NOVI SANZHARY, Ukraine – The day the riots started started like any other.
Bells rang from the church as people walked away from work and students entered classrooms. Doctors at the city hospital put on their white gowns and latex gloves. Local market vendors drank sugary coffee and distributed their products. The head of the city council drew the curtains from her corner office to let in the morning light before examining the usual paperwork.
At dusk, the Ukrainian city of Novi Sanzhary, with 8,300 inhabitants, would be turned upside down, pushed into a state of panic and chaos stemming from residents' fears that the romance coronavirus was going to bring death to this previously unannounced backwater.
Violence would soon erupt, leading nine police officers to be wounded, 24 people arrested for riots, with five officially charged, and a statement by President Volodymyr Zelensky describing the melee as "medieval" behavior. The government's response would include visits not only from ministers, but also from a celebrity TV doctor who tried to calm the city's strained nerves.
What caused all this? A toxic mix of limited information released by Ukrainian authorities, misinformation spread across the public on social media and a target fake news campaign of evil actors yet to be identified, according to more than a dozen government officials, medical specialists and local residents interviewed by BuzzFeed News.
In an era of interconnection, Novi Sanzhary's story is a microcosm of the problem of misinformation about the coronavirus that seems to have exceeded its expansion, reaching millions of people worldwide quickly. Sometimes, this misinformation came from world leaders like President Donald Trump how they turn the issue into a supporter.
BuzzFeed News traveled to Novi Sanzhary, 210 kilometers east of the capital, Kiev, to learn how the otherwise sleepy municipality has become ground zero for the country's disinformation pandemic.
Buses transporting refugees from China to a medical facility in Novi Sanzhary on February 20, 2020.
STR / AFP via Getty Images
Protesters set fire to barricades.
AFP via Getty Images
Everyone said it started with a rumor that spread across Ukraine at breakneck speed.
On February 18, a plane from Wuhan, China, arrived in the country and news began to circulate that several of the 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreigners on board were infected with the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Upon disembarkation, they should be immediately transported to an undisclosed medical facility.
Although the government confirmed the plane's arrival and declared it would take those on board to a medical facility in Novi Sanzhary, he emphasized that there was nothing to worry about: the evacuees were all tested and none of them were infected. In any case, they would be kept in quarantine for 14 days as a precautionary measure.
But the rumor that some evacuees were infected took over and quickly caused an uproar.
On February 19, people in western Lviv, fearing that some evacuees could be taken there, used tires and cars to block a hospital entrance. Near Ternopil, people met with a priest to pray that the group would be taken elsewhere. But in Novi Sanzhary, residents went to the extreme after learning that the group would be taken to a sanatorium there.
Surrounded by vast pastures and babbling rivers, Novi Sanzhary is the kind of place where everyone knows almost everyone. The city's schools, council building, market and hospital are all within walking distance of each other. Shopkeepers welcome customers using short names. The information people trust most comes from their friends and neighbors, usually by word of mouth, but increasingly through messaging apps.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Inna Koba, the head of the city council, remembered just learning about the fate of the evacuees on social media around 10 pm. on February 19, when her phone started ringing and the city started ringing.
Immediately, residents started to organize themselves through the messaging app Viber, Facebook and Instagram. They met on the city streets and erected barricades – even assigning lookouts at street corners.
Koba admitted that the behavior was unusual, but said that desperate times call for desperate measures.
"In the past two months, we have been told and seen on TV that this is a horrible disease against which there is no vaccine. People are dying from it," she said. "Then, suddenly, we discovered a plane carrying sick people. people were outraged.
Koba said a Ukrainian news channel that looked like "Armageddon", with everyone in a panic. She told BuzzFeed News that she was fueled by a flood of "misinformation and fake news" spread over a Viber channel used by city dwellers, to which one of her members had added her.
The data shows that the Viber group, which BuzzFeed News has since joined, was formed at 10:16 pm. on February 19th. His first message, posted by a user named Alyonka, would set the tone for the city from the start. It said: “50 infected people from China are being taken to our sanatorium. We cannot allow them to destroy our population, we must avoid countless deaths. People, get up. We all have children !!! We must act immediately.
The Ukrainian news site Texty documented several of the messages that followed, counting more than 10 that were posted in quick succession that included false information.
A user named Natasha said that "if we sleep tonight, we will wake up dead".
