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Fact-checking Russian disinformation about Bucha’s massacre

Fact-checking Russian disinformation about Bucha’s massacre

This article has been originally published on the Italian fact-checking project, part of the EDMO network, on April 4, 2022. It is republished here with minor modifications.

For the last five weeks, the Ukrainian town of Bucha has been suffering under fire from the Russian army, which invaded the country on February 24. On April 1, the town was liberated and Ukrainian forces gained back control. In that timeframe, hundreds of civilians were killed indiscriminately and buried in mass graves.

Journalists who were able to reach Bucha after the departure of the Russian troops witnessed streets lined with abandoned corpses, some of which showed signs of summary executions, such as hands tied behind their backs, and clearly visible bullet holes marking their bodies.

These pitiless reports led Ukrainian authorities and international analysts to accuse Russia of war crimes, but as soon as disturbing videos and pictures of the massacre started spreading online, Russian authorities denied the allegations, claiming that the pictures were a “provocation” and “a staged performance” organized by Ukrainian forces “for the Western media”. As already happened  after the bombing of the pediatric hospital in Mariupol, Russia started a massive disinformation campaign in order to deny the massacre through the exploitation of conspiracy theories circulating online.

What happened in Bucha

Bucha is a town of about 37,000 people not far from Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, a strategic position which turned it into a nevralgic point in the conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces. The town was invaded by Russian land forces on February 27, and it was entirely seized on March 12.

Ukrainian forces tried to regain control on March 16, but they succeeded only about two weeks later, on March 31, when Russia decided to drastically downsize its military operations in Kiev’s area. As Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, international reporters – mostly from the Bbc and the Associated Press – were able to enter the town and witness the devastation left by the invaders.

Even though a detailed report of what happened in Bucha is not yet available, videos shot on the ground show dozens of corpses left on the sides of the streets. According to Bucha’s mayor Anatoly Fedoruk at least 280 people have been buried in mass graves by the Russian army.

Russia’s version

However, Russian authorities offered a radically alternative version of what happened in Bucha, and according to the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskow Ukrainian reports about massacred civilians are fake. On April 4, during a press conference, Peskow explained that “experts at the Ministry of Defense have identified signs of video fakes and various fakes,” without adding further details.

The day before, this same theory was supported by War on Fakes, a website and Telegram channel created on March 1, 2022, which presents itself as a “fact-checking organization.” On April 3, War on Fakes claimed that images of corpses allegedly shot in Bucha are allegedly part of a “mediatic campaign” planned by “several foreign publications.” This is supposedly proven by the timing of their release, which happened four full days after Russian forces withdrew from the town.

As Edmo previously reported, War on Fakes cannot be considered as a legit fact-checking or debunking organization. Together with other media managed by Russian propaganda, it uses a disturbing set of new tactics to debunk non-existent fakes, with the main goal of sowing doubt with Russian and European audiences about the real development of events.

The (false) movement of the hand

The widely discussed footage used by Russia to deny accusations in Bucha comes from a tv broadcast published on April 2, 2022 by the YouTube channel of Espreso.Tv, a Ukrainian tv station. In turn, the video published by Espreso.Tv was originally posted on Facebook that same day by Ilya Novikov, a Russian lawyer with Ukrainian origins who defended several Russian political prisoners. In sharing the video, Novikov labeled it as “exclusive material from Bucha.”

A part of the video was shot from inside a moving vehicle, and it shows some corpses on the sides of the street. The footage lasts only a few seconds, and according to Russian authorities it allegedly shows a corpse moving his hand, thus proving that the whole scene was staged.

This is false, and the “moving hand” is actually an optical illusion caused by a drop of water on the car glass. Several fact-checking projects part of Edmo, such as Facta (Italy) and (Spain), debunked the false interpretation of the video provided by Russia.

As highlighted by the Aurora Intels’s Twitter account – a team focused on analyzing contents, data, and news coming from publicly available sources – a slowed-down version of the footage, with colors inverted to maximize contrast, shows clearly that the alleged “movement” is actually due to a temporary distortion of the image caused by a drop of water on the car glass. On April 2, when the video was shared for the first time, it was raining in Bucha.

Sitting bodies?

Another case of disinformation that originated from Novikov’s video concerns the image that is reflected in the car’s side mirror, which apparently shows a moving body. Conspiracy theorists used it to claim that people were not actually dead, because they were able to get up as soon as the car passed by.

However, the original version of the video – which has a higher quality than the ones shared on social media – shows no movement whatsoever among corpses on the side of the streets. On April 3 Shayan Sardarizadeh, a Bbc investigative journalist, explained on Twitter that the apparent movement is actually due to the natural distortion created by the side mirror of the car.

In conclusion

Disinformation about the conflict in Ukraine keeps spreading, supported by Russian propaganda. As it happened with the bombing of the hospital in Mariupol, the Kremlin reported a misleading version of what happened in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, which is contradicted by videos, pictures, and stories reported by journalists on the ground.

The original footage we analyzed unequivocally shows that the victims in Bucha are real, and indicate that Russian troops are responsible for killing innocent civilians.