Forged poster shared to claim 'homeless people recruited in US to fight in Ukraine'

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, an international legion backing the Kyiv government started an advertising campaign to drum up overseas support and recruit fighters from abroad. However, a fabricated poster shared thousands of times online, allegedly targeting people on welfare in the United States, is not related to this campaign. Ukrainian authorities say the image -- which AFP found has several inconsistencies in its formatting -- is a forgery.

The false image has been shared online in various countries since the beginning of April, including on the Chinese social media platform Weibo here.

The user, who has more than two million followers, wrote in simplified Chinese on April 4: "Poster on the New York subway 'Tired of living on welfare? Fight in Ukraine!'

"Homeless Americans are invited to fight the Russian military in Donbas on a monthly contract."

A poster seen in one of the images repeats the same claim in English, while the other replaces the English text with Chinese.

The International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine (ILDU) is a volunteer brigade set up in February 2022 following Russia's invasion of its neighbour (archived link).

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has also invited foreign fighters to defend Ukraine (archived link).

Screenshot of the false Weibo post, taken on May 1

The same picture was shared on other social media platforms including Twitter, and on Chinese sites Toutiao and Douyin.

It also circulated in multiple other languages with thousands of shares, including German, English, Italian, French, Russian, Dutch, Spanish, Romanian, Polish, Slovakian and Vietnamese.

The United States advises its citizens against fighting in Ukraine (archived link).

AFP only found one photo of the poster online, despite it supposedly being displayed in a public place.

Misinformation about the war with Russia, as well as about Ukrainian authorities, has been spread repeatedly since the invasion of Russian troops in February 2022, as debunked by AFP here.

Forged poster

Neither the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry nor the ILDU has issued such calls.

On April 5, Ukraine's Centre for Countering Disinformation -- which has operated since 2021 (archived links here and here) -- warned the poster is a forgery.

In a notice, it said: "Such advertisements were not placed in the New York subway. Also, posters in the subway have a very different framing (archived link)."

The Ukrainian government's Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security has also dismissed the poster as a fake on its Facebook page (archived link).

The Spravdi Centre for Strategic Communication -- a Ukrainian government department set up to counter false information -- also wrote on April 9 that the poster was a forgery (archived link).

A number of Ukrainian diplomatic missions, including embassies in Denmark and Cyprus, Ukraine's permanent mission to the UN, and the consulate general in Chicago, also published similar denials on their Facebook pages (archived links here, here, here and here).

The fabricated poster included the telephone number of the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States as a contact and also carried the logo of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (archived links here and here). However, no such appeal to US welfare recipients can be found on either body's website.

Visual inconsistencies

The alleged location of the poster in the New York subway seems unlikely.

As the Ukrainian Centre for Combating Disinformation has already pointed out, the frame does not match the billboards commonly found in the New York subway. They are slightly wider than those seen in the misleading posts, as an AFP photo from New York shows below:

Passenger on the New York underground in July 2021 ( AFP / Daniel Slim)

This was also confirmed by Sean Butler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), New York's transit agency (archived link).

He wrote on April 21: "This does not appear to be an item placed within the MTA network and is not authorized to be displayed in the MTA network. Therefore, were it to be observed by an MTA employee, it would be subject to removal."

As a fact check by the German news agency dpa pointed out, in some versions of the fabricated poster, there are contact numbers for two other US agencies, namely the unemployment insurance offices in Idaho and Kauai, above the image (archived links here and here).

Another detail indicates the poster is fake: an Italian user commented on an article by the Italian fact-checking organisation Open Online on Twitter that a similar-looking frame was previously used for another false advert for the German Federal Ministry of Defence (archived links here and here).

It apparently warned Ukrainian trainees that swastikas were forbidden in Germany.

Several other fact-checking organisations debunked the posts -- including here and here -- saying the poster was a fabrication (archived links here and here).

Both posters were apparently pictured behind a transparent plastic film with a thin white border, which has an opening at the top.

A semi-circular cut-out is visible at the opening in each case (circled in yellow), and the distances between the notices are similar (circled in red), as highlighted by AFP below:

Comparison of the two notices: alleged appeal to trainees from Ukraine in Germany (left), alleged appeal to welfare recipients in the USA (right), screenshots from 25 April 2023, emphasis by AFP

In addition, the purported telephone number has been formatted inconsistently for US readers, showing the country code, which is not needed for domestic calls.

The formatting of the telephone number is also unusual for the United States, where it is usually given in blocks: three-digit area code, three digits, four digits (archived link).

However, the telephone number on the fabricated poster has instead been divided into two- and three-digit blocks in a similar way to how the Ukrainian embassy in the United States formats its phone number (archived link).

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