Someone named Tanya wrote that "Chinese refugees will come dressed in camouflage" – a veiled reference to Russian soldiers who disguised themselves during the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Another person, who identified himself as Nikolas, offered the number of a funeral home, "because people are going to die of coronavirus."
Within minutes, Novi Sanzhary was seized by a terrible frenzy.
Overnight, groups of people left their homes to occupy the city center and block access to medical facilities, a Soviet-era sanatorium under the country's Ministry of Interior, which sits on the bank of the Vorskla River.
As more people gathered in the city center and on the premises the next day, even more police and National Guard forces arrived wearing riot gear and driving armored vehicles. Residents reminded them to march together in a way that seemed threatening.
Koba said it only increased tensions on the floor and seemed to confirm people's suspicions.
"When the police, the National Guard and armored vehicles arrived here, of course, everyone was scared and thought it was true – that they are bringing sick people here," she said.
Then, as the security situation deteriorated, more misinformation spread online than appeared to be an e-mailed warning from the country's Ministry of Health. He claimed what residents of Novi Sanzhary feared most, that evacuees included people infected with the coronavirus.
The information was not true, but it spread quickly and brought tensions in Novi Sanzhary to the boiling point.
Meanwhile, in Kiev, government officials were trying to find out what was going on and how to stop it.
“I have reason to believe that this [email] it is an information attack on the ministry. So I asked the head of the security service to react, ”wrote Zoryana Skaletska, Minister of Health at the time, on Facebook on February 20.“ The panic spreading in Ukrainian society in connection with the evacuation of our citizens from China was created artificially. "
The security service, known as SBU, and the government's Public Health Center quickly issued statements echoing Skaletska. They did not identify who they thought was behind the email, which falsified the ministry's actual email address. But they suggested that this may have been done by outsiders because an external email service was used to do so.
It is not yet clear where the email came from, but with Russia's documented efforts to sow discord in Ukraine through hybrid war – a military strategy combining conventional war and cyber war – and recent reports that Moscow was behind a conflict. coronavirus disinformation campaign, many in Kiev believe their opponent to the north may be involved.
Whatever the case, the wrong information reached conversations on the streets of Novi Sanzhary, where residents like Vasily and Lyudmila, who were chatting in the city market last week when BuzzFeed News arrived, received it with great anxiety that afternoon.
“We were shocked and concerned. Wouldn't you be? "said Lyudmila, who remembered hearing about a friend on Instagram.
When night fell, the temperature of Novi Sanzhary's crowd rose and they began to act.
Residents erected barricades and watched on street corners. When the buses carrying the evacuees approached, they burned to try to keep them out of the city. They were met by police phalanxes in riot gear who arrived with armored vehicles to push them back. As tensions increased, violent conflicts erupted. And when the buses carrying people from China finally arrived, the locals shouted for them to “get out” and threw stones that broke the windows.
Government officials could not believe what they were seeing and were not sure what else they could do to stop the panic. The next day, February 21, the prime minister was dispatched to the city, together with the interior and health ministers. Skaletska, who, along with Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, would later be dismissed in a major government reform ordered by Zelensky, decided that he would move in with the evacuees inside the sanatorium during the full 14 days of quarantine to show the public there. Nothing to fear.
After the onslaught of violence and several arrests, the situation began to calm down. In the last days of February, the government of Ukraine sent more authorities and specialists to better inform local residents about the coronavirus situation.
One such person was celebrity doctor Evgeny Komarovsky, Ukraine's answer to Dr. Phil (he still has a mustache), who helped keep the peace and answer questions from residents at impromptu meetings on city streets and a question e- organized. response session. Videos of his visit were posted on YouTube, where he has almost 2 million subscribers and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Ukraine did not confirm its first case of coronavirus infection until March 3, in a man in western Chernivtsi who had recently returned from Italy, where the outbreak is so severe that the whole country was completely locked.
Looking back, residents, including doctors, said anger and panic were shaken by the government's decision to withhold information, misinformation that spread through social media and sensational media coverage.
