Following a Specific Story: The Tale of the Painted Jets

Besides using automated analysis, manual analysis, and prior reporting to identify new outlets and accounts as echoing, repeating, and referring their audience to Russian propaganda, we also use similar approaches to track particular stories and analyze their audiences over time.

One example is a remarkable fake-news story about US military aircraft being repainted (in order to attack Syria while pretending to be Russia, naturally) that went completely viral, even though it was essentially debunked before it it even got started. This is one example of how fake-news propaganda outlets can amplify a story that advances Russian strategic narratives, and integrate with official Russian state-owned media like Russia Today to push a story to US audiences through multiple channels. Thanks to its specificity, this is a story we can get something of a handle on.

On October 6th, a Canadian journalist, Christian Borys, took pictures of US military aircraft in pseudo-Russian colors, noting that it is “standard training, but interesting nonetheless”, and posted the photos on Twitter​ [1]:


A veritable army of Pro-Russian Twitter accounts picked it up immediately, [2] asserting that this was preparation for some larger “false flag” operation, in which the US would presumably attack some civilian target and then blame it on Russia. Over the next few days, Mr. Borys repeatedly complained that the

“U.S uses ‘aggressor units’ to train pilots. The paint schemes make fighters similar to Russian counterparts. Stop with the conspiracies”,

but that didn't help:


His attempts at rebuttals did not stop the rumor-mongering. Pro-Russian and Russian-speaking Twitter accounts exploded with this nonsense, like this gray-market currency systems developer, [3] pro-Russian “Ukrainian”, [4] and pro-Russian Dutch fascist, [5] among others. This rattled around the Twittersphere, and the Russian state-controlled social network VK, for a few days.

On October 7th, a notable US-facing Russian propaganda outlet,, posted an article with the same pro-Russian conspiratorial spin as the above-mentioned pro-Russian Twitter accounts, ignoring all Mr. Borys’ attempts to debunk it:


Moon of Alabama echoing “false-flag” rumors and tying in larger nefarious motives [6]

A wide range of other outlets that consistently echo, repeat, and redirect their audiences to Russian propaganda immediately ran with and reposted Moon of Alabama’s post:


Global Research echoing Moon of Alabama, on October 8th [7] (<2k shares, but 77 linking domains)


Conspiracy Cafe echoing Moon of Alabama on October 8th [8]

Over the next several days, other consistently pro-Russian sites repeated their own variations of the same theme, racking up an increasing amount of views and social media engagements, reaching an ever-larger number of people, and boosting the story’s search engine visibility.

Also on October 8th, a consistently pro-Russian account pushed it to Reddit:


Reddit post of the same story on October 8th [9]


SuperStation95 echoing the story further, on October 9th [10] (garnering more than >38,000 Facebook engagements, and getting links from 49 separate domains!)


The “Public Intelligence Blog” echoing the story further, on October 10th [11]

images/figure-17.jpg echoing the same story on October 12th [12]

Various obscure and frequently pro-Russian YouTube accounts started pushing out badly-made video content about it. This one alone got over 11,000 views, [13] and it is exceptionally terrible and content-free:


On October 10th, Snopes, the famous fact-checkers, picked it up and comprehensively rebutted the whole thing. That didn't stop it:


Snopes rebuts the “painted jets” rumor-mongering, October 10th [14] (<1k shares, 16 linking domains)

Then, on October 11th, the day after the Snopes rebuttal, Russia Today picked up the rumors, with a story focused on reporting the rumors, and their piece got an immense amount of coverage. Russia Today did not include and still does not include a link to the Snopes analysis debunking the rumor:


Russia Today stokes the rumor-mongering, after it was debunked by Snopes, October 11th [15] (garnering 34,600 engagements on Facebook, many more views, and 117 linking domains!)

We invite the other researchers to explore this story and others like it, using Buzzsumo, Google, Trendalizer, etc. The engagement and linking domain data comes from Buzzsumo, [16] starting here​:


To review, the story was preemptively debunked by the originator, but echoed and repeated and referred to by a wide array of pro-Russian social media accounts and websites that consistently echo, repeat, and refer their audiences to each other, and to Russian state-owned media - even after it had been roundly debunked by Snopes. It was false from start to finish, yet garnered over 100,000 likes, comments, and shares on Facebook alone, and was linked to by scores of separate websites.