The Dumbest Pro-Russia Hoax on the Internet

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David L. Stern is a freelance writer based in Kiev, Ukraine. He’s also, if you believe several Russian media outlets, a covert CIA agent who helped orchestrate a conspiracy to shoot down an airplane and blame Russia. What a busy fellow!

The accusation is a whopper: When Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, it was shot down by the CIA and Ukrainian rebels in a scheming partnership to make Russia look evil—nevermind that investigators have concluded that the plane was shot down from territory held by pro-Russian rebels.


Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda made a nifty captioned YouTube rip of the audio—The collapse of the “Boeing”. Recordings of conversations the two CIA agents [Exclusive]—and identified Stern along with an American consultant named David Hamilton as two nefarious secret agents casually preparing to murder innocent commercial airline passengers as part of a violence-addled smear campaign against Kremlin supporters:

The main problem with the audio: It sounds like two Russian dudes signed up for Espionage Improv 101 but got a little drunk beforehand. As Foreign Policy’s Reid Standish points out, the accents here are absurdly bad, as one of the men starts out with a stilted British accent, like Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly except, you know, a non-fictional propagandist attempting to ignite conspiracy theorizing. As for the phrasing:

But the most glaring hole is in the conversation itself. The men do not talk with each other like native English speakers and use turns of phrase that sound as if their dialogue was translated to English from Russian via Google Translate. Before signing off, the two say “Luck!” to each other, a common farewell in Russian.


So where did the sloppy hoax come from? The accusations seem to spring from a press release published on obscure British PR clearinghouse The release, written by someone identified as “Columnist Caleb Gilbert,” names American freelance journalist David L. Stern as a secret CIA operative and transcribes conversations Stern allegedly had about the downing of MH17. The release provides a link to audio supposedly representing a bugged 7-minute conversation between Stern and someone else.

But the transcript and audio didn’t stay obscure. As the New York Times reports, they were quickly picked up by prominent (state-owned) Russian media:

The audio, and a poorly made transcript, remained mostly unnoticed until the end of last month when it was published on a Russian news site owned by the nation’s Ministry of Defense just as Russia used its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block an international tribunal to investigate the downing of the plane.


This may be the most embarrassing thing pro-Russia supporters have done to blame the US and Ukraine for MH17, but it’s not the only bluff. Russia is suspected of editing Wikipedia to back up another Russia-absolving MH17 theory: that a Ukrainian fighter plane shot down the passenger aircraft.

Maybe next time someone will hire a voice coach.

[New York Times | Foreign Policy]

Image via AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda