In late March, Russian media widely reported that a 10-year-old child had been killed by Ukrainian government shelling in rebel-held Donetsk, Ukraine. The story was heartbreaking — no child should die in war — and also carried the horrifying implication that Ukrainian forces were targeting civilian neighborhoods.
It turns out, though, that the story was completely made up, a fabrication created for Russia's propaganda war in Ukraine.
The BBC's Natalia Antelava and Abdujalil Abdurasulov took a camera crew to the area where the child had supposedly been killed, but found that no one was even able to remember shelling on the day the girl supposedly died, much less identify who she might have been.
Her supposed neighbors said it must have happened somewhere else. "News spreads fast here. We'd know if it was here." The local morgue had no record of a girl matching her description being killed. A nervous-looking morgue official tried to suggest that perhaps she had been sent to "another place," but when asked if there was another place she could have been sent, he simply shrugged and said he didn't know.
The story became clearer when Antelava found a group of Russian journalists in town on a rebel-organized press trip. Two of them, their faces blurred to hide their identities, told Antelava that the girl "doesn't exist."
"What do you mean?" Antelava asked. "You broadcast it."
"We had to broadcast it," they replied, implying that they had been pressured to run the story even though they knew it was false.
This is hardly the first time Russian media has broadcast false propaganda about the war in Ukraine. State media has accused Ukrainian forces of "genocide" against ethnic Russians and claimed that the Kiev government is controlled by anti-semitic fascists.
And that propaganda has been effective: "The Kremlin has reinvented the conflict in Ukraine as a genocide against Russians," journalist Peter Pomerantsev wrote in an article for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. "People believe that the fascists are coming to get them, because that’s what they have seen on TV."
Even in Donetsk, the people Antelava spoke to had all seen the story of the child's death on television. Many of them believed a child had died, even though they knew it couldn't have happened in the place reported on the news.
"And that sort of information," Antelava said, "fuels the hatred that drives this war."