"In my opinion, the information we receive daily from the media – about infections, deaths, etc. – actually excited this panic," said Olha Hirya, chief physician at Novi Sanzhary's main hospital, whose walls were covered with signs showing patients how protect yourself from getting sick with the coronavirus. “We have encountered several types of this virus before. The means of preventing this virus are well known. People should be informed, but in a calm and correct manner. "
In an interview in Kiev, Volodymyr Kurpita, former head of the Ukrainian Public Health Center, under the Ministry of Health, blamed much of the blame for the chaos on the media, but said that part of it is also based on politicians who behave irresponsibly .
"Watch any Ukrainian TV show and you will see that they cover the coronavirus problem, but this is being discussed by politicians; it is not being discussed by professionals," he said. “How could a politician explain this virus? Politicians are spreading misinformation and sowing panic in society. "
Dr. Jarno Habicht, head of the World Health Organization's office in Ukraine, told BuzzFeed News by telephone that, as the coronavirus spreads, "what we have learned is that communication is extremely important".
Habicht said that WHO has "global agreements" with Facebook and other media outlets on how to ensure that "appropriate information, evidence-based information" is shared and that bad information is removed.
"This is very important in Ukraine, because it is a country that is very social media oriented," he said.
Similarly, Ukrainian authorities are also working with Facebook and other social media companies to combat misinformation about the coronavirus that is spreading across platforms, Zelensky's press secretary, Iuliia Mendel, told BuzzFeed News.
"The president's office is always concerned with misinformation and, of course, we are always in touch with social media companies," she said. "We usually contact you when there is false news."
Facebook's press office said in an e-mailed statement that the company is "in constant contact with government officials in the countries in which we operate. Including Ukraine".
Unable to find representatives for Viber to comment.
When BuzzFeed News In Novi Sanzhary, last week, there was still a lingering feeling of anxiety and fear, but many residents doubted there would be more violence. On March 5, they were eager to receive Zelensky, who arrived by helicopter to participate in a celebration for the group of evacuees released from quarantine.
At exactly noon on March 5, the authorities opened the front doors of the facility, allowing the group to leave for the first time since their arrival. Ukrainians embraced family members who came to greet them and bring them home. Foreigners like Rebecca, Anila and Susy, three Salvadoran university students studying Chinese in Wuhan before being flown out of town, looked like strangers in a strange place that said "it is definitely not a five-star hotel".
Their farewell gift to endure the quarantine? A giant pink teddy bear given to them by Zelensky.
After distributing gifts to other members of the group, the Ukrainian president admitted to BuzzFeed News that the government's response could have been better. "We need to inform people in the right way," he said. "I think we are not 1,000% [prepared for the coronavirus], but what we can do, we are doing. "
Still, many in Novi Sanzhary said they remain skeptical of political leadership and traditional media. Despite the spread of misinformation on social media, many said they still trust what they read more than elsewhere. But they are still the neighbors they trust the most.
Fortunately for some, there is Dr. Yulia Tsarenko, who was checking Lyudmila Donets' blood pressure at the city hospital when BuzzFeed News first met her. Tsarenko said that, even after the protests, she was stopped on the streets and in city stores by residents with questions about the coronavirus that suggested they were still poorly informed.
"First of all, I tell them not to panic and also to wash their hands," she said. “I say that everything will be fine. And it will be.
Tsarenko said that their curiosity is generally good. But among the many questions she receives are those about home remedies for coronavirus, which she believes result from the misinformation of Soviet times.
To get a glimpse into the world of Ukrainian alternative medicine, BuzzFeed News visited the local market, where suppliers offered a variety of "cures" for colds, high blood pressure and even what they said would surely keep the coronavirus at bay. As for the latter, some prescribed a heavy diet of pickled vegetables and salt-cured pork fat, known as salo, and washing everything with vodka.
Raisa, a retiree who was selling homemade sunflower oil near the entrance to the market, said she had a surefire way to avoid the disease that sweeps the world. “The coronavirus is afraid of garlic and onions. Eat those, ”she said, pointing to a pile of light bulbs on the floor.
Tsarenko said he tries not to laugh when people offer these drugs, and says that eating healthily is always a good idea.
Her colleague, Dr. Oleh Yakovenko, said the best way to prevent the spread of misinformation and panic like the one that consumed her city is to provide people with accurate information and “change people's mindsets in an outdated Soviet way of thinking for a modern way. "
Koba, head of the city council of Novi Sanzhary, thought it was simpler than that.
"People spread the wrong information because they don't know the truth," she said. “All of this happened because of the lack of information in the beginning.
"Tell the truth." ●