Around a dozen Ukrainian media outlets recently reported the revival of Inspector Rex, a beloved Austrian TV series that follows a detective and his faithful German shepherd Rex.
Their source? A Facebook page titled Kommissar Rex In Ukraine, which was set up by journalism students to test how easy it is for hoaxes to spread online and in traditional media.
It's a touchy topic in Ukraine, where NATO and the European Union accuse Russia of leading a massive disinformation campaign as part of its "hybrid warfare" on Kyiv's pro-Western leadership.
The students' page claimed that producers want to film a new season of the show, which ended in 2004 after 10 seasons, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The heroes of the revived show would speak Ukrainian.
Students from the School of Multimedia Journalism, a two-week joint project of Ukrainian Catholic University and Vienna University of Technology, created the Facebook page on February 6 and regularly updated it until February 14, when a post disclosed the hoax.
By the end of the experiment, Facebook posts had reached almost 15,000 views. Andriy Pryymachenko, the project curator, emphasized to RFE/RL that the effect came with limited resources -- the students spent all of $9 on advertising.
"Let's imagine that this would be some organization with malicious intent," he said. "If this information was not about Inspector Rex but some fake created in order to induce panic among people...it becomes clear that such banal absence of fact-checking among journalists first of all can lead to really bad things."
Worldwide, news organizations have been criticized for being slow to react to the handling of false information that appears online.
Closer to home for the hoax's perpetrators, Ukrainian and Western analysts have accused pro-Kremlin media of using fakes and misleading information to push Moscow's point of view since the separatism-fueled conflict began in April 2014.
Students said they were inspired by the case in Germany of a 13-year-old girl from a Russian immigrant family, whom Russian media suggested had been abducted and possibly raped by migrants in Berlin. The girl's story was later debunked by German prosecutors who said she was lying to hide her whereabouts, but not before the German and Russian foreign ministers exchanged accusatory remarks.
Pryymachenko said the students provided plenty of information on the page that should have tipped off fact-checkers that the story was dubious.
First, Inspector Rex was billed as a joint project of the Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy and the Austrian-based European organization of culture development, or Kulturpolitische Gesellschaft. The latter has no information about the project on its website or social-media pages; the former wouldn't deal with projects like Inspector Rex, although its functions include creating and implementing state policy regarding media activities.
Second, Pryymachenko said, the TV show's fictitious budget was 6 million euros ($6.7 million) -- way too high in a country that spent 54 million euros on all programs created by the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting for all of 2015.
The page also specified that a familiar Ukrainian actor, Anatoliy Pashynin, would play the canine's cop handler, a point that would presumably be simple enough to confirm if true.
At the beginning of the project, the three School of Multimedia Journalism students also agreed to disclose the story as a fake to anyone who contacted them directly or via the Facebook page for more information about the show.
Unfortunately, Pryymachenko said, only two or three media outlets did so.
The students also considered creating an e-mail address to send out fake press releases but decided that strategy would be too aggressive. "We decided that we would share the information passively. Whoever comes, whoever doesn't fact check, whoever publishes, it's their problem. We didn't make anybody do this," Pryymachenko said.
Instead, the group focused on creating a believable Facebook page that featured the TV show's hand-drawn storyboards, German-shepherd gifs, and interviews on the street with Lviv citizens about how they felt about the show.
They also edited Inspector Rex's Wikipedia pages in Ukrainian and German.
All in all, Pryymachenko said he considered the project a success. "Students enjoyed it, I enjoyed it, organizers enjoyed it," he said. "Another thing is that a lot of people now feel offended by us, but that's their problem."