Chapter 9 - Countering disinformation in Ukraine
StopFake.org began as a vehicle to refute Russian fake news stories about Ukraine, and has now turned into an international information hub on Kremlin propaganda. Its team of journalist has launched numerous tools for debunking Russian narratives, discrediting Russian propaganda and conducting education programs to increase media literacy.
StopFake.org is a fact-checking project that tackles Russian disinformation and propaganda by debunking fake news. Launched in 2014 by journalism professors, students and alumni of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, it was a reaction to the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Donbass region. Initially, the goal of the project was to verify and refute disinformation and propaganda about events in Ukraine being circulated in the media. The project has grown into an information hub where all aspects of Kremlin propaganda are carefully examined and analysed.
To date, the organisation’s team of 30 has debunked more than a thousand stories from Russian mainstream media (TV channels, newspapers, news agencies) in 11 different languages. The content—which includes text video, audio content, syndicated television and radio shows, a local Donbass newspaper, and a documentary—reaches 230,000 followers on social media and numerous others in person. As the holder of the largest archive of Russian fake news, StopFake.org fact-checks, de-bunks, edits, translates, researches and disseminates information.
Monitoring, debunking, archiving and defining main narratives
Russia’s war against Ukraine illustrated the contemporary use by Moscow of propaganda globally, but as a tool, this represents a continuation of Soviet methods—adapted to increase its impact and efficiency today.
Television remains as one of the main instruments of influence and dissemination of disinformation in Russia and abroad. The value of this medium to Russia is expressed by Margarita Simonyan, RT head: “To some extent, if you do not have broadcasting for abroad – it’s like you do not have the army. When there is no war—you do not need it. But when the war [has] already started, you cannot create it in a weekFootnote 49.” Well before the beginning of the Crimean annexation, Russian television was a significant channel for influencing Ukrainian public opinion, with all major channels freely available in Ukraine and Ukrainian state-run technical facilities being used for carrying and amplifying signals. Russian TV content was widely consumed in Ukraine as a result of the linguistic proximity and a partially integrated media economy between the two countries.
At the same time, other segments of the Russian media system were also dominating over the Ukrainian media landscape, including Internet news media, social media and the shared entertainment industry. All were gradually weaponised, with the Russian media involved in manufacturing and distributing textual fakes, manipulative titles, visual fakes, false claims, forged documents, phoney experts, fake news sources and witnesses. Together, they culminated in a series of fake narratives discrediting different aspects of life in Ukraine, which were then targeted at audiences in Russia, Ukraine and globally. To maximise the disinformation effect, narratives were repeated, translated and amplified by social media.
StopFake.org’s primary objectives include debunking fake narratives, disseminating findings to different audiences and building an archive of cases. Preliminary analyses of 500 items of disinformation produced by Russian propaganda on Ukraine during the period 2014-2015 identified multiple major manufactured narratives, including the following:
- Depictions of Ukraine as a fascist and failed state whose territory was in constant disintegration, dispute or threat of annexation by neighbouring and Western countries;
- Manipulations of political or economic relations with international partners, including de-legitimisation of the EU and NATO and misrepresentations of foreign support of, and intentions in, Ukraine; and
- Characterizations of Russia as not participating in the affairs of Ukraine, including denials of a Russian occupation and involvement in the crash of flight MH17.
Further analysis regarding Ukraine revealed that the largest number of fake news stories (79 items) was generated by Zvezda TV, which belongs to the Ministry of Defence in Russia. The second largest producer with 73 items, Ukraine.ru, is a Russian web site belonging to the Russian state-owned Novosti information agency, followed by the RIA Novosti information agency with 62 fake items.
Both state-owned and privately-owned (but state-controlled) media are involved in Russia, with television and the Internet dominating the propaganda ecosystem. Importantly, analyses illustrate that the entire Russian media landscape serves the Kremlin’s objective of manufacturing and distributing fake news. This system is a major component of Russia’s information warfare in Ukraine.
