Tires were set on fire by protesters in the small Ukrainian city of Novi Sanzhary who tried to obstruct the path of a bus bringing in coronavirus evacuees from China. Photo: censor.net.ua
Nine police officers were injured and 24 people arrested during the disorderly clashes in the small Ukrainian city of Novi Sanzhary where locals protested against the government’s decision to temporarily host evacuees from the coronavirus outburst epicenter in China on 20 February.
Unflattering photos of locals attacking the bus carrying the coronavirus evacuees made headlines worldwide. Some publications mentioned that the chaos was precipitated by disinformation and rumors. A journalistic investigation by the Ukrainian outlet texty.org.ua has revealed that the panic was the result of an organized campaign – and it appears that the roads lead to Russia. We bring you its main points.
On the one side, the locals’ behavior in Novi Sanzhary may seem irrational, foolish, or simply pure madness. However, it is worth taking a closer look and carefully studying the sources of information that were being spread among the local population. It is evident that the riots in Novi Sanzhary were planned by online and local provocateurs. The formula of their work is simple:
- disinform people to destroy any trust in official messages;
- frighten people, in this case by the coronavirus and allegedly “infected Chinese” coming to the town – who in reality were healthy Ukrainians;
- call for violence “to protect our children.”
Combined with the absence of an adequate reaction and a lackluster explanation from the government, this formula worked perfectly.
Yet, another question without a definitive answer is who organized and benefited from these revolts. TV-channels that promoted reporting about “barbaric” Ukrainians were the stations belonging to oligarchs, Putin’s crony Medvedchuk, as well as Russian state media. There is also evidence proving that specific information campaigns were designed mainly by people affiliated with the main pro-Russian party in Ukraine, the Oppositional platform. To determine whether Medvedchuk’s or Putin’s puppets directly stay behind this case, a full investigation should be conducted by the Security Service of Ukraine.
Preparation: general disinformation
The general panic over coronavirus started two weeks before the incident in Novi Sanzhary, a town in central Ukraine with a population just under 9,000. Ukrainian TV channels were happy to feed their audience frightening imagery of crackdown on the outbreak of the “deadly virus” in China while giving little factual information about the disease. The Ukrainian government did nothing to inform citizens either about the virus, or what is being done so Ukrainians don’t contract it.
The situation was made worse by changes to Ukraine’s media legislation: starting from late January, Ukrainian TV channels were paywalled for satellite receivers. Russian TV channels remained a free-for-all, panic and conspiracies included – and the scope of this disinformation is impressive, according to US officials who accused Russia of engaging its “entire ecosystem of disinformation” to spread panic about coronavirus.
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“Only Russian channels are shown well here, there are less Ukrainian ones because now they are not free. We get our news from Russian media. That’s how we live – the older folks are simply forced to watch what exists,” a local woman told Obozrevatel.
(Note: in the aftermath of the riots in Novi Sanzhary, President Zelenskyy reached an agreement with Ukrainian media groups on making satellite international versions of national channels freely available to all Ukrainians, as well as on creating budget packages of the full versions of the channels for socially vulnerable groups. This was a tacit confirmation that a Russian media diet played a significant role in creating the mayhem).
The campaign reached its peak on 20 February, when 73 evacuees – 48 Ukrainians and 29 foreign citizens – arrived in Ukraine from China. A spoofing campaign was unleashed when emails sent to journalists from the official address of Ukraine’s health ministry distributed fake news that five coronavirus cases were already diagnosed in Ukraine and urged to “tell your colleagues and family about the threat.” The Health Ministry debunked the fake and the Security Service opened an investigation into the wrongdoers that sent the emails. But this incident was only a harbinger of the mass panic campaign that unraveled among the atmosphere of impending doom of a Black Death character.
The fake story created more basis for widespread fear. Several protests took place throughout Ukraine happened in the places where, according to rumors, the evacuees had to arrive.
But promoters of the mass panic in Novi Sanzhary started disseminating their messages 24 hours in advance, knowing that the town is the destination before the official announcement came.
A pro-Kremlin local politician was the first to leak information about evacuees arriving in Novi Sanzhary
Serhiy Cherednichenko was the first to report about Novi Sanzhary as the destination where evacuees had to be hosted for a quarantine period. On 19 February at 10:00 am, Cherednichenko posted on his Facebook:
“Tomorrow, all Ukrainians who arrive from China will be brought to the sanatorium in Novi Sanzhary. They [government] couldn’t find an infectious hospital in Ukraine.”
