At least six false covers attributed to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have been relayed, mainly on Russian Telegram channels, in the past six months. The phenomenon, far from being isolated, has concerned several international media since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The editorial staff of the Observers questioned an independent Russian media which investigated these false publications.
On November 28, the editorial staff of France 24 Observers spotted a cover falsely attributed to the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie hebdo published with a caption in English : “France: Nazism is associated with Ukr[aine]. Charlie Hebdo has released a special issue on the adventures of the Nazis ukr[ainiens] in Qatar” affirms the publication retweeted up to 129 times, which we also find in Spanish, in French, in Polish Where in Italianusually with low numbers of shares.
The drawing itself refers to false information verified by the editorial staff of France 24 Observers on November 25 concerning a supposed Al-Jazeera video.
In the video, the Qatari media allegedly reported that a Nazi tag had been carried out by Ukrainian supporters in Qatar, with the words “Sieg Heil”, the “victory salute” under the Nazi regime. This video has never been published by Al-Jazeera and it is a fake
On the drawing, we see the same mustache of Hitler drawn to the mascot of the world as in the fake video of Al-Jazeera. Two men wearing keffiyeh look up the meaning of the word in a dictionary and assume it is “something in Ukrainian”.
This front page of Charlie Hebdo has never existed: it is a creation from scratch imitating the style of the newspaper’s publications. There is no mention of this cover on the page of the latest issues of the magazine. Publication n°1 584, supposed to be the one where Ukrainian supporters make a tag, actually shows a drawing on French political news.
At least six fake Charlie Hebdo front pages since July
On September 23, 2022, Charlie Hebdo magazine itself revealed in an article that it had spotted at least two front pages imitating the style of its newspaper, specifying that the latter were “ugly moreover”.
These two covers notably showed Emmanuel Macron, the French president, on a water tank spraying demonstrators, shouting at them: “Stay at home, don’t revolt!”, while Volodymyr Zelensky, made up as a dog, seems to be eating excrement in a bowl in the colors of the European Union.
In another, the outline of the United Kingdom vomits on the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, while Volodymyr Zelensky, still made up like a dog, clings to him. Spelling errors in titles such as “The party is over” without the “e” for “over”, or the word “hot” written “haud” underline the amateurish character of fakes.
In October, it’s another one pretending to show King Charles III being indignant at a tag on the tomb of Queen Elizabeth II carried out by Volodymyr Zelensky, always drawn in the form of a dog.
Finally, at the beginning of November, the editorial staff of the Observers of France 24 spotted a last fake front page showing Pope Francis putting his hand on the buttocks of a child. The cover refers to a statement by the Pope on the “cruelty” of Chechen and Buryat fighters, thus referring to soldiers from non-Christian nations of the Russian Federation.
In total, therefore, at least six false front pages attributed to Charlie Hebdo have circulated since July, all on themes related to the war in Ukraine.
Headlines relayed mainly in pro-Russian groups on Telegram
According to statistics from the TG Stat tool, which analyzes data on Telegram, the last false one attributed to Charlie Hebdo showing a supposed Nazi tag in Qatar has been relayed since November 25 in at least 85 Russian-speaking Telegram groups. In very rare cases, the publication was also visible on Telegram groups in Spanish, French or Italian.
The original post was made by the Telegram channel “Раньше всех. Ну почти. Спецоперация” meaning in English “Earlier than others. Almost. Special operation”, before being deleted.
The Russian-language independent media Provereno media has analyzed in detail the publications relaying these false headlines. They were each time published first in Russian-speaking Telegram channels, openly favorable to the Kremlin.
Thus, the first cover showing Boris Johnson being vomited on was shared on July 12 in the Nebozhena channel with 480,000 subscribers.
The one with Emmanuel Macron on a truck was relayed on September 1 in the Pool N3 channel with 274,000 subscribers.
The one featuring Charles III was relayed on September 20 on the Telegram channel of Christina Potupchik, former commissioner of the Russian pro-government youth movement Nashi, with 177,000 subscribers.
Finally, the one showing a Ukrainian missile falling into a hole was relayed on November 16 in the Telegram Poutine TG channel with 313,000 subscribers.
These publications circulated almost exclusively in Russian Telegram channels and were amplified in most cases by more famous pro-Russian propagandists: one of the best known is Vladimir Soloviev, presenter on Russian television and presented by Liberation as the “chief propagandist” of the Kremlin, and whose Telegram channel exceeds 1.4 million subscribers.
Many falsified media coverages
Since September, the editorial staff of France 24 Observers has spotted at least five other false international media coverage, German (Stern and Titanic), Spanish (El Jueves), or American (vogue). Most of these have been relatively unshared, some have had more success like that of Vogue with 1,600 retweets, although it is openly parody.
For its part, the Russian media Provereno claims that at least 10 covers have been falsified, including Turkish, Indian or German covers, analyzed in particular in this article.
“These fake headlines pursue a goal of zombification of the Russian people”
For Ilya Ber, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Russian independent verification media Provereno, these front pages have a very specific objective:
According to our observations, these false covers are a new phenomenon. During the previous peak of the information war between 2014 and 2015, we didn’t notice anything like this. It’s really a strategy that was born in the summer of 2022 and became a larger-scale strategy in the fall of 2022.
They were manufactured by Russian propaganda for internal needs mainly. They support false narratives with the aim of zombification of the Russian people. And they do it pretty well considering the number of shares. They are first often published in private groups [puis relayées par de plus gros groupes notamment administrés par des personnalités pro-Kremlin, NDLR].
What is interesting is that there are references to fake events in these fake covers. This is the case for that of Charlie Hebdo making a reference to a false tag of Ukrainian supporters during the World Cup in Qatar. But so is another front page showing Zelensky as “a black hole” gobbling up international donation money for Ukraine on the fake cover of German magazine Stern. [la rédaction des Observateurs a notamment analysé de faux graffiti présentant Volodymyr Zelensky comme un trou noir aspirant l’argent dans les rues de Saint-Mandé en France ou Varsovie en Pologne, NDLR].
The objective is twofold: first internally, to make the Russians believe that there are many Western media supports for Russia, and opposition to the war in Ukraine. And then external, trying to artificially amplify a wave of sympathy in other languages. Either way, the goal is to feed their audience with alternative facts.
Similar strategies of pro-Russian influence have already been observed in the recent past.
According to an investigation by Proekt Media, an independent Russian-language investigative media, Moscow authorities have already tested a similar strategy on Telegram. Memes, publications generally composed of explicit photos and a humorous text, had been distributed via subcontractors, in particular from the Nashi movement to denigrate the opponent Alexeï Navalny from 2016.
In early November 2022, analytics firm Graphika Inc. reported that pro-Russian internet accounts used political cartoons to try to influence the outcome of the US midterm elections. The accounts publishing these images were linked to a “troll factory” linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group as well as the Internet Research Agency, a Russian propaganda agency.
If you spot a media coverage on the news of the war between Ukraine and Russia that seems dubious to you, always remember to check on the media in question if this one exists. And if in doubt, you can contact the editorial staff of the France 24 Observers via the Twitter account @InfoIntoxF24.