A clip of a Ukrainian fighter jet blowing up a suspected Russian aircraft started trending on social media yesterday. Many believed it was proof of the exploits of a mysterious and unverified ace pilot called the “Ghost of Kyiv.” It was actually fake footage from the 2013 PC game, Digital Combat Simulator: World.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second day, rumors began to circulate of Ukrainian fighter pilot responsible for taking down multiple Russian targets. “The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has claimed five Russian aircraft and a helicopter were shot down early Thursday,” CNN reported on February 24 (via Snopes). Russia, however, denied the losses.
With apparent clips of a jet circling around the Ukraine capital of Kyiv already spreading on social media, some went looking for evidence of the downed Russian aerial forces, and because the internet will always give you what you’re looking for whether it’s real or not, it didn’t take long for seeming footage of the “Ghost of Kyiv” in action to start making the rounds. By February 25 the following video went viral:
As Snopes, Reuters, and others later confirmed, however, the footage was actually from a YouTube video that was explicit about being only a fictional homage. “This footage is from DCS, but is nevertheless made out of respect for ‘The Ghost of Kiev,’” wrote user Comrade_Corb in the description of the video. “If he is real, may God be with him; if he is fake, I pray for more like ‘him.’”
Still, it would have been easy to mistake for the real thing at a glance because it’s designed to look like it was filmed with the vertical apsect ratio of a smartphone, and people can be heard breathlessly commenting in the background.
Digital Combat Simulator was a widely released free-to-play flight sim that’s now more than a decade old. Developed by Eagle Dynamics, a company founded in Russia but which is now headquartered in Switzderland, DCS: World’s default map is set in the Caucasus region near Russia, Georgia, and Crimea.
A spokesperson for Eagle Dynamics, Matthias Techmanski, confirmed to Reuters that the fictional video from YouTube spreading like wildfire on social media was indeed from DCS. “We are not responsible for its distribution, nor do we endorse such content,” he said.
Some media outlets have taken to referring to the viral clip as a “miscaptioned video” and Twitter has flagged some of the most liked and retweeted versions of it as “media presented out of context.” While that’s certainly true in a technical sense, it hardly captures the by now well-established phenomenon of misinformation that spreads online whenever major news is breaking, often using hyper-realistic footage from video games.
It’s now a media literacy 101 to be skeptical of any unsourced information spread by seemingly random accounts online. And while some people might still be learning how to navigate the tumult of posts whenever a new crisis or tragedy takes over the news cycle, it’s almost always the bigger accounts, the ones who should (and often do) know better, who are actually helping to drive the flow of bullshit. That’s not an accident. It’s by design.