When the intention of a media outlet is not to inform, but rather to mislead and disinform, there are different tools available in the toolbox. One of them is to pretend that a parody website spreads genuine information – and if this lie is then repeated often enough times through multiple channels, it is likely that a critical number of people will start believing it.
“Brothel for zoophiles to open in Denmark”, so runs the headline of a disinformation story that has recently been migrating across online outlets and social media. The story has visited a number of countries, among them Russia, Georgia and Belarus. And although it is obviously completely untrue, the story fits very well the overarching negative narrative about moral decay in the West in general.
From France to Russia
The story about Danish authorities accepting the alleged opening of an animal brothel in Copenhagen appeared in early August in a marginal Russian online source, Kolokol Rossii, and was picked up in Belarus and Georgia and by many Russian marginal media outlets. The original Russian story referred to reporting in the French Secretnews.fr – but it failed to mention that the outlet in question is a satirical, humoristic outlet publishing parody stories.
Facts turned upside down
The story, which includes an image of a dog dressed up as a street prostitute, quotes Denmark’s agriculture and fishery minister as saying that sex with animals is a citizens’ right protected by the constitution. Ironically, the minister in question, former social democratic minister Dan Jørgensen, whose name in the article for some reason is distorted into Vlad Jorgensen, was the initiator of a law which in 2015 lay a ban on sex with animals. Denmark was among the European countries with no specific ban on this activity, as courts had used laws against cruelty to animals to protect animals against abuse. In other words, the facts have been turned completely upside down in the disinformation story.
Using pre-existing perceptions
The perception of Denmark as having legalised animal brothels derives from arguments put forwards in the debates in Denmark leading up to the law being passed, where some argued that if the law wouldn’t be passed, Denmark could potentially attract zoophile clients from foreign countries where a specific ban was already in place. Notably, one of Russia’s largest TV channels, NTV, broadcast a news item in October 2013 where exactly the discussion of whether Denmark could potentially become a place of animal sex tourism was twisted into this problem actually already being present in Denmark at that time.
In addition, it is likely that the spread of the story is also linked to an existing perception of Denmark as a place where animals are treated particularly cruelly, with Russian media very actively covering the 2014 story about a giraffe in a Danish zoo being euthanised and later dissected at a public educational class for school children. This phenomenon – creating disinformation on the back of pre-existing perceptions – is central to the success of spreading disinformation.
Will it be picked up in talk shows?
While the story has not been reported by any of Russia’s nationwide dominating media, it now appears on numerous more marginal websites and, notably, in discussion forums and social media. One could argue that this makes the disinformation unimportant and perhaps even harmless, if it weren’t for the tendency that such more or less absurd stories are often brought up by participants in the very popular talk shows on Russian national television, as we e.g. saw with the claim that ISIS fighters had infiltrated Ukrainian battalions in Donbas. The fact that this kind of disinformation is voiced by a talk show participant rather than e.g. a news presenter offers an arm’s length between the claim and the media that distributes it, but the disinformation never the less suddenly becomes elevated into common knowledge without being contested.
Update: The claim about the animal brothels in Denmark reappeared in December 2017 in a publication by the large Russian state news agency RIA Novosti and by the online platform Rambler.
Debunked by blogger
The story spreading in August was in fact contested by one of Russia’s most popular bloggers, Rustem Adagamov, who on his Facebook warned against the story being a fake. Adagamov, who has lived in Norway and therefore reads Danish, could debunk the disinformation with reference to Danish sources. The fact that Adagamov highlighted the story as absolute nonsense, can have been helpful in blocking it from spreading into more main stream Russian media.
Part of a narrative
The story is in line with similar disinformation stories about moral decay in Europe. Thus, a particularly persistent claim is that sexual abuse of children is a norm in Norwegian families, and Russian nationwide TV has spent airtime explaining that embracing LGTBI rights paves the way for accepting paedohilia.
Image above: Screenshot from Kolokol Rossii.