Briefs

The nuclear bomb scare that never happened

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  • Branduolinė bomba, kurios nebuvo  Šį straipsnį taip pat galite skaityti lietuvių kalba

On 14 June, the Lithuanian-language website ldiena.lt—known for its yellow journalism—posted a news report by Romualdas Palionis claiming that “on 13 June, an incident with a U.S. B-52 happened in the Klaipeda region” of western Lithuania. According to the report, a U.S. Air Force bomber deployed in the Baltics “flew over the territory of Lithuania and accidentally discharged a B-61 nuclear bomb model.” On 16 June, the country’s most popular website, delfi.lt, received an email signed by “Romualdas P.” telling the same story: that the U.S. aircraft had accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb model and hit a village house, which caught fire. The same day, similar emails were sent to Lithuania’s Ministry of National Defense and foreign diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius. The fake story happened to appear on 14 June—Mourning and Hope Day—which commemorates the Stalinist deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia and Asia that lasted from 1941 to 1953.

Making matters worse, ldiena.lt reposted a press release allegedly issued by the Pentagon and signed by its representative, Lisa Ferdinando. It included links to the websites of WorldNews Network, Reddit and Army and Politics—all of which contained a similar message but in English—along with a video of a house on fire. The fact that Lithuanian police had not registered any incident of that kind did not stop ldiena.lt from posting it.

On 14 June, the Pentagon’s website published an article by Lisa Ferdinando about the ISIS defeat in Mosul, Iraq, along with a photo of a B-52 bomber. Thus, the fake story by Palionis used the original format of the Pentagon website, the photo and the author’s name—even though the U.S. Air Force has not used B-52s to carry nuclear bombs for several decades. The ldiena.lt fake story also made a subtle allusion to Cold War-era cases when B-52s actually did “lose” nuclear bombs over Greenland, North Korea and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Lithuanian Army’s Strategic Communications Department as well as mainstream media publicly refuted the fake story. Lithuanian national broadcaster LRT informed viewers that the video of the burning house was two-year-old footage that had been shot in a different place in Lithuania; it included an amateurish montage of voices heard speaking in Russian-accented Lithuanian about the airplane.

Delfi.lt also reported that three users who ping-ponged the fake news—johnkeller68, travis turner and Romualdas P—“had registered just a few days prior to the alleged accident.” Moreover, Romualdas Palionis, the one who had emailed the letter to delfi.lt, seemed to appear from nowhere: a similar name was mentioned 15 years ago in a car theft case in Lithuania. The ping pong propaganda technique also employed sending emails to Lithuanian mainstream media and state institutions in order to catapult this fake story into the national public discourse.

It’s unknown if this incident is related to Zapad 2017, Russian’s upcoming military exercise in Belarus. Yet the story is not a spontaneous, amateurish move; it was certainly planned. It also serves to distract and impede the smooth functioning of state institutions, to test public reaction, to see how quickly disinformation spreads, to observe official reaction and finally to identify channels of multiplication of disinformation.

This “bomb that never happened” story shows that the Kremlin’s disinformation operations are not always sophisticated. Yet they are often effective anyway. Such operations aim to bombard the public discourse with multiple fake narratives—even ones that contradict each other—just to distract and sow chaos and distrust among the people. In addition, fake stories keep state institutions on the defensive, constantly busy debunking disinformation. But fighting disinformation from a defensive position is not effective. Pro-active measures are clearly required; this is the domain of strategic communication.

Photo: U.S. Air National Guard Airman Ashlyn J. Correia