There are three important nuances about this post.
First, Cherednichenko was the first to report about Novi Sanzhary as a destination for evacuees. No official statements were made by the central government. The head of the State Administration in Poltava Oblast where Novi Sanzhary is located received a notification about the evacuees almost 24 hours later. The head of the Novi Sanzhary town, as well as the head of the sanatorium, were also notified around 12 hours later, according to their words. Therefore, it is important to ask – where had Cherednichenko obtained this information? This is a question the SBU (Security Service) ought to address.
Second, Cherednichenko changed the time of the post later to conceal the fact that he was the first to report about the sanatorium in Sanzhary as the destination for evacuees. However, screenshots in media publications captured the real time of the post – 10:00 a.m.
Third, the post itself has attained three times more shares than likes. Also, while most of Cherednichenko’s posts have up to 10 shares, this one had 373. Liubov Velychko, the author of the investigation on texty.org.ua, claims this is a typical feature of posts disseminated artificially by bot-farms.
Bots and anonymous curators called for road blockades, violence, and spread fear
“People, if we sleep tonight, then we will wake up dead,” – this was one of the emotional messages that were being spread in the groups.
Around 7 pm on 19 February, the first groups of local people gathered on a bridge across the Vorskla river. This bridge leads to the medical center in Novi Sanzhary. Locals were already preparing to block the road. This activity was managed by many Facebook and Viber groups. Most of these groups were created when people just started gathering. The online bots disseminated fake information, promoted panic, and called people to the streets.
For example, the group “Novi Sanzhary” was created on 19 February at 22:16. The first message in the group was posted by the user “Olenka”. It said:
“Infected from China (50 people) are being brought to the military sanatorium. We cannot allow destroying our population, we must prevent numerous deaths. People, rise up, we all have children!!! We need to act immediately.”
Another message in the Facebook group “The voice of Novi Sanzhary” also stated that “infected people” will be hosted in the sanatorium and locals will face “a deadly danger.” Some similar messages even spoke about “Ill Chinese.” This was an outrageous lie since there were no Chinese among the evacuees, most were Ukrainians and without any traces of illness.The investigation by texty.org.ua has tracked how similar messages were disseminated throughout Novi Sanzhary. Every 10-20 minutes regular calls for violence were posted in the newly-created groups. Some of the more radical messages called to burn down the sanatorium. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. Other messages called to make Molotov cocktails, seize state administrations, block railways and roads. People did implement the final point as they started blocking all entries to the sanatorium. “People, if we sleep tonight, then we will wake up dead,” – this was one of the emotional messages that were being spread in the groups. Such messages had a profound effect on instigating a crisis.
The investigation also claims that there were around 20 active users who regularly posted fakes and called for violence. All evidence points to the administrators of the groups were not locals.
- First, they wrote in a distinct Russian that is not common in a small town of Novi Sanzhary where most people speak Ukrainian.
- Second, when journalists asked admins why they created these groups with thousands of members and how did they get contacts of all local inhabitants, the answer was that “people needed help to limit that shit that was outpoured on them… and we had time to collect contacts and administer groups”
- Third, it is suspicious that the admins in the groups regularly posted positive things about the pro-Russian party Oppositional Platform and discredited all other political parties. They also called to watch such TV channels as NASH, 112, ZIK, NewsOne as they alleged these were the only channels telling the truth. In reality, all these channels belong to three pro-Russian oligarchs and politicians: Yevhen Muraev, Viktor Medvedchuk, and Vadym Rabynovych.
Some users, referring to these TV channels, posted calls for violence as the only right solution. For example, at 16:11 on 20 February a user Ivan Barylo posted:
“A minute before the solution was announced in the studio of 112 channel – to burn the sanatorium.”
Some users didn’t understand how they became members of the group. They left it several times but then appeared there again.
“Who added me to this group?!?! I’m coming out of this trash for the third time!!! Remove me immediately, otherwise I will have to notify the Security Service about the threat to the security of Ukraine,” wrote Natalka.
