Rumors spread rapidly in wartime Ukraine

They live in an abandoned house in a forest next to a small village. They survive on fungi and berries. And it took months after the Russian Army withdrew, that the Ukrainian police finally caught them.

Or the story happened.

At least four Ukrainian media outlets and countless people on social media last week repeated the story of six abandoned Russian soldiers. It turned out to be baseless, but it provided the latest vivid example of how wartime rumors – and possibly propaganda – spread rapidly in Ukraine.

Vitaliy Romas, the former mayor of Dernivka, a village just east of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv where the soldiers are believed to have been hiding, said he received more than 30 phone calls in a single day. He said: “Police, military, journalists and curious people have called to inquire about the arrest of six Russians.

Similar stories of abandoned Russians circulated throughout the country. In one case, a Russian was said to have lived in a root cellar and only ate pickles for months. In another case, a group of soldiers apparently became so cheeky that they started fighting in a village, and were arrested by the police.

While seemingly innocuous, such stories can be traced back to Russian propaganda, according to analysts who monitor Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine, instilling fear and distracting the police from investigating them. Andriy Shapovalov, acting head of the Anti-Information Center at Ukraine’s national security council, said: “There is a technology to spread small fake information in the form of rumors.

The main feature of such rumors is that there is no specific source of information. When people hear a story on the street, they often don’t know that it may have been coordinated and planted, Mr. Shapovalov said. In fact, spreading rumors on buses or subways has been an approach throughout Russia’s years-long conflict in eastern Ukraine, said Shapovalov, part of Moscow. The “hybrid war” approachuse a combination of military, political, and informational operations.

“In terms of the mixed war that has been going on in Ukraine for more than eight years, it’s normal to doubt everything,” Shapovalov said.

Stories of captured soldiers quickly spread. A Ukrainian publication cited a Facebook post as the source. People have discussed it online and in private chats. Iryna Prianyshnykova, a spokeswoman for the Kyiv regional police, confirmed that the story was fake.

She said police regularly check for such fake stories and contact the media to try to prevent their spread. “Such stories are not only aimed at the police, making us more unnecessary work,” said Prianyshnykova, “but mainly aimed at people, creating tension,” said Prianyshnykova.

In the village of Dernivka, residents said they had never heard of Russian soldiers hiding among them. The village has only 450 people, and they all know each other. “People should think better,” Mr. Romas said. “We are a small village. We know every house is empty – no one can hide here.”

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