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From COVID-19 denialism to pro-Putin hoaxes: the mutation of disinformation groups on Telegram in Spanish

This article has been originally published on Maldita.es the 16th of March 2022

From spreading falsehoods like “COVID-19 does not exist” or “vaccines carry killer chips”, some bad actors have turned quasi automatically to a full-hearted defense of the Russian attack on Ukraine based on disinformation. The largest Telegram pandemic conspiracy groups now defend Putin and his invasion. And they do so with hoaxes. At Maldita.es we are going to tell you how 10 of the most followed channels do it, all of them within 9,000 to 240,000 followers.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, these Telegram channels that were already quite big in Spain and Latin America have gained tens of thousands of new followers while spreading all kinds of hoaxes and conspiracy theories in Spanish about the virus, masks or vaccines. They shared conspiracies that either denied the existence of the virus itself or disinformed about it.

In the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, those same disinformation channels have mutated to become deniers of the Kremlin’s attack on its neighbor. Or, more precisely, they have turned to justify and defend that attack using hoaxes. They are disseminating images taken in recent days in Ukraine, assuring that the victims who appear in them are “crisis actors” and that “manipulations” are being produced to simulate attacks by Russia. Here is a list:

Rafapal’s channel: hoaxes and conspiracies that reach more than 140,000 subscribers

Over the years, Maldita.es has debunked dozens of hoaxes and conspiracy theories disseminated by the Rafapal channel, who at the time of publication has more than 140,000 followers. He is a well-known disinformer in Spanish whose messages reach tens of thousands of followers before jumping to other channels and platforms such as Twitter. Those who spread this disinformation do not hide in dark corners of the internet, but instead spread their lies in the open to a growing audience.

Throughout this investigation, we have analyzed the messages that each of the channels has published about Ukraine and about what they call a ‘plandemic’. This term is used by disinformers to say without any proof that the pandemic has been planned. In the case of Rafapal, these are the results:

Rafapal, who has spread all kinds of hoaxes throughout the pandemic, is doing the same in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to deny some of the attacks that have occurred in the country . It has even reposted content that was once used as misinformation on the coronavirus and went viral, and now it is being used to foster false narratives on Ukraine.

This is the case on a video in which a bag that supposedly contains a corpse moves in the middle of a live television shot. Those images were spread as if those inside the bag were victims of COVID-19, while now Rafapal shares them as if it were a “journalistic manipulation” to inflate the dead count in Ukraine.

The reality is that it has nothing to do with the pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine: these are images related to a climate protest in Austria, against current policies to curb climate change because they are not considered “effective”. It is a hoax that we have already debunked in two occasions in Maldita.es, and that was seen by more than 120,000 people after Rafapal spread it.

After the attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol (Ukraine), several images of pregnant women who were being evacuated from the building (Rafapal’s post was seen by 115,000 users). These images have been target of various misinformation campaigns in which, for example, it is said that in all the photos appears the same woman, which is something that Rafapal also spread. The Russian embassy in the United Kingdom also spread these hoaxes on Twitter, before they were deleted by the platform.

This channel has also taken old videos out of context to spread them as current and as if they were related to Ukraine. One of them shows a film shooting where dozens of people appear running after the director yells “action”, but we have already told you that the video is neither from Ukraine nor is it current: the images circulates since, at least, 2013 and were recorded in Birmingham (UK) during the filming of the movie ‘Kaleidoscope Man’. This Rafapal’s post has been seen by more than 82,000 users.

Another 80,000 people have seen a message from Rafapal that includes an image of Zelenski wearing a T-shirt that supposedly has the Nazi swastika, but it is a manipulation. In the original photo, Zelensky shows a Ukrainian soccer team T-shirt with his name and number 95 on the back, which he posted on his Instagram profile on June 8, 2021.

Rafapal’s channel as a loudspeaker for other conspiracy groups

Rafapal not only spreads his own disinformation through his channel, but also forwards those falsehoods that have been published by other channels. For example, he shared a post referred to Zelensky’s alleged flight from Kiev, a disinformation that we have already warned about.

