When images of a heavily pregnant Marianna Vishegirskaya clambering down the stairs of the bombed-out maternity hospital in Mariupol went viral, the Kremlin was quick to act.Vishegirskaya, a Ukrainian beauty blogger, was not pregnant, the Kremlin claimed; she was just an actor playing a part. In fact, they claimed she was playing two parts, as they asserted that she was also pictured in different clothes lying on a stretcher outside the hospital.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
Both allegations were obvious lies, part of a widespread Kremlin-orchestrated attempt to portray the bombing as staged by Ukrainian forces, and to deflect global condemnation of its airstrike on a maternity hospital.But two months after the attack, the Kremlin is no longer calling Vishegirskaya a “crisis actor.” Now, she’s part of its propaganda campaign to convince Russian citizens—and the world—that the war crimes it has committed in Ukraine are justified, and that Ukrainians are welcoming Russian troops with open arms.“You haven’t forgotten Marianna from the Mariupol maternity hospital, right?” the official Twitter account of the Russian embassy in Geneva tweeted Thursday morning.
“She has a message for everyone who believes in ‘kidnapping”, ‘held at gunpoint’ and other boogeyman stories about Russia the West and its ‘free press’ want people to believe,” the tweet added.In the attached video, Vishegirskaya is seen standing in a street that she claims is in Donetsk. She is interviewed by an unnamed woman, who asks her: “Hi, Marianna, please tell us if you are being held here in captivity.”Vishegirskaya responds, “No, I’m not. We moved to Donetsk at our own initiative,” adding that it was her hometown. She says no one has threatened her and that she is safe. At one point the camera pans to show an unidentified man holding a baby, presumably Vishegirskaya’s child, who was born two days after Marianna fled the maternity hospital in Mariupol.
When asked if she has any other message to share, Vishegirskaya says: “People who move to Donetsk and Russia do it on their own initiative. No one’s forcing anyone or displacing anyone against their will.”However, there’s evidence that the Kremlin has forced a lot of Ukrainian refugees to move to Russia in the wake of its invasion.In March, the Ukrainian government said that up to 400,000 people had been forced against their will to leave besieged Ukrainian cities and travel to Russia, with Kyiv claiming they could be held as hostages.This week, as the battle for control of Mariupol entered what is likely its final days, General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British Army told Sky News that he fears “we may also see the sight of Ukrainian prisoners being paraded through Moscow next Monday at their victory parade.”But this is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to use Vishegirskaya to deny spreading disinformation and propaganda. Three weeks after the bombing of the Mariupol hospital, a video of Vishegirskaya was posted online in which she claimed there was no aerial attack on the hospital, suggesting that the hospital was in fact attacked by Ukrainian forces, a narrative that pro-Kremlin outlets were pushing hard at the time.
In response to the Kremlin’s efforts to reframe its narrative around Vishegirskaya, Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative website Bellingcat, which closely tracks Russian disinformation, tweeted: “Russian propaganda knows no limit nor depths they'll sink to, something they've demonstrated time and time again since well before this conflict started. Only the most hopelessly naive or obviously biased would take anything they claim at face value.”
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