In the gutter world of the internet, many conspiracy theorists are struggling to weave a single narrative around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some subscribe to the belief that the war is a possible false flag operation, others think Vladimir Putin is attacking Ukraine to destroy the Deep State, a secret part of government they believe is on a mission undermine Trump. To be clear, neither of these are accurate: Putin has long believed the democratic nation should be under Russia’s control, a belief which led to a very real military invasion that has resulted in thousands of deaths over the the past week. But in a polarized world distrustful of actual reported facts, misinformation has been spreading rapidly.
As extremism researcher Abbie Richards put it in a recent TikTok, when false stories circulate, it can have real-world consequences for those in harm’s way. “It seems like people don’t understand why misinformation is so dangerous during a crisis,” she said. “People, especially people in Ukraine or with family in Ukraine, they deserve an accurate depiction of what’s going on.” When people share fake or doctored content, “it’s harmful for people in Ukraine who need an accurate understanding of where there is danger. So to Westerners saying that these videos are spreading awareness: Awareness should not come at the cost of spreading misinformation.”
Of course, that’s exactly what’s happening. Some prominent conspiracy theorists have accused the media of lying or sharing fake footage and images from Ukraine, suggesting that the conflict may be a psy-op, a psychological operation to manipulate the public. One instagram user with more than 23,000 followers, who Rolling Stone has chosen not to name, shared a New York Times video of babies from a Ukraine hospital and wrote in a caption, “I’m sure I’m gonna be condemned for this, but these don’t look like real babies. Could be the quality of the video? Possibly.” According to the Times, the video shows “newborn infants from the neonatal intensive care unit at a children’s hospital in Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine” sheltering in a makeshift bomb shelter.
Influencer Lively Lexie, who often shares memes that are indicative of the Pastel QAnon worldview, also promoted the conspiracy theory that the Russian invasion might be a false flag operation with a goal of “shut[ting] down internet.” She encouraged her more than 50,000 followers to “question everything” and added that “the media always lies and twists things.” She also shared references to a conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden’s laptop and posted a screenshot of a tweet where a user claimed (without proof) that an image of a woman in Ukraine with blood on her face was taken in 2018 and not 2022.
The photograph in question was posted to Instagram by photographer Wolfgang Schwan on Feb. 24, and was also shared by his agency the same day. According to Schwan, the woman in the photograph was injured when a residential apartment complex was struck by a Russian airstrike in Chuhuiv, Ukraine, that morning.
On the other end of the spectrum, adherents of the QAnon movement are celebrating Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which they believe is real and an operation against the Deep State. QAnon believers subscribe to a fantasy that a “cabal” of powerful Satan-worshiping pedophiles, including high-powered Democrats, run the Deep State. Trump, they believe, was sent to expose and end the Deep State. This isn’t exactly surprising — given QAnon adherents’ participation in the anti-democratic Jan. 6 uprising, or their support of the coup in Myanmar — but it’s troubling nonetheless.
Marc-André Argentino, a researcher and PhD candidate at Concordia University, shared posts from QAnon communities on Telegram cheering Putin’s invasion. “Ukraine is corrupt with many many Dems and their profits from human trafficking[,] drugs and weapons,” a user named T Light posted.
Another screenshot Argentino captured showed user MAGALivesMatter posting a link alleging that a Ukraine airport was under attack and wrote, “Go Russia! Get rid of this Deep state bullshit.”
2/ QAnon communitites are all for the Russian invasion. To their eyes this is Putin attacking the deep state, and the Western nations, UN, EU, NATO are all working to defeat the white hats attacking the deep state. pic.twitter.com/uJ5aKxU3LI
— Marc-André Argentino (@_MAArgentino) February 25, 2022
Additional online posts surfaced by Media Matters show users attacking Democrats who have condemned Putin’s aggression as “deep state players … protecting their interests in Ukraine.”
QAnon John, a.k.a. John Sabal, an organizer of a QAnon gathering called the For God & Country Patriot Roundup, posted online that he doesn’t view the “‘invasion’ of Ukraine as a ‘bad’ thing” because it is “a cleaning out of a VERY corrupt center of operations for the Cabal.” Sabal went on to say that the conflict is “NOT A WAR” but rather “a proper, and NECESSARY deep cleaning of Cabal operations and military assets, NOT an attack on innocent civilians.”
Belief in QAnon has risen in the U.S. since Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, according to four 2021 surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. The think tank found that nearly a quarter of Americans (22 percent) believe that a “storm” is coming — a common refrain in QAnon circles that refers to arrests of high-ranking figures and political unrest. Eighteen percent of those surveyed indicated they believe violence may be needed to save the U.S., while 16 percent admitted they believe that Satan-worshipping pedophiles control the government, as well as the media and finance industries.