La Quinta Columna’ and its more than 240,000 followers: hoaxes about COVID-19 and Ukraine

One of the most popular Telegram disinformation channels in Spanish is ‘La Quinta Columna’, which currently has more than 240,000 followers and, like Rafapal, has also spread disinformation and lies throughout the pandemic and is now spreading hoaxes about Russia’s war against Ukraine.

This channel also shared the video of the black bags with the alleged moving corpse that, as we say, has nothing to do with Ukraine, it is from a climate protest in Austria.

‘La Quinta Columna’ also says that Ukraine is hiring “actors” to do simulations during the Russian invasion, and it has also shared without any context a TV series in which the president of Ukraine, Volodímir Zelenski, appears shooting dozens of people in a room, ignoring the fact that Zelensky was a well-known actor in the country before he became president and that these images are actually a scene from one of his series and not from his election campaign.

In another publication, ‘La Quinta Columna’ points out that Ukraine is “lying” because they are ussing an image that was supposedly taken after a gas explosion in Russia in 2018 to say that it is Russian bombing in Ukraine. The fact is that the photo is current and belongs to an explosion in Ukraine, as we have already explained in Maldita.es.

“What the Red Cross shipments to Ukraine really contain.” With this text, ‘La Quinta Columna’ has released a video in which we can see several boxes with the the Red Cross’ logo with wads of bills. It is a hoax, these images aren’t recent or related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The video has been on the internet since at least 2018. The Red Cross issued a statement about these images in which they denied any relationship with that money and reported an “illegitimate use” of the organization’s emblem. The UN Security Council also released a report in 2017 showing similar boxes linked to the missing fortune of Gaddafi, Libya’s former dictator. ‘La Quinta Columna’ posted the hoax despite admitting it was “information to be confirmed.”

‘Canal 5’: More than 40,000 followers exposed to hoaxes and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and now about Russia’s war against Ukraine

With its more than 40,000 followers, it is another of the great disinformation channels in Spanish. They have spread hoaxes about the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things, and they are doing it again now with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. For example, they also spread Zelenky’s shooting people video, assuring that it was recorded during his electoral campaign, but in Maldita.es we have already debunked these images, it is a scene from a TV series.

Likewise, they republished the video of a film shooting in Birmingham (England) as if it was current and had been recorded in the Ukraine. Like the previously mentioned channels, ‘Canal 5’ has also shared the video of the bags with alleged corpses recorded in Austria during a climate protest linking it to the COVID-19 pandemic or the Ukraine crisis.

This channel has also shared content that refers to Zelensky’s allegedly fleeing Kyiv. In one of them, they accuse the Ukrainian government of having recently published “a video in which he allegedly visited a hospital today with wounded soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. But in the pictures we can see a doctor, Inna Derusova, who died on February 26″. It is a hoax: Zelensky did not visit the hospital with Sergeant Inna Derusova, who died on February 24, according to Ukrainian media reports. The person that appears in the image is Tatiana Ostashchenko, commander of the Medical Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Finally, ‘Canal 5’ also shared a video of people fleeing with the following text: “Walk-on actors running in front of scenery with a tank behind them, to make the scene more warlike.” It is also fake, the images show a military-historical festival that takes place every year in Russia dedicated to the soldiers of the Second Shock Army. It is neither current nor related to the Ukraine’s invasion.

How the Telegram channel ‘Revelión en la Granja’ (sic) is disinforming about the invasion of Ukraine and about the COVID-19 pandemic

The ‘Revelión en la Granja’ (sic) channel currently has more than 30,000 followers and, in addition to misinforming about the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also spread some of the hoaxes that we have already debunked in this article. An example is the video of the climate protest in Austria, which they shared as if they were actors posing as victims of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. It is a hoax that we already have debunked in Maldita.es.

“Russian bombing victim in 2022 with the same clothes and bandage as in 2018.” With this text, ‘Revelión en la Granja’ (sic) states that the photo of a woman injured after a Russian bombing, that appeared on front pages around the world, is old and has no relation to Ukraine. It’s a hoax: The image that several newspapers published was taken by Wolfgang Schwan for Anadolu Agency on February 24 in the Ukrainian city of Chuhuiv or Chuguyev, in Kharkiv Oblast.

