How the free media were duped by a fake list of companies staying in Russia

Mark Twain warned that “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Caught off guard, legitimate media outlets have printed the unexamined claims of Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists, and other dangerous myths.

The latest such denial of truth is the false assertion that we invented the Russian business retreat from thin air–and that 1,300 multinational companies never really exited Russia. Amazingly, we are now being forced to defend that the business retreat did happen after all in a newly co-authored research monograph.

Not that any of this is particularly new or novel. Yale mass communications pioneer Carl Hovland argued in 1949 that propaganda flourishes with the repetition of lies so that the message lingers even when the low-credibility initial sources are forgotten. This persuasion distortion was labeled “the sleeper effect.”

For the past year, our exhausting 24/7 efforts to correct sprouting media myths and disinformation around the Russian invasion of Ukraine have resembled swatting at an arcade whack-a-mole table, except this is not a game, but a war with massive human casualties.

We field countless emails from fringe voices echoing Putin’s propaganda–musing whether Putin was justified in the invasion of sovereign Ukraine and the slaughter of innocent civilians, how the EU would freeze without Russian gas, or whether the historic economic blockade of international government sanctions and corporate exits had any impact on Russia.

We have painstakingly corrected those planted falsehoods to get the truth back in the public narrative. Yet still, the strafing of moms with their babes in their arms waiting in breadlines are unjustly labeled as fakes and actors. We even see questions over whether or not Russia is really invading Ukraine and whether they are instead suffering from internal attacks on their own hospitals and apartment buildings by their elected president!

Academic opportunists the past week showed once more how pernicious, naïve misinformation can catch fire and consume the truth, especially when draped under the veneer of academic credibility.

When Putin invaded Ukraine last year, we chronicled the unprecedented, historic mass exodus of over 1,000 global companies from Russia. These companies made bold announcements, removed their employees, wrote down their abandoned assets, and shuttered facilities. Our volunteer expert operatives on the ground and online confirmed such dramatic actions.

We have continued to faithfully update this list with new entries as more companies divested from Russia over the last few months. This historic phenomenon–and our involvement–drew widespread coverage across media ranging from Washington Post, Bloomberg, and The New York Times to CNBC and Fortune.

President Joe Biden and President Volodymyr Zelensky cited and celebrated the Russian business retreat. I even testified to the U.S. Congress, in addition to advising countless CEOs and policymakers on pulling out of Russia.

However, in the last few days, we have been besieged by bewildering evidence-free assertions, that we somehow grossly exaggerated the Russian business retreat. Last week, two European authors released a publication claiming that only 8.5% of Western companies have actually pulled out of Russia. This study was published without supporting evidence, on the non-peer-reviewed, open-submission platform SSRN.

The headline was immediately, uncritically picked up by reporters, who rushed to publish stories that parrot the same cynical talking points as the researchers. Buttressed by a suspicious number of tweets and other social media posts from shell accounts (bearing an uncanny resemblance to disinformation bots), we were besieged by international messages angrily accusing us of inventing the Russian business retreat.

But all these journalists and critics missed an inconvenient truth: The “research” claiming only 8.5% of Western companies had actually pulled out of Russia was based on false data, as the academics’ own files blatantly reveal.

What stands out is that this is NOT a list the 1,404 Western companies as they claim but is a list of hundreds of individual PEOPLE–many of whom are Russian oligarch cronies of Putin–and hundreds of Russian companies, as evidenced here. This blatant data fabrication is obvious the minute anyone opens the data file–most egregiously, from lines 737 to 947 of tab three. Here are some select examples of Russian individuals who were conflated with “Western companies”

  • Line 871 of tab 3: Mr. Oleg Kharuk runs one of the largest internet businesses in Russia, Leomax, which includes both of the Russian subsidiaries listed as “Western multinationals”, Internet Technologies and Domashnii. 
  • Line 444: Goldovskiy Iakov, or Yakov Goldovsky as he is more commonly known, is a major Russian gas oligarch with ties to Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical company. 
  • Line 748: Mr. Anatoliy Paliy, runs Gaznefteservis, a purely Russian oil and gas company. 
  • Line 822: Mr. Igor Lepetukhin, runs Transchem Eurasia, based in Moscow. 

