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Double Check: What Can We Know About Bucha Right Now?

Double Check: What Can We Know About Bucha Right Now?

Over the weekend, graphic images and distressing eyewitness accounts emerged of numerous civilian deaths in the city of Bucha, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital. The scenes have provoked the UN to call for an independent investigation into a possible breach of international law. 

In a two-minute video clip, the Russian Ministry of Defense attempted to debunk reports of the violence. Officials instead blamed Ukrainian forces, suggesting the atrocities occurred following Russia's departure in a carefully orchestrated plot to appease Western media. Russia has presented no evidence for these claims.

We came across several repacked false claims and misleading images and have checked them; you can find links to them below. However, we also realize that sometimes, information can't be accurately verified. In any conflict, events on the ground can change rapidly, with the potential for misinformation from all parties involved: in this case, Russia and Ukraine. Some of this might be intentional, but some simply might be because evidence is still emerging. These information gaps – not always intentionally – can act as a gateway to conspiratorial thinking. 

Inconsistent claims on Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine

One of Russia's main lines of defense has been that Russian troops left Bucha on March 30, days before reports of mass casualties in the region were reported. The Russian Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters that "the Ukrainian authorities remained silent all these days, and now they have suddenly posted sensational footage in order to tarnish Russia's image and make Russia defend itself." He denounced the coverage of Bucha as a "provocation." 

Social media users repeated the line, adding that Ukraine did not report any casualties until April 2 – four days later – and that the perpetrators of the massacre were Azov Nazis who had regained control of the region. The claim has been bolstered by a video from Bucha's mayor, Anatol Fedoruk, believed to have first been posted on March 31. "Today, our armed forces achieved a great victory in the Kyiv region. And we will expect a great victory in Ukraine," Fedoruk said.

Fedoruk's statement was likely made in the spirit of patriotism, but it may have played into Russia's hands. Disputes over when exactly Russia withdrew from Bucha, and when Ukraine announced that it had gained control of the region, erupted across social media. Journalists pointed to an article in TV Zvezda, published on April 1, which highlighted that a Russian marine commander, Aleksey Shabuliun, confirmed that Russia still had a foothold in the area. "According to Zvezda, units of the airborne troops (VDV), in cooperation with the marines, successfully held back the actions of enemy forces in the Gostomel-Bucha-Ozera direction for five days," one report notes. 

Official Russian sources, as well as other pro-Kremlin social media users, filled in this delay in the timeline with conspiracy theories, which were quickly debunked. Some suggested that the hand of a corpse left by the roadside can be seen moving in one piece of footage, implying that the deaths were staged. Analysts showed that the movement is the result of a droplet or speck on the windshield. 

However, reporters may have been too quick to use the claim as evidence that Russia had lied about its withdrawal from Bucha on March 30. The allegations become hard to verify one way or another. Insinuating that the TV Zvezda article proves that Russia had lied about the date of its withdrawal also means that Fedoruk's claim that troops withdrew on March 31 should be called into question. 

All of this belies the fact that Russia has presented no evidence for its claims that they did not carry out the massacre, nor to their allegations that it was Ukraine's own army;  they used an absence of evidence. The information gap itself was presented as evidence. 

Responding to unknowns in conflict 

We should exercise caution when thinking about the specifics of a conflict, and the sources providing these details. It's entirely possible that both Ukrainian and Russian officials will report updates that best align with their military goals, and to portray an image that best works in their favor. 

"Our media landscape abhors a vacuum," said digital researcher W.F. Thomas, who has written extensively about why and how conspiracies flourish. "When answers and explanations don't come quickly and easily, audiences are primed for actors to step in with misinformation and to successfully spread that misinformation."

During any unfolding conflict, there will, by nature, be a lack of completely verifiable information. Without having directly witnessed an event in real-time, journalists are reliant upon secondhand accounts and imagery. The most responsible way to respond is to report a claim and add that it can't definitively be verified. 

"With something like Bucha, where there is a possibility of war crimes – an extremely high possibility – it is crucial to verify what happened before leveling the accusation," Thomas said. "This need for caution and patient verification chafes against the media landscape's need for quick and easily packaged answers."

Both Reuters and New York Times journalists have reported on the aftermath of Bucha, as Fedoruk showed journalists bodies in deserted buildings and roadsides. Reuters adds that Fedoruk's claim that 300 residents were killed could not be independently verified. 

These information gaps can give way to biased or even conspiratorial thinking. 

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, for example, praised the New York Times for applying "skepticism" to "out of context" videos posted by Ukrainian officials. "If the last 20 years taught us anything, it's that monstrous outcomes are inevitable when war propaganda cannot be questioned or challenged, and when neocons are permitted to lead foreign policy debates with no dissent. Smear away," Greenwald wrote. It is not wrong to question narratives coming from the West, or even to frame them within the context of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the false claims it possessed weapons of mass destruction. However, suggesting that Ferdoruk’s statements are a "smear," or act as "propaganda" applies ideological meaning where none was given. The journalists did not challenge Fedoruk; they just reported that they could not be taken as fact.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that satellite images confirm that Ukraine could not have planted bodies in Bucha, and that these bodies were there for several weeks. Many of the deceased had been left there since March 11, when Russia still had a strong presence within the region. 

Accusations of crisis actors or staged events have been made by Russia in this conflict multiple times. The investigative outlet Bellingcat found evidence of an elaborate "false flag" operation concocted by Russian agents in Donbas prior to the war beginning. The Russian embassy blamed Ukraine and a random Instagram model of being a crisis actor after evidence emerged that Russia had shelled a hospital in Mariupol. While these claims might seem outlandish, they'll still gain attention from receptive audiences. 

"When responsible actors take their time to verify, it's the perfect time for bad actors to step in," Thomas said. "This is what we're seeing with Bucha, where Russia and their affiliated media jumped in immediately to muddy the waters and cast doubt. They have an easier job. They don't need to verify a different narrative; they just need to generate enough doubt around the likely possibility that the Russian military committed war crimes in Bucha, which we're seeing more and more support for."

Read Logically's published fact checks about Bucha here:

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