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“God-level Trolling” – Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova Promotes Debunked Internet Conspiracy Theories on The Skripal Nerve Agent Attack

September 6, 2018

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

Following the recent publication of information about the two suspects in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal a number of attempts have been made to debunk the evidence, most notably from the informal network of individuals and websites who have a long history of pushing conspiracy theories about other allegations against Russia, such as the downing of MH17.

The recent release of information on the incident included multiple images from CCTV cameras that allowed the police to track the movements of the two suspects from the airport they arrived at, to Salisbury, then back to the airport immediately after the assassination attempt. Two of these images caught the attention of the denialists and conspiracy theorists, showing the suspects passing underneath a CCTV camera at exactly the same time:

A number of bloggers with a long history of sharing conspiracy theories in defence of Russia claimed these images were proof that there was something suspicious about the UK’s evidence:

The basis of this claim was that the images showed the same location, but at exactly the same time, so it would have been impossible for both individuals to be stood in the same location at the same time. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, this conclusion was based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The images show the suspects as they’re passing through Gatwick airport, specifically the non-return gates that are at the terminal exits. Photographs of the type of gates in question can be found on the Marco Airport Facilities Group website in a case study about the installation of the gates at Gatwick airport:

Another set of gates in the same style are found elsewhere in Gatwick Airport:

It is clearly visible there are multiple parallel gates that would have allowed the two suspects pass through the gates at the same time, and this fact resulted in some of the conspiracy theorists retracting their theories.

However, this didn’t stop Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova repeating these same debunked claims to the Russian media. In a live interview with Russia 1’s 60 Minutes Zakharova explicitly states the corridors in both CCTV images are in fact the same corridor, so it would be impossible for both suspects to be in the corridor at the same moment as the timestamp suggests, citing this as one of many supposed “discrepancies” in the UK’s evidence. Zakharova described this as “god-level trolling” by UK authorities.

It’s impossible to know if Zakharova was just repeating the debunked theories of internet conspiracy theorists, or this was a theory the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had come up with themselves. The way in which the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russia’s various embassies engages with the community that was sharing these theories through social media would suggest they certainly would have been exposed to the claim, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Russian officials had cited internet conspiracy theories in their official capacity.

Following the downing of MH17 in Ukraine in July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence gave a press conference, presenting what it claimed was its own evidence about the crash. This included a claim that one video showing the Buk missile launcher that shot down MH17 passing through separatist controlled Luhansk was in fact filmed in another part of Ukraine, in a town under the control of the Ukrainian government. This theory had in fact first originated on Russian internet forums, and had gone viral among pro-Russian conspiracy communities. It seems extremely unlikely that the Russian Ministry of Defence would have come up with the same erroneous conclusion (and presented edited images to support its claim) independently of the internet conspiracy, so it is clear where they got their claim from, internet conspiracy theories.

In an earlier example Russian government officials made multiple claims about the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus that were based on conspiracy theories and internet rumours. For example, two days after the attack, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich made the following claim:

More new evidence is starting to emerge that this criminal act was clearly provocative. On the internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action.

The claim videos from the August 21st attack had been uploaded onto YouTube before the attack had begun circulating immediately after the attack, as a number of the videos were displayed on YouTube with the date of August 20th. This led to the claims about videos being uploaded before August 21st, which was for a short while popular amount pro-Assad conspiracy theorists. However, this was actually a result of the date displayed on YouTube being based on the location of the server, in this case the west coast of the USA, so any videos uploaded early in the morning in Damascus, at the time the attack took place, would be displayed as being uploaded the day before because of the time difference.

The question remains as to whether or not Maria Zakharova’s statement was based on genuine, if extremely bad, analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or if all the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could muster in its response to the UK’s allegations where some conspiracy theories it stole from the internet. Perhaps it was Zakharova’s own attempt at “god-level trolling”, but it is clear that in the face of evidence from the UK, Russia’s response has been worse than that of internet conspiracy theorists.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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  1. Ram

    выделяется как дерьмо на тарелке
    Logic and Reality is the exact opposite of what he she or it claims. Another Russian Troll that stands out, well, like a typical Russian troll, perhaps it might sound better in Russia, he stands out like a turd on a plate.

