HMS Defender, a British destroyer

HMS Defender, a British destroyer Royal Navy

What Really Happened in the Black Sea? A Victory for Russian Disinformation

The global tempest around the June 23 incident reminds us of our responsibility to verify before we share.

On Wednesday, war almost broke out in the Black Sea. Or so it seemed, as news outlets, Twitter users, and state media conveyed accounts of a Royal Navy ship being fired upon by Russian ships off the Crimean coast. The June 23 almost-war dramatically illustrates the power of disinformation – and everyone’s responsibility to check facts.

A British tabloid published a dramatic account of the events by a reporter aboard the destroyer, which was en route from Odesa toward Georgia. “The angry thud of cannon fire rings out on the port side of HMS Defender as I crouch beside the bridge in my hastily adorned flame retardant gloves and balaclava,” it read.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence tweeted dramatic video images of the purported confrontation with the British destroyer under this note: “Footage of Russian Black Sea Fleet and Border Service of the Federal Security Service's prevention of the breach of the Russian Federation state border committed by the UK Navy destroyer ‘Defender.’” The Russian news agency TASS, in turn, reported that a “border guard ship fired warning shots, while a SU-24M bomber had to drop warning bombs ahead of the destroyer before the ship turned back and left the Russian waters.” 

And in sundry sofas around the UK, indeed around the world, social media users – including politicians who should know better — saw the news and shared it. With excited reports ricocheting around social media, the UK Ministry of Defence issued a statement saying its vessel’s exchange with the Russian Navy had been…bog standard. But the official reassurances arrived too late to prevent millions from reading the misleading messages. 

HMS Defender was undertaking a high-profile journey, travelling through what most countries consider Ukrainian waters off the coast of Crimea. Unsurprisingly, Russia isn’t keen on NATO countries’ navies making statements in waters it now considers Russian. It was equally unsurprising, then, that Moscow wanted to send a message to other NATO navies that there would be a hostile welcome should they wish to sail past the coast of Crimea. Any news of shots fired at a British navy vessel and bombs dropped in her path is of course serious business and should be verified. But news of looming war is titillating, it’s tempting to share it, perhaps with a comment highlighting the dramatic nature of the matter, before verifying that it’s actually true. 

On Twitter, Rear Adm. Chris Parry — a retired Royal Navy warfare officer – gamely tried to steer the conversation onto a more facts-based keel. “WE NEED TO BE CAREFUL ABOUT RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION HERE. Two plus two does not equal five. Russians are conducting routine bombing and gunnery practice anyway and claim that it is related to DEFENDER's passage past them.” Indeed, the Russian Ministry of Defence appears to have used a previously planned exercise to suggest its vessels were targeting HMS Defender. 

Admiral Parry’s message, alas, was less exciting than the potential war in the Black Sea. So was a statement by UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who made a similar point: “This morning, HMS Defender carried out a routine transit from Odesa towards Georgia across the Black Sea. As is normal for this route, she entered an internationally recognised traffic separation corridor. She exited that corridor safely at 0945 BST. As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity.” 

The MoD press office tried to defuse the tempest with its own tweets, which got far less traction than the original Russian one: “No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international law.” 

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And the BBC’s Jonathan Beale, another reporter who happened to be aboard the destroyer, explained what happened: pretty much the same thing that always happens when navy vessels sail close to another country. The home team shadows the transiting vessels, sometimes issuing warnings. The almost-fake war in the Black Sea was a mirage.

But there are crucial lessons here for us, the public. Sharing salacious social media content is tempting; what’s the harm? But in fact, the harm can be considerable. The Jan. 6 assault on Congress was fueled by people sharing information they hadn’t verified. Our laziness is, of course, the reason why assorted countries see such use in putting titillating tidbits of misleading information and falsehoods at our disposal. Online vessel locators – popular far beyond the shipping community – have been erroneously located Swedish Navy vessels close to Kaliningrad when the vessels were nowhere near Russian waters. 

Consider what would happen if, say, Russia decided to spread (and act on) such information, aided by social media users intrigued by yet another confrontation. Indeed, consider what might happen if the group or country involved has less steely nerves than UK commanders and decide not to play down the social media storm but to further ignite it? Everyone, from commanders of destroyers to mere social media users, has a responsibility to help keep their countries safe.