Even the genuine “companies” listed are problematic since many appear to be RUSSIAN companies, not Western companies. Some examples of many:  

  • Line 1396 is Yandex, aka Russia’s Google
  • Line 1390 is X5, aka Russia’s Walmart.
  • Line 346 is Evraz, the Russian metals giant owned by oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Alexander Abramov. 
  •  Line 1167 is Severstal, oligarch Alexey Mordashov’s Russian steel conglomerate. 
  • Line 1021 is Ozon Holdings, the Russian e-commerce giant.
  • Line 1120 is Ros Agro, the Russian commodities giant. 

This is not to mention the hundreds of irrelevant entries and oddities in their dataset. For example, inexplicably, lines 1096, 1097, and 172 are the names of countries (Italy, Australia, and Germany, respectively) and duplicate entries (for example, Merck appears multiple times in tab 3). 

Worse yet, of the approximately 500 genuine, bona fide Western multinational companies on their list, far more companies from THEIR list exited Russia than the 120 they identified. For example, ABInBev, Amcor, Asics, Baker Hughes, Booking Holdings, Colliers, Comarch SA, Danfoss, Esab, Fugro, and Fujitsu are a few of the many Western companies on their list that are not credited for having fully exited Russia already.

This omission is made doubly egregious when considering there are MORE major Western companies MISSING from their list than Western multinationals that actually appear in their data The ones missing include hundreds of major companies, such as Amazon, Airbus, American Express, American Airlines, Benneton, Boeing, Carlsberg, Chevron, Citigroup, Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Lloyds, Marriott, Raytheon, Wells Fargo, and hundreds more.

When the media demanded their list of 1,404 companies, the researchers initially sent them a diversionary smokescreen of 36,000 irrelevant and unrelated companies. Perhaps the authors thought the media wouldn’t take the time to go through that red-herring list of 36,000–but we did and invested 150 hours to find that list too was largely Russian companies with little correspondence to the “complete” list of 1,404 they finally released.

Courtesy of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian

In short, two writers drew up a list padded with hundreds of Russian oligarchs and Russian businesses–and discovered (surprise!) that Russian businesses continue to do business in Russia, then passed it off as “Western multinational companies remain in Russia” to unsuspecting journalists and clickbait-seeking outlets.

When confronted with these errors, rather than promptly retract their stories, the media outlets decided to cast it as an academic catfight, a narrative perfectly tailored to a conflict-loving audience to spark clicks rather than illuminate the truth.

This is not a tedious scholarly debate over statistical methodology or rival academic theories. Rather it is about the denial of actual historic facts without evidence. A list of patently Russian individuals and companies was reported as a list of Western multinationals without being fact-checked.

Amazingly, some media outlets continue to refuse to retract their mistaken trumpeting of a patently misrepresented research study–even though other outlets have courageously reported on the blatantly fabricated data. The wise readers of Fortune will thus have to look at the underlying dataset of the European researchers themselves to see just how few genuine Western multinationals are really on the list–and why the claim in headlines that the Russian business retreat didn’t actually happen is pure fiction. Anybody can view all 1,000+ companies that have left on our websites with clear sourcing and evidence.

A year into Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, we are reminded of how even a free press eagerly undermines truth in favor of drama. Putin must be delighted.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the Lester Crown Professor in Management Practice and the Senior Associate Dean of the Yale School of Management. Tymofiy Mylovanov is the President of the Kyiv School of Economics and a former minister in the cabinet of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Nataliia Shapoval is the Vice President for Policy Research at the Kyiv School of Economics and Chair of the KSE Institute. Steven Tian is Research Director at the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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