Not surprisingly, as soon as riots started in Novi Sanzhary, they were widely reported by pro-Russian TV-channels and bloggers, including the notorious blogger Anatoliy Shariy, who has been living outside Ukraine starting from 2012 and is known for his incendiary Ukrainophobic slurs and pro-Rusian views, such as calling western Ukrainians “half-blooded” and “second-sort people.” He has grown popular through Youtube videos which appeared on TV channel 112, belonging to Putin’s crony Medvedchuk, and even spawned a political project called “Shariy’s party” despite being barred from running for parliament due to living outside Ukraine.
Russian television was the most eager to showcase the “barbarous Ukrainians” and smear Ukraine. The timing was perfect – 20 February was the anniversary of the massacre of Euromaidan activists by police forces in 2014. Footage of locals stoning the buses with evacuees were compared to shots from the Euromaidan Revolution, commonly called the “Revolution of Dignity” – “Protests in Novi Sanzhary are a symbol of the [Euro]Maidan in Ukraine,” went Russia’s state TV channel Rossiya-1. Bloggers rushed to label the events in Novi Sanzhary “the revolution of shame.” That also goes in line with the pro-Russian “Opposition Platform ‘For Life'” and Moscow’s narratives that promote Euromaidan as a “coup” that was “supported by the west.”
And this narrative resonated not only with Russian viewers – Ukrainian social media users bowed their heads in shame as the powerful memories of the tragic days of Euromaidan and its hopes for pro-European progress were obscured by images of “barbaric Ukrainians” – who were covertly instigated by what appear to be active measures from the KGB handbook.
The questionable work of the police and government
“The number of law enforcement officers in the streets of the village increased by the hour. The locals did not understand why such security measures were required: “What did the armored vehicles come for? What, did we come [to them] with machine guns?” writes Liobov Velychko about the police.
The state chose the worst option among all possible responses. First, citizens needed to be officially notified in advance about the incoming evacuees, and not to receive this information from the regional Socialist party head Cherednichenko, through Facebook. Officials also had to reassure citizens that all security measures had been taken; that evacuees are healthy, and are not “infected Chinese” people. None of this was done. Instead, as soon as the first groups of people started gathering and blocking roads, more police began to arrive.
Why did the police have to come with so many troops and armored vehicles against the local protestors? No one was able to properly answer this question, and the details are baffling. In particular, journalists asked this question to Ivan Varchenko, advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov. Varchenko answered:
“When there is a conflict, or when you participate in mass events and are confronted by people with a different opinion, our law enforcement agencies have the task of standing between these people and preventing them from beating each other, destroying each other.”
This was a rather strange answer. There were no people with different opinions on the streets who could beat each other. Rather, all participants protested against the government’s decision to host evacuees in their village.
Not only did too many law enforcement officers come, but they also provoked unnecessary violence. The most prominent example was when law enforcement officers destroyed a barrier in front of the railroad, to save several seconds that had no meaning. They also destroyed fences to bring the bus with the evacuees along the blocked road through private property. Moreover, they beat up several activists and journalists and tried to take away their cameras. However, the camera operators were still able to film how troops were beating civilians:
Taxi driver Mykhailo tells about the actions of police as follows:
“We were standing peacefully on the bridge for 2.5 hours. Yet when the bus [with evacuees] was to arrive, police started the onslaught. We had Ukrainian flags. The police took everything away. We then collected flags on the roadside. What disrespect for the flag!”
Such abrupt and illegal actions by law enforcement officers led to stronger resistance. According to local activists, many provocateurs tried to create a full-scale conflict. Some of these provocateurs were not locals, as residents of Sanzhary reported later.
From the very beginning of the road blockade, a man in a military uniform was coming to the police proposing to compete who is stronger, as the local police commander Savchenko remembers. Later, many more provocateurs tried to beat the police to provoke a reaction. One of these cases was caught on video:
Thus, this story of Novi Sanzhary is relevant not only for Ukraine but also for all countries in this information age. As witnessed by the case of this small Ukrainian city, inciting the public to riots through the internet, especially during crises such as the spread of the coronavirus, can be effortless if disinformation and government helplessness are involved. The situation only gets worse if the state fails to understand that information warfare is rampant and citizens need to be communicated with, not intimidated by law enforcement.
Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Olena Zerkal thinks that Ukraine needs to learn from the events in New Sanzhary, what was done in this little town can be easily projected to the whole state. Thus, any informational provocation can create chaos in a state and it will be very difficult to control.
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