  2. Nobody

    Corner of red sign on CCTV photos and number of empty panels (without metallic pipes) matches only the most right gate. Other two have empty wall panel between red sign and metallic pipes. Therefore, question remains – how they were able to pass rightmost gate on the same time moment?

    • also nobody

      your question – question remains – how they were able to pass rightmost gate on the same time moment, it may just happen. Also those two guys were traveling and WALKING together quite a lot, so that’s no wonder they did adapted to each other step and speed.

    • Bomber

      If you had taken the flight from Petersburg to London you would have discovered that there are pipes in all the corridors, it’s just the angle of the photograph which makes it look like not all of them have them.
      You can easily see that the two photos of the suspects are from different locations, you see that the position of the cameras ain’t exact (different amount of the red and white signs is visible), the time is easily explained by they been walking together and just picked the corridors next to each other, keeping the same speed they would reach the spot where the cameras takes the photo around the same time.

      But I have to agree, things works differently in Russia compared with the rest of the world, it’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat, you never know what happen in Russia.

      • muchandr

        The two images show different crop areas, see this

        Why would somebody use fake proofs of a largely undeniable event (the two did arrive at Gatwick) is beyond me. Suppose the shot’s have been doctored. What does UK gain or what does it have to cover up with this?

  3. Manor

    Comparing the two photographs it is clear that they are from different corridors. The backgrounds to the date and pause sign are different and the top left hand corner of each photo are different showing that the cameras are at slightly different angles. So they cannot be the same passage. The same effect can also be seen by the position of the swing barrier showing again a different camera angle. In thee cropped photos shown here only the date stamp shows the clear difference but anyone who can’t see the differences in the original pictures need an urgent appointment with Specsavers!

    • muchandr

      This probably has been posted 100 times before. Jake Morphoneus ids the cameras using grime deposits to show the camera is the same, the images are just shifted

      why would anybody want to manipulate this is beyond me

      • Andrius

        Check reflections of the metal elements next to guys.
        Check gates opening angles.
        Check markings mentioned in your video with original pictures.

        • muchandr

          All of these are explainable by different choice of crop area. This particular argument, however, is not really awfully important in the big scheme of things for either side, so I am a lot more interested on as to why would anybody fake this? The two indisputably did arrive at Gatwick, after all.

      • X

        You only need to compare the side-by-side photos at 17:18 in this video to realise that the spatial alignment of the allegedly identical features are significantly different. In particular, the middle circle is closer to the bottom circle, the sub-circle in the top circle is higher and the two sub-circles in the bottom circle are level with each other. There is no similarity here. It is just noise. Honestly, I would be very embarrassed to be making such a claim. It is blatantly false.

        Let me state the obvious here. Those gates will swing to almost the same position every time. They are clearly positioned differently on these photo, and that is because they are different gates.

        This is just a red herring. There is no dispute that they passed through this airport. And there is no evidence here of these photos being faked.

  4. CR

    Anyway, it is really new idea for spies to walk always together ))) Funny )) May be they wanted to be noticeable?

    • Chad Bytheway

      I agree, they should have a cap and a grey raincoat shifting from shadow to shadow, proper cloak and dagger!

  5. Eduardo

    It should be no surprise that they passed through at exactly the same time – anyone who follows olympic sports knows Russia has won many gold medals in synchronized swimming. Their intelligence operatives are very predictable in fact.

  6. SS

    so what has it got to do with timestamps.more like was higgins contacted by cia,why did he take this job,who is his adviser,how does he make a living out of conjecture like this.what about those cia prisons that still exist.what has ex kgb got to do with will not find out about skripal case by looking at timestamps.stm

  7. Tracey Thakore

    Why do you always infer that it is the Russians ? As Sergei Skripal is the former head of the Russian KGB, what makes you think that the Government that he worked for on some level would go onto poison then get destroy the evidence relating to one of their own ?

  8. Tracey Thakore

    In reference to ss, what makes you think it is the CIA? The Americans feed back to their own, as do any other intelligence agency.


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