrong, the question about the true identity of the ‘Carlos’, who had appeared in an interview on RT, remained unanswered – until earlier this month.

‘Carlos’ during interview with RT (Russia Today). Image via the ‘Catch Carlos if you can‘ investigation website.

Light was finally thrown over ‘Carlos’ when a joint investigation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the RISE Project, a Romanian investigative-journalism group based in Bucharest, managed to find the man behind ‘Carlos’. The person in question, who has never been an air controller, who is a convicted criminal and whose real name is not Carlos, says he was paid 48,000 USD from Russia. RT denied the claim that ‘Carlos’ had been paid by them in a response to the journalists behind the investigation.

The outcome of the “Catch Carlos if you can” journalistic investigation project presents itself with an elaborate, dedicated website; in spite of the sinister backdrop against which RT decided to push the ‘Carlos’ story, the investigation comes through as entertaining, but at the same time very enlightening about how far RT and similar outlets seem to be willing to go in order to disseminate bursts of disinformation decoy flare to protect Russian authorities from incriminations of responsibility in crimes such as the MH17 incident.

The ‘Catch Carlos if you can‘ interactive website includes a useful timeline of the ‘Carlos’ hoax.

The ‘Carlos’ disinformation was repeated not only by RT, but also by the Russian state-controlled news agencies, such as TASS and RIA, as well as by Vladimir Putin himself in American director Oliver Stone’s portrait documentary about the Russian President.

The MH17 jigsaw puzzle is almost finished

As the outcome of the ‘Carlos’ investigation shows, identifying the truth hidden behind the flares of disinformation demands hard work and patience. The findings contribute to finalising the jigsaw puzzle that will eventually provide us with the full picture of what happened when Flight MH17 was shot down – but also what did not happen. ‘Carlos’ the air controller, for example, did not exist. It was just a hoax.

Other substantial parts of the MH17 puzzle have already been gathered thanks to investigations carried out by citizens journalists in the Bellingcat network. The Bellingcat collective has successfully identified the missile and the missile launcher that shot down the Malaysian Airways plane: its way from Russia into Eastern Ukraine has been documented, as has its way back into Russia after it was used. The name of a high-ranking Russian military commander highly likely to be affiliated with the operation has also been identified by the Bellingcat project.

In spite of distracting disinformation flare, the international community is thereby getting closer and closer to the point when justice over Flight MH17 can hopefully prevail in the criminal case to be held over the incident in the Netherlands. This also give hope that, in spite of the smokescreen of disinformation, those who ordered and carried out the nerve attack on in Salisbury will eventually be held responsible.

Further reading:

Figure of the Week: 20

Salisbury poisoning on Russian TV: confuse, undermine and ridicule

Behind the Smokescreen: Who are the Actors Spreading Disinformation on Ex-Spy Poisoning?

Skripal and the disinformation swamp

Flight MH17: Why can the Kremlin not tell the truth?

Time for the ninth MH17 disinformation round

Flight MH17 three years on: getting the truth out of Eastern Ukraine

MH17 disinformation: back in the headlines

Nine ways to confuse us about MH17

COMMENTARY: Means, goals and consequences of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign

(Top image: Wikimedia Commons)

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