How does fake news get propagated? There are many answers. One is bad translations. Did Vladimir Putin really say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the ‘greatest tragedy’ of the 20th century? Many would say not. The official translation is that the collapse was ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe’, which though similar is actually very different. Did ex-President Ahmadinejad of Iran really say that Israel must be ‘wiped off the map’? Some say yes, but others like Juan Cole argue that what he actually did was express a hope that someday Israel would disappear – again similar, but fundamentally different. The point here is that dodgy, or at the very least contestable, translations can rapidly gain a life of their own and be accepted as absolute truth. They then spread far and wide as a sort of fake news.
Which brings us to this week’s revelation that Vladimir Putin was once an artilleryman. While at university, it seems, he had the rank of reserve artillery lieutenant. This previously unknown detail from Putin’s past soon appeared throughout the Western press. The Guardian, for instance, reported that,
Vladimir Putin has revealed that he commanded an artillery battalion during the Soviet period, a detail of his shadowy biography that was previously unknown.
Putin made the comment during a visit on Monday to St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where he pulled the lever on a cannon that fires a daily salute at noon over the Neva River.
“I received the rank of lieutenant as an artilleryman, as the commander of a howitzer artillery battalion… 122mm [calibre],” Putin said, according to video footage posted by the Kremlin. He gave no further details.
Other press outlets leapt onto the battalion commander bandwagon. ‘Putin reveals for the first time that he commanded an artillery battalion,’ says the Daily Mail. ‘Vladimir Putin says he once commanded an artillery battalion,’ claims Newsweek. And so on.
Except Putin didn’t say anything of the sort.
An artillery unit consists of individual guns grouped together into batteries (normally four to eight guns per battery). Batteries are then grouped into battalions (which the Brits sometimes call regiments, though Russian regiments are larger, consisting of several battalions). Assuming six guns a battery, and three batteries per battalion, an artillery battalion might have 18 guns. That’s a lot for a junior reserve lieutenant to command.
The Russian term for an artillery battalion is ‘divizion’ (дивизион), which shouldn’t be confused with ‘diviziia’ (дивизия), which is the equivalent of the Western term ‘division’. But Putin did not say that he had commanded a divizion; he said he had commanded a ‘vzvod’ (взвод). More precisely, his exact words were: ‘ Я получил звание лейтенант как артиллерист, командир взвода управления гаубичной артиллерии’, which translates roughly as ‘I received the rank of lieutenant, as an artilleryman, commander of the control platoon of howitzer artillery’.
So Putin did not say that he commanded an artillery battalion. What he actually said was that he commanded a platoon.
Did anybody get this right? I’ve been able to find only one outlet which did – Sputnik News (though even this managed to screw things up by talking about an artillery ‘division’, which is probably a confusion with the Russian word ‘divizion’, i.e. battalion). Thus Sputnik tells us:
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 7 January that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant as platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division.
‘It turns out, we are both artillerymen. I was promoted to lieutenant as an artilleryman, platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division… 122-millimetre [calibre]’, Putin stated.
I realize that this may appear stunningly pedantic. Battalion, platoon, what does it matter? It matters because in the first place, if you can’t get basic facts right, you don’t deserve to be trusted; and second, because it tells us something about how ‘fake news’ spreads. Someone says something which others consider a juicy story, and then they just repeat it. Along the way, nobody bothers to check the facts. The result is completely false headlines which will no doubt soon be repeated far and wide as established truth.
The battalion commander story was obvious nonsense. Anybody with a tiny bit of knowledge of military affairs should have realized that a reserve lieutenant could not possibly have commanded a battalion. The Guardian, which got it wrong, is of course a bastion of top notch journalism, despite publishing such bloopers as last week’s claim that Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker theory (that Stalin intended to attack Germany in 1941) ‘now has broad acceptance among historians’ (it doesn’t, and has been thoroughly debunked in great detail by Gabriel Gorodetsky and others). Sputnik, on the other hand, which got it right, is a purveyor of fake news and ‘disinformation’. Go figure!