Fake war videos are using footage from gamers on YouTube

The video shows crosshairs hovering over what looks like a collection of buildings. In the background, you can hear what sounds like Turkish soldiers on walkie-talkies. Then, a drone strike.

But the video didn’t depict a bombing at all — at least, not a real one. It was taken from a video game.

In February, France 24’s Observers debunked the video, which claimed to show a Turkish drone claiming to strike a target in Afrin, Syria. The video — which was offline as of publication — went viral on social media, being shared by several pro-Turkish accounts and racking up more than 200,000 views on Instagram.

“In the soundtrack to the short video, you can hear what sounds like Turkish soldiers communicating via walkie talkie,” The Observers’ report reads. “It also has a Turkish music soundtrack. But with a little digging, it soon becomes clear that all the audio in this video, including the Turkish voices, were simply added to a screengrab from the video game Arma 3.”

The debunkers isolated details like a red star graphic from the game and its font style as proof that the video was actually from a battle simulation game. They then found a video on YouTube of an Arma 3 tutorial that depicted the exact same shots as the fake.

While outlandish, it wasn’t the first time a fake video in Turkey drew upon video game footage. It wasn’t even the first time that Arma 3 was featured.

In early January, fact-checking site Teyit debunked a video that claimed to depict a military strike against the Kurdistan Workers' Party. The video was picked up by a major Turkish broadcaster.

In fact, the footage comes from video game footage first posted to YouTube in April of last year.

Less than a month later, Teyit debunked another one. This time, the fake video claimed to show military action in Afrin by pulling from the video game Medal of Honor. Again, the video consisted of clips from the game that were uploaded to YouTube.

“Generally, the videos used by news sites are taken from the videos that gamers shoot when playing video games,” Teyit fact-checker Gülin Çavuş told Poynter in a message. (Çavuş was a 2017 International Fact-Checking Network fellow.) “We had to search almost all YouTube videos of gamers.”

She said that TV stations in Turkey will frequently use video game footage instead of real video or images in order to fill in gaps in reporting and strengthen propaganda. (Freedom House has rated Turkey “Not Free” in its measurement of press freedom.)

“I think that the reason why TV channels and news agency use the video games are: They cannot get new images, footage and videos from the conflict areas during the war … (and) they want to share most impressive broadcasting for propaganda,” Çavuş said. “It is very difficult to follow the TV continuously so it is very important to follow the reports from the users. This is among our greatest challenges.”

But Turkey is just one example of a country where video game footage has been used to create fake war videos. The practice has become a trend for misinformation around the world — one that tends to crop up during times of geopolitical unrest, enabled by hours of video game clips on YouTube. Even governments have gotten in on the action.

“We have seen it in very large cases,” said Christiaan Triebert, a digital investigator and trainer at Bellingcat. “Why they use video games so often is that it’s a very easy way to put out a video that looks cool.”

Such was the case when the Russian Ministry of Defense published a series of photos purporting to show collusion between the United States and the Islamic State. Bellingcat debunked that, showing that the images were actually screenshots taken from the mobile phone game AC-130 Gunship Simulator, cropped to appear real.

“We did a reverse image search and found it was actually a video game,” Triebert said. “I mean, this is, like, being shared thousands of times. I think people think it looks interesting.”

In the past, more footage from Arma 3 has also been broadcasted on Russian state TV. A different video game, Apache: Air Assault, was used in Egypt as “evidence” of the precision of Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State.

The reason video games keep being misused in this manner is their accessibility on YouTube, Triebert said. Many games are realistic enough to pass as true, while also lacking context to ensure no one can discredit it on first sight.

“Let’s say you and me want to make a viral video of something that just happened,” he said. “The U.S. does something in Syria, we together make a fake video. We probably pull footage from YouTube, (searching for a) bombing airfield in Syria. Video game footage of that similar event can be downloaded, cut out a few parts, made less quality and immediately people start to share.”

Lowering the quality of video game footage makes it less likely for someone to use a reverse image search, Triebert said, since tools like InVid and RevEye analyze the array of pixels in specific images to try and turn up matching results online.

Still, he said that’s the best way to try and debunk potentially fake videos of military strikes. Other strategies for verifying any social media video include checking its metadata for clues, using geolocation software like Google Earth or Wikimapia to see if the video is actually where it claims to be and analyzing the shadows in the video using Suncalc.

If all else fails, Triebert said fact-checkers and news consumers should just search YouTube for videos related to the one in question. If it’s actually based on footage from a video game, its source material will likely come up.

“There are thousands of such videos,” he said. “If you see footage of a night attack and a lot of shooting and a helicopter, then it type into YouTube — you often find the same video of a different incident. The faker was probably thinking the exact same thing.”

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