Discrediting Russian agitprop and raising domestic and international awareness
Russian propaganda operates beyond the Russian language realm and is active on a global scale. While Russian speakers are more likely to follow Russian domestic media, RT (formerly Russia Today) operates in five languages and Sputnik in 31; non-attributable web sites and trolls operate in many other countries and in a multitude of languages. The reach of Russian propaganda is therefore not constrained by language or location, making public awareness a top priority.
Research in early 2017 by StopFake.org illuminated the perception of Russian propaganda by Ukrainians and their resilience towards it:
- The majority of Ukrainian citizens (58.3 per cent) share the opinion that there is a threat of Russian propaganda in Ukraine;
- Ukrainians view Russian TV channels, online media and social networks as the most widespread sources of Russian propaganda (45 per cent, 34.5 per cent and 19.8 per cent respectively);
- The majority of the Ukrainian population (59.7 per cent) believes that they are able to distinguish truthful information from false information in the media; and
- 42.1 per cent of respondents believe that disinformation is a serious problem in Russian media.
An important step in disconnecting Ukrainians from Russia’s propaganda pipeline was the removal from air of 75 Russian TV channels previously available in Ukraine. Decreed by a Ukrainian court in 2014 at the beginning of the war in Donbass, the removal resulted in a dramatic drop in Russian TV news viewership in Ukraine, from 12 per cent in 2015, to 7 per cent in 2016, and 5 per cent in 2017.
The shrinking Russian media audience in Ukraine can also be explained by limits imposed on the presence of Russian social media companies. In May 2017, the President of Ukraine (Poroshenko) signed a decree blocking Russian social networks from operating in Ukraine as part of a wider set of sanctions. The inability for Ukrainian Internet service providers to provide access to Russian social networks had a tremendous impact: according to SimilarWeb, the Ukrainian audience of VKontakte decreased by 60 per cent in 2017, from 9.8 million to 3.8 million visits per day, while visits to Odnoklassniki(‘Classmates’) fell by 64 per cent (from 4.6 million to 1.6 million visits per day). Both social networks were known to host thousands of anti-Ukrainian groups and disseminate propaganda, and were operational tools to raise funds and hire mercenaries for the war in Donbass.
The drop in the number of visitors to the Russian search engine Yandex, whichprovides a spectrum of personalised services and harvests geolocation and other data from Ukrainian users, reached 65 per cent, from 5.9 million to 2 million visits per day. Mail.ru—one of the most widely used email service in Ukraine—lost 55 per cent of its Ukrainian audience. Many of those users were Ukrainian military members who were regularly targeted with Russian manufactured news through the ads section of this service.
Disseminating knowledge and promoting media literacy
In Ukraine, StopFake.org also works to improve media literacy of different audiences, with a special focus on the populations of Donbass and Crimea (despite the obvious difficulties in reaching these audiences).
In 2015, StopFake.org conducted media literacy training for general audiences in eastern and southern Ukraine. The project consisted of ‘training the trainers’, curriculum and training manual development, and a series of intensive one-day training sessions for targeted audiences determined to be at risk from Russian propaganda. The training was accompanied by an intensive advertising campaign in the national and local media (TV, radio, banners on news web sites and social media, and outdoor advertisements) promoting media literacy and providing tools for citizens could use to check facts. As a result of this project, more than 15,000 individuals were trained in the basic skills needed for more critical media consumption.
Ukrainians continue to face difficulties grasping the challenges of a post-truth era. According to polling conducted in February 2017, most participants, especially of the middle and younger age groups, have heard of and understand the concept of a ‘fake’ when applied to news. Nevertheless, the concept remains unusual for many. All participants, even the youngest cohort, noted that they do not use it in everyday parlance and consider it slang used by young people and teenagers. In contrast, the concept of propaganda was clear for most participants, especially those in the middle and older age cohorts who were politically aware during Soviet times. Considering that younger audiences are more likely to use social media platforms, these findings highlight a critical need for further media literacy training.
To expand its work internationally, StopFake.org partners with many fact-checking organisations and networks across Europe to share the Ukrainian experience, raise global awareness of Russian disinformation and its influence on political processes and decision-making, as well as facilitate political discussions of disinformation in other countries.
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