The official Twitter account for the UK’s Russian embassy is accusing a pregnant Ukrainian woman, seen in photos of a maternity hospital blast in Mariupol on Wednesday, of being an actor placed in the scene by propagandists in support of Ukraine. The tweet showed that the Russian government is now trotting out the “crisis actor” conspiracy theory—popularized by fringes of the US far right to suggest mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Parkland were a “false flag”—against victims of its war in Ukraine.
The woman, whose name we’re choosing to leave out of the text of this story to avoid further targeting, is a Ukrainian model and beauty influencer with a large Instagram following. She was photographed fleeing the building by Associated Press photographer Evigeniy Maloletka. The tweet, which featured Maloletka’s photos and accused the woman of “playing roles” of pregnant victims at the scene, was deleted on Thursday after Motherboard contacted Twitter for comment. “We took enforcement action against the Tweets you referenced as they were in violation of the Twitter Rules, specifically our Hateful Conduct and Abusive Behavior policies related to the denial of violent events,” a Twitter spokesperson told Motherboard.“According to eyewitnesses, the maternity hospital no longer exists, there are many wounded and killed women,” former Deputy Chief of Police of Ukraine Vyacheslav Abroskin said, according to Vice News. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted about the event, writing, “Direct strike of Russian troops at the maternity hospital. People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror? Close the sky right now! Stop the killings! You have power, but you seem to be losing humanity.”
Three people were killed, including a child, and 17 people wounded, according to reports on Thursday.The UK Russian embassy Twitter is calling the photos of pregnant women—leaving the building with visible wounds and on stretchers—fake, saying the woman “played the roles” of multiple women in the news photos from the scene. Calling victims of horrific violence “crisis actors” is a tactic commonly used by conspiracy theorists in the U.S., especially following mass shootings. In 2018, conspiracy theorists started calling the victims of the Parkland school shooting crisis actors. Calling someone a crisis actor is a way to delegitimize the source of the information (in this case, on-the-ground photojournalists from a reputable news source) as well as the experiences of the people in the images. This is a tactic that’s been exported straight out of American conspiracy lexicon, used to describe moments like the Boston marathon bombing and the Bataclan Nightclub shooting, now used by Russian state media to delegitimize an entire country’s role in a war.Unlike “false flag” accusations, which misrepresents motives, saying a scene is full of crisis actors is saying that the entire thing never happened or was completely faked. Russian state media is already claiming that the hospital bombing was entirely made up by Ukraine, and that the building was evacuated long before the bombing took place.Of course, one can be both a beauty influencer and model one day, and the victim of a war crime the next—but the person running the Russian embassy’s social media is implying that because she was pictured unblemished and surrounded by fluffy makeup brushes in some photos, she couldn’t possibly be walking out of the rubble of a children’s hospital in another.Beyond this tweet about the hospital, the account has spread false information about Russia’s role in the country’s war against Ukraine, as a state media outlet. Other propaganda accounts are starting to pick up and parrot this accusation, and forums for organizing harassment like 4chan are already naming and talking about the woman, spreading her social media accounts and forming new conspiracies about the situation. Updated 11:38 a.m. EST with comment from Twitter.