A misleading claim about the head of the Ukrainian energy company at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry went viral across conservative pockets of social media Wednesday, receiving hundreds of thousands of retweets and shares from some of the president's most ardent online supporters.
The incorrect story, first disseminated by the finance blog ZeroHedge, claimed that Mykola Zlochevsky, the head of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, had been indicted over money laundering related to the Biden family. Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, was previously on Burisma's board of directors.
In fact, there was no announcement of an indictment. Ukraine's chief prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, announced in October his office would conduct a wide-ranging review all previous cases involving Burisma, and today said he was including possible embezzlement in the investigation, according to Reuters.
ZeroHedge apparently misconstrued the original Russian article from Interfax-Ukraine News Agency, which did not mention an indictment. Interfax-Ukraine News Agency operates as part of Interfax, a Russian news outlet.
But that didn't stop allies of President Donald Trump from widely disseminating the false account of an indictment, seizing on some truthful elements while wildly extrapolating others to offer conservatives and Trump loyalists a welcome alternative to the day's news, in which Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union,implicated numerous members of the Trump administration in the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Hunter Biden's work with Burisma has been the subject of scrutiny from Republicans as well as far-right conspiracy theories that have been widely debunked.
Within an hour of ZeroHedge publishing its story, the claim of an indictment had been spread on Twitter by tens of thousands of users. According to results on the Twitter analytics tool Hoaxy, the indictment claims were propelled by Charlie Kirk, the leader of the conservative group Turning Point USA, as well as a conspiracy theorist, Jack Posobiec, and the anonymous @BreakingNLive, an account that has become notorious for spreading misinformation. The account also boasts of being retweeted by the president.
More than 10,000 users engaged with the ZeroHedge story on Facebook, which was shared to dozens of pages that totaled more than 3 million followers.
One minute before the ZeroHedge article was published, the anonymous account that inspired theQAnon conspiracy theory — generally known as "Q" — linked to the same Interfax-Ukraine article.
QAnon supporters believe that "Q" is an anonymous government official sharing information about a mysterious war against the "deep state," which they believe will end in the mass arrests of Satanic cannibals who are secretly running the U.S. government. It is unclear how ZeroHedge and Q came to post the same obscure Ukrainian news release at almost the same time.
The false claim appeared at the top searches for "Burisma" on both Google and Facebook in the late afternoon, citing Kirk's tweet and a website called "magadailyreport.com" respectively.
The original Interfax article reported on a press conference at the news agency headquarters where two Ukrainian members of parliament demanded the U.S. and Ukraine investigate allegations of financial crimes by former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych.
Interfax-Ukraine's article does not have a byline. Requests for comment from Interfax-Ukraine's press office were not returned at press time.
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher for the The Wilson Center and former advisor to Ukraine's foreign ministry, told NBC News that claims of a new indictment appear to be a misinterpretation of a press conference related to an already existing corruption probe.
"There's been an investigation into Burisma for a long time," Jankowicz said. "The allegations are about corruption with Burisma's head, which have been well known for a long time."
Jankowicz said Burisma and its owner, Zlochevsky, have been under investigation several different times in the last decade. She said she believes the press conference might have been political maneuvering by two Ukranian politicians eager to gain Trump's attention.
"It certainly seems like these two guys are trying to influence that already existing investigation, probably to curry favor with the Trump administration," Jankowicz said.
Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who researches kleptocracy in Russia, called the two Ukrainian members of parliament, Oleksandr Dubinsky and Andriy Derkach, who pushed the new allegations, "not credible."
"These two both are professional disinformers," Aslund said. "This is generally known in Ukraine. This is not outstanding news. Anybody who's anybody knows about these two. They are not credible."