Mauled by a bear? Viral story in Russia is fake

Outlets around the world ran with a fake story about a man attacked by a bear.
Outlets around the world ran with a fake story about a man attacked by a bear.

A viral video that was shared more than 25,000 times claimed to show a Russian man who had survived a month in a bear’s den. However, the video wasn’t even filmed in Russia and has nothing to do with bears.

The thirty-second clip shows an emaciated, bearded man lying on a gurney with what appears to be blotches and wounds all over his body. He answers a question in Russian and says that his name is Alexander.

News outlets in Russia and around the world reported that the man had been filmed after surviving a bear attack in southern Siberia. However, a hospital in Kazakhstan, more than 2,500 kilometres away, says the man had been a patient at their facility, where he was treated for a skin disease.

The website Eurasia Daily wrote about the video and cited hunters as saying that the man had survived in a bear den.

From Russia to Britain

The video began circulating in June on both Russian and English-speaking websites, with users on platforms such as the Russian Pikabu wondering where it came from. Others online said that the clip could have been shot from a movie set or that it showed someone experiencing the effects of the drug “krokodil".

One user on Russian social site Pikabu said "This is drugs. Earlier I saw that with some drug people are alive, rotting and their bones sticking out, yet still alive." Another user replies that the drug is "krokodil."

Russian news website Eurasia Daily reported June 25 that the man in the video had been attacked by a bear in the Tuva region of Siberia, and was discovered by hunters after spending more than a month in the animal’s den with a broken spine.

Eurasia Daily cited unnamed hunters in its story. Two days later the outlet that it did not actually speak to witnesses, but had been sent the video by a businessman from Tuva who they did not name. Police in the Tuva region told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that there had been no such patient in their jurisdiction.

However, the story of the miraculous bear survival had already spread. The Siberian Times, a website that publishes stories about Russia, wrote the story in English and sourced the photos to Eurasia Daily. British media outlets including The Mail Online, The Sun and The Daily Mirror picked up the story and ran it, citing “local media” as a source.

The Mail Online version of the story has been shared more than 16,000 times. Russian media also picked up the story, including the popular state-run broadcaster Russia 24, which spoke to a wildlife expert about whether such a survival story was possible.

The search for one Alexander finds another

While the story was spreading, other web users became suspicious.

Members of Zello.Poisk, an online group that searches for missing people in the city of Aktobe, Kazakhstan, saw the video and thought that the man looked very similar to someone they were looking for.

“It all happened spontaneously, by chance. In the city an Alexander went missing… and the man in this video very very strongly resembled this Alexander,” group member “Dennis” told the FRANCE 24 Observers, on condition of anonymity.

The group also noted that the language in the background spoken by a nurse was not the local language of Tuva but Kazakh, which is spoken in their city along with Russian. Volunteers from the group who went to the local hospital learned that the man in the video was indeed a patient, though not the missing Alexander.

“The hospital let our people through... They spoke to him and he said that he is sick and has a skin condition,” Dennis said.

An online group that looks for missing people checked the hospital after thinking the man was someone from their city.

Rustem Isaev, the head doctor at Aktobe Medical Centre, confirmed to the Observers team that a patient called Alexander, 41, was brought to the hospital in a serious condition on June 8. He said that the patient was treated for problems including a wound to his right side, sepsis and psoriasis, which he had not treated at home.

“He came to our Aktobe centre and we treated him for a week, discharged him and he is in better condition now. He was not in any kind of bear den, not in Tuva, not in Sochi, nowhere. Just in our centre,” Isaev said.

The patient and his mother both agreed to the filming of his condition for medical training purposes, according to Isaev. He said that the video was shared to a private chat for medical personnel, but that one surgeon shared it outside the group. The surgeon has received an administrative rebuke, according to Isaev.

Truth struggles to keep up with the fake

Several outlets have posted new articles with information from Isaev, who confirmed that the patient was in his facility and that no bear attack had taken place.

However, those articles have been shared far less than the original, inaccurate reports. On Tuesday, the Mail Online's report that the patient was in Kazakhstan had been shared just 364 times, in comparison with 16,000 shares for the original article -- which remains online with no update to its headline.

This story was written by Christopher Brennan.(@CKozalBrennan)