Scammers are using video games to fake footage of war in Ukraine and the China Eastern Airlines plane crash

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Scammers are using video games to fake footage of war in Ukraine and the China Eastern Airlines plane crash
A screen capture of a flight simulation software.Michael Dunning/Getty Images
  • Video shared on Twitter on Monday claimed to show video from inside the plane that crashed in China.
  • But the video was from a flight simulator and had been uploaded to YouTube years prior.
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A viral video that has racked up hundreds of thousands of views across social media claims to show the last moments aboard China Eastern Airlines' Flight MU-5735, seconds before the plane crashed on Monday killing all 132 passengers.

In reality, the footage is from a video game and shows no such thing.

The 10-second video clip shows a plane appearing to turn upside down before it seems to meet the ground with a loud crash, silencing the screaming heard throughout the clip. One version of the video, which was still posted to Twitter on Tuesday and claimed to show "the last moment recorded on the plane," had more than 210,000 views and was retweeted hundreds of times. Another since-deleted tweet featuring the video received nearly 400,000 views.

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The video that circulated was actually first uploaded to YouTube a little more than three years ago, and its description explicitly states it is a computer simulation of a 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash. Despite only being a speculative amateur simulation, the video has been viewed more than 33 million times since it was posted in March 2019.

The clip's migration to Twitter on Monday is the latest example of footage from a video game or computer simulation being used in an effort to rack up likes on social media by claiming it represents footage from a real-world event. As graphics have gotten more realistic in recent years, experts say these types of videos have become a cheap and easy form of spreading misinformation.

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Similar tactics have also been utilized to spread misinformation and disinformation following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

One video that spread on Facebook in late February purported to show a video of an ace Ukrainian fighter pilot known as "the Ghost of Kyiv" shooting down Russian aircraft. The footage was actually from a free online video game called Digital Combat Simulator, PolitiFact reported, and it's likely that the "Ghost of Kyiv" is a viral myth that has propagated during the war.

"This footage is from DCS, but is nevertheless made out of respect for 'The Ghost of Kiev,'" the YouTube video's description stated.

Fact-checkers have been dealing with video game footage for years

These types of misinformation videos appeared to gain traction in the early years of the Syrian civil war, Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Insider. The quality of video games visuals has increased exponentially in a relatively short span, and it's become easier for social-media clout chasers and others with more nefarious intentions to pass them off as real footage.

Fake footage cribbed from simulations and videos has had varying degrees of success in deceiving people. The video claiming to be from Monday's plane crash was extremely easy to disprove, Brooking said, because it didn't take much to determine passengers hadn't actually filmed and uploaded any videos leading up to the crash.

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But in other instances, Brooking said, disproving these videos has been more difficult. It's been an issue that researchers and fact-checkers have been dealing with for almost a decade.

"I don't know exactly when this started, but it was certainly at least concurrent with the release of ARMA 3," he said of the fake videos, particularly ones depicting scenes from conflict zones.

ARMA 3, a military tactical shooter game that was released in 2013, marked one of the first instances where screen-recorded video game captures could look like footage from a "contemporary battlefield," according to Brooking. Other video games that have been used to spread fake videos and photos online include Call of Duty and Digital Combat Simulator World, he added.

"There are moments of conflict coverage during the Syrian civil war or during the aftermath of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine by Russia where you would have these — often ARMA — screenshots and video circulating," Brooking said.

In 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted a photo of what it said showed "irrefutable proof" of the US aiding an ISIS convoy in Syria. In reality, the picture was a screenshot from the mobile game AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron, the BBC reported.

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A year earlier, the Russian embassy tweeted a low-resolution screenshot from the game Command & Conquer: Generals to illustrate its claim about "extremists" receiving "several truckloads of chemical ammo" in Aleppo, according to the CBC.

"In the absence of real photos or videos to back up their claims, they turn to these computer-generated screenshots, and maybe the wider world wasn't fooled, but people who were susceptible to Russian or Syrian regime propaganda in the first place might take that as an article of faith," Brooking said.

Once the clips go viral they can quickly become disassociated from their original source and hard to rein in. When the same Twitter account that posted the fake footage of the China Eastern Airlines crash clarified they were unable to "verify the authenticity" of the video, their follow-up tweet was shared just six times compared with the hundreds of thousands who saw the initial clip.

These videos can also spread, in part, because modern warfare has become nearly indistinguishable with clips from war video games, Brooking said. The rise in drone footage has also created videos from the real world that mirror aerial footage from video games, he added.

As video games have gotten better at resembling actual war, the footage from conflicts has also begun to mimic video games.

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"The spectacle of war video games has in many ways merged with modern war imagery," Brooking said. "The fact is that now we see numerous cases where soldiers are wearing GoPros and shooting from a first-person perspective."

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