This channel has also spread disinformation about the pregnant women injured after the Mariupol (Ukraine) hospital’s attack. Specifically, they accuse one of the women of being a “model and blogger” who would have starred in “Zelensky’s a false flag attack”. They assure that it is all a manipulation as “they used photos of a pregnant girl who is actually an actress who” recently published photos with a completely flat stomach on her instagram.

In Maldita.es we have verified that in the woman’s Instagram account there is a recent photo in which she does not appear pregnant. Does this mean that this is the case? No, just because a photo is recently uploaded to Instagram does not mean that it is current. In fact, on February 28 (when the invasion had already begun), a photo was uploaded on another Instagram account in which she did appear pregnant.

The denial hoaxes of La Resistencia del Expreso (more than 10,000 followers)

‘La Resistencia del Expreso’, a channel with more than 10,000 followers and known for its disinformation about COVID-19, already has more mentions to ‘Ukraine’ than to the term ‘Plandemic’. Among others, related to the attack on the Mariupol hospital. This channel has shared a message in which it is said that the pregnant women that appear in the images are the same person and that they have changed their clothes between the two photos. They state this without providing any evidence. In Maldita.es we have already explained what we know about it.

They have also released a video of a video shooting as if everything of what is happening in Ukraine is a manipulation. In the images, we can see people running after the director shouts “action”, but we have already told you that the video is neither from Ukraine nor is it current: the images circulate since, at least, 2013 and were recorded in Birmingham (United Kingdom) during the filming of the movie ‘Kaleidoscope Man’.

Fernando López Mirones: the denialist with 40,000 followers who spreads the hoax that Russia has announced an arrest warrant against George Soros

Fernando López Mirones is another person who has spread disinformation about COVID-19. Now, through his Telegram channel with more than 40,000 followers, he has also shared a hoax that claims that Russia has announced an arrest warrant against George Soros. As we have told you in Maldita.es, it is a disinformation that has been circulating for years and that is moving again now coinciding with the invasion of Ukraine. There are no references to that alleged order in official sources or in the media.

López Mirones has also assured on his channel that the media is carrying out “anti-Russian propaganda”. All that shared in a text in which he states things like “the poor people who have fled their homes in Ukraine are victims of journalists who have made them believe that the Russians were going to bomb them and kill people.”

‘Dignidad para todos’: a channel with more than 9,000 followers that grows based on hoaxes

Many of the hoaxes collected previously have also been distributed in the Telegram group ‘Dignidad para todos’, with more than 9,000 followers. For example, they have released photos of the injured pregnant women in Mariupol saying that it is a “Hollywood-style production.” They also claim without providing any evidence that Ukraine “organized” the attack on the maternity hospital.

Ana Qtella, the ‘QAnon’ denialist channel that disinforms about the Russian invasion

We have already talked about the video in which Zelensky appears shooting people in a room. These are images that the Ana Qtella channel has also shared, with almost 6,000 followers, assuring that it was from an electoral campaign spot, despite the fact that it is a scene from a TV series.

This channel also accused one of the women injured in the Mariupol hospital bombing of impersonating multiple people and being a “false victim”. Likewise, it echoed the hoax that Zelensky left Kyiv.

‘Hijos de las estrellas’ and the hoax that the photo of the woman injured in a Russian bombing is false

Like many other Telegram channels mentioned in this article, ‘Hijos de las estrelas’ has also accused the media of using an alleged image taken after a gas explosion in Russia in 2018 as if it was a Russian bombing in Ukraine. As we say, the photo was taken on February 24, 2022 and corresponds to an attack in Ukraine.

‘Hijos de las estrellas’ currently has more than 11,000 followers.

COVID-1984 publishes videos to its 21,000 followers ensuring that Zelensky is a “cocaine addict”

The tenth disinformation channel that we have analyzed is called ‘COVID-1984’. They have published a video in which Zelensky makes faces and scratches his nose. The channel assures without providing any type of proof that the Ukrainian president is a “cocaine addict”.

In fact, this accusation has been spread, also without evidence, by other groups that we have warned about.