News Brief

Protests in Yekaterinburg spark a wave of fake news online

An intensive disinformation war on social media erupted in the aftermath of street protests against the building of a new church in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Hundreds of people protested the construction of the new church in green space in the center of the bustling city, part of a wave of demonstrations over the past several years demanding the Russian government cease its practice of giving public parkland for the building of new Orthodox cathedrals.

The popular protests against the construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral underscore many of the dynamics at play in contemporary Russian politics, including the role of oligarchs in funding Vladimir Putin’s traditionalist politics, the brittle social contract between Russians and the Kremlin, and the willingness of Russians to mobilize against government policies at the local level, writes Leonid Bershidsky in Bloomberg Opinion.

As tensions heightened between activists and police, social media erupted with activist messages, many sharing photos and videos seeking to demonstrate police violence and the authorities’ unwillingness to compromise. Not all of them were real, though.

A short video of a young girl playing cello in a park, her back to a metal fence, first appeared on Twitter on May 19th:

The original post was published by an anonymous account called “We are for the park!” with the following caption:

“This girl was expelled today from a music college. Because don’t you fucking dare. You don’t go to church? You play music at protests? Then you’re not a patriot and we won’t teach you music. Year 2019 – Yekaterinburg is the capital of repression.”

The video was widely shared but one day later, the Russian news agency debunked the information, confirming that the girl is still enrolled in college and is currently studying for exams.

Ivan Okhlobystin, a well-known Russian actor and controversial Orthodox priest also became a target. An image of Okhlobystin in a field with a gun, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, circulated with what was supposed to be a direct quote: “I am flying to Yekaterinburg tonight. To see, how the evil powers mock the orthodox faith, I can’t stand it anymore, friends from DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] sent me a gun, I will be pouring lead over antichrists. Amen.”

A number of local newspapers debunked the post, demonstrating that the photo was more than two decades old. A representative for Okhlobystin said the actor is in Moscow and is not planning to join the protesters.

Social media campaigns also sought to misrepresent the National Guard, the internal military force of the Russian government, claiming that reinforcements were called into Yekaterinburg to quell the protests and that authorities were buying aerosol cans in bulk.

The proposed construction of the church, scheduled for completion in 2023 to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the founding of Russia’s fourth largest city, has been controversial since it was announced in 2010. Over the past week, 33 people were arrested in Yekaterinburg and local authorities have agreed to consider alternative construction locations.

Links between the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin have grown stronger in recent years, but the relationship is complex and not always harmonious. In October 2018, a Russian builder was arrested for posting a meme on social media, allegedly offending the church.