5 December 2023
Fact checkMisleading

Misleading: ‘Shirtless Putin on a panda’ image was not used by the Economist

The image is one of the mock-up designs explored by the magazine. The published cover features only Putin’s face overlapping the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping.


A tweet on March 20 claimed that the cover of The Economist’s March 19 issue features a shirtless picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin riding on a panda, presumably referring to the country’s relationship with China amid the Russia-Ukraine war.

The account that posted the tweet has over 5,000 followers. Another Twitter account with more than 29,000 followers also posted the same magazine cover and implied the image is authentic.

However, the image is not an actual cover of The Economist published that week. It is one of the mock-up designs explored by the magazine.

In a newsletter to their subscribers titled Cover Story, the weekly often shares mock-up versions and explains the thinking behind the final cover, according to Alex Selby-Boothroyd, head of data journalism at The Economist.

“We describe how we came up with the cover of The Economist, and we usually include mock-ups of the versions that we didn’t end up using,” Selby-Boothoryd told Annie Lab. “The ‘Putin on a panda’ mock-up comes from this [week’s] edition of the newsletter.”

The published March 19 issue shows only Putin’s face in blue color overlapping the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping in red. The title on the cover reads, “The alternative world order” and ”Friendship between the two states has no limits.”

The published cover of March 19 issue (Source: The Economist)

The cover image was designed by Edmon de Haro and used in an article titled “The war in Ukraine will determine how China sees the world.”

“Our cover this week looks at how China sees the war in Ukraine,” wrote Zanny Minton Beddoes, the Editor-in-Chief of The Economist, in the newsletter. “Mr Putin and Mr Xi overlap, but they are different.”

Beddoes indicated in the newsletter that the draft with Putin riding a panda was discarded because it does not depict the bilateral relationship adequately.

She wrote, “…as our reporting this week shows, Mr Putin has lost control of the relationship with Xi Jinping, China’s leader. Russia is not holding the reins; China is.”

The mock-up is one of the draft versions of the cover page for March 19. Annie Lab added the “Mockup” watermark to avoid misappropriation of the image. (Source: The Economist newsletter)

Annie Lab was able to find the source material used to create the mock-up.

The original photo of shirtless Putin was taken by Alexsey Druginyn for AFP while he was riding a horse during his vacation in Southern Siberia in 2009.

The original photo was taken more than a decade ago.

The panda was cut out from an image on iStock by Getty Images, a stock photo platform.

The Economist’s mock-up shows the watermark “iStock by Getty Image” in reverse, indicating the panda image has been flipped horizontally, presumably to match with the direction Putin’s horse was walking in the original photo.

Annie Lab added the “Mockup” watermark.

Another indication that the image is a mock-up is the Latin words used as a placeholder for article titles in the magazine.

Previous cover design ideas shared by Guillem Casasús and Luca D’Urbino also show the same Latin words.

The draft designs of the cover use Latin words as a placeholder for article headlines.
The mock-up appears to have used a template for the June 5, 2021 issue, not March 19, 2022.

As the date shown on the mock-up in question is June 5, 2021, Annie Lab also checked the issue for that week. The cover image features two trucks in different sizes representing the U.S. and China stomping on smaller cars that signify the European Union.

The published cover of June 5, 2021 issue. (Source: The Economist)