Footage of a mysterious Ukrainian fighter pilot has been going viral on social media after Russia began invading Ukraine on Thursday 24 February 2022. Credited with shooting down ten Russian jets on the first day of the invasion, the pilot is said to have flown a Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft on his way to becoming an ace—a pilot who scores five or more kills.
Serving as a crucial morale booster for the Ukrainian forces and citizens alike in the face of war, the unverified story surrounding the pilot has quickly grown in popularity on social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook. But who really is the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’?
Many military analysts have already said that the pilot would likely turn out to be an urban legend, yet many netizens have tried presenting proof that he exists. One recurring argument comes in the form of a tweet posted by an account that cites itself as Ukraine’s ‘official’ Twitter page on 27 February, which reads: “People call him the Ghost of Kyiv. And rightly so—this UAF ace dominates the skies over our capital and country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian aircraft.”
The post is accompanied by the very same video which has been making rounds on social media platforms. While many would expect an official government account to only post verified news, it could be argued that the country’s cause could still benefit from the ‘news’ surrounding the rumoured pilot. The Ghost of Kyiv is a crucial morale booster, remember?
Let’s not be too quick to write off the whole myth as fact-checking website Snopes stated that the pilot and their aircraft could in fact still be real, however, the video showing a brutal fight in which a Ukrainian jet shoots down a Russian aircraft is most definitely fake—with the footage said to be from the 2008 video game Digital Combat Simulator (DCS).
Though the now-viral video does not feature genuine footage, the general of the Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed that they had truly downed several Russian aircraft sky high. Reporting on the matter, CNN wrote, “The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has claimed five Russian aircraft and a helicopter were shot down early Thursday, as Russian forces attacked Ukraine. The Russian military has denied the claims, state news agency TASS reported on Thursday.”
While it’s no surprise that the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has been broadcast through a filter of propaganda in Moscow—“where the authorities are concerned that ordinary Russians will be disgusted by scenes of missiles striking Kyiv,” The Guardian reported—it’s now been revealed that a Russian propaganda campaign called ‘Ukraine Today’ has been using fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote more lies about the war.
On 28 February 2022, NBC News reported that Facebook and Twitter removed fake profiles pretending to be pro-Russia Ukrainians over the weekend. One account was using the name Vladimir Bondarenko and pretending to be a blogger from Kyiv. The user’s computer-generated photo looked almost real, besides a weird bend in his ear. Another fake profile coming from the Russian troll farm pretended to be Irina Kerimova, a Kharkiv-based guitar teacher-turned editor-in-chief of the Ukraine Today website. Like Bondarenko, her photo seemed scarily legit.
At the time, another disinformation campaign tied to a known Belarusian hacking group used hacked accounts (instead of completely made-up ones) to push similar anti-Ukraine propaganda, according to Nathaniel Gleicher, Meta’s head of security policy, who talked to NBC News. The organisation in question has ties with two other websites called ‘News Front’ and ‘South Front’, which the US government has already designated as disinformation outlets.
The sites, both among the Russian propaganda profiles analysed by the US Department of State in 2020, have pushed misleading articles aiming to spread Kremlin talking points. News Front’s recent headlines include “Putin has earned his trust” and “‘Our Russia has come’: residents of liberated territories thank Russian Armed Forces.”
Disinformation experts warned that Russia is expected to continue manipulating narratives about Ukraine—most notably around the claims made by President Vladimir Putin. In other words, the country is very much counting on these disinformation strategies first identified during the 2016 US presidential election, albeit with some advancements (most notably the use of AI that can create realistic human faces). The fact that a new study has proven how AI-generated fake faces are more trustworthy than real ones does not help this case either.
According to a spokesperson, Twitter removed over a dozen profiles tied to News Front and South Front that were attempting to “disrupt the public conversation around the ongoing conflict.” Facebook said it took down 40 profiles related to the propaganda organisation, and even YouTube took down channels as well.
Meta and Twitter have since rolled out online safeguards for Ukrainians to use as digital defence as many fight to protect the Ukrainian internet.