Disinformation wars: How Ukraine fought the Kremlin's fake news machine

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: StopFake, Dado Ruvic/Reuters, iStockphoto/Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: StopFake, Dado Ruvic/Reuters, iStockphoto/Getty Images

The U.S. intelligence community’s confirmation that the Russian government launched a campaign to stir unrest and meddle in the 2016 presidential election took many Americans by surprise, but Ukrainians have been living with these tactics for years.

During the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Kyiv Mohyla Journalism School launched a fact-checking website, StopFake.org, that attracted journalists, technology experts and translators worried about the Kremlin-fueled disinformation about Ukraine in their media. StopFake has grown into a Snopes-type website that debunks Russian lies and propaganda in 11 languages.

Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR in 1991, but its location between Russia and the West all but guaranteed that it would be where Russian and European values and interests clash.

Sifting fact from fiction in Russia–Ukraine relations isn’t always easy. Earlier this week, the Ukrainian government said it helped dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko fake his own death in an attempt to expose an assassination plot.

Yahoo News reached out to StopFake co-founder Ruslan Deynychenko to hear more about propaganda narratives, media literacy and how disinformation chips away at faith in democracy.

StopFake co-founder Ruslan Deynychenko (Photo: Courtesy StopFake.org)
StopFake co-founder Ruslan Deynychenko (Photo: Courtesy StopFake.org)

Yahoo News: How successful has Russian disinformation been in fomenting distrust of democratic institutions in Ukraine?

Ruslan Deynychenko: They were pretty successful in the beginning because there were no reactions from Ukraine. We didn’t take them seriously and we allowed them to have at least three TV networks that were still broadcasting in Ukraine. We didn’t pay attention to that until 2014 when our team and some other people from NGOs and government realized it’s not a joke. Basically, a huge part of what happened to Ukraine happened because we didn’t pay attention to Russian propaganda. They brainwashed a lot of people. They fueled these conflicts, which helped them to take a part of Ukraine, which is the Crimean Peninsula. A lot of people who were brainwashed wanted to be part of the Russian Federation, or so-called Russian world.

You said Russian propaganda is not a joke. When the Russian propaganda first started coming through, did people think of it as a joke or did they think it was funny?

Yes, in the beginning we found it funny when the daily news was full of strange stories. In 2014 when we started our project, we discovered they had hundreds of stories that never happened that were in the news. It was funny at the beginning, but when people started to kill each other, when we saw all these casualties in Crimea and Donbass, that was not funny. I think our team and the government convinced Ukrainians and others that Russian propaganda exists, unfortunately it works, and we need to do something. The measures that were conducted helped us make them look stupid. Not a lot of Ukrainians right now — I believe 3 to 5 percent — still consider Russian media a reliable source of information. The other Ukrainians are sure that Russian media are propaganda outlets.

The StopFake project has grown into an information center for examining many aspects of Kremlin propaganda. Can you comment on its impact on countries in the European Union and former Soviet states?

Now we travel a lot and try to share our experience with people from the Baltic States, Moldova and Eastern European countries. Our message to them is that Russian propaganda might work differently in your country. They can deliver different messages to your audience. And it might not just be Russian propaganda. In Balkan states, it might be Serbian or other types of propaganda. But our main message is to not ignore it and find a way to protect your people from being influenced.

Have the same messages used in Ukraine been applied to propaganda in the United States and Europe?

I think there are different sets of messages for each market, whether it’s Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Baltic states, the United States or Great Britain. The main approach is to find your weaknesses, discover existing conflicts and fuel them, restrict people and achieve goals that you couldn’t with conventional weapons, to influence the politicians and destroy the faith of people in democracy and to persuade them that everyone lies. This is their task in different countries, but the specific messages might be different. They try to find appropriate messages for each market. In right-wing America, it might be anti-Americanism. In European countries, it might be anti-refugee messages. But the approach is the same.

When did StopFake realize that Russia had launched a multifaceted propaganda campaign aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential election in 2016? What was your reaction?

We prefer not to say something that we cannot prove and don’t have evidence of. We monitor Russian media’s messages concerning Ukraine. We suspect that they tried to influence the U.S. elections. And of course, now we’ve seen the preliminary results of the investigation. We just didn’t see why they would not like to use the same weapons against their enemies in different parts of the world. That’s why we try to persuade people, NGOs, experts, members of the government and members of the intelligence communities from different countries not to ignore this problem. Of course, only the local people, American intelligence, people who understand the local issues, can discover the ways Russian propaganda tried to influence them.

What advice do you have for increasing media literacy? How can one better deduce whether a story in fake or real?

We have a section on our website where we explain to people how they can distinguish or at least be more aware of fakes and how they can check information online or from newspapers. People can be more media literate and responsible in consuming information. In Ukraine, we banned all Russian television and social networks. In our case it was essential and helped a lot. When Russian news, soap operas and talk shows are everywhere, it’s more efficient to ban them than to teach every single person how to protect themselves from these lies.

Do you think the Russian hackers exploit Western values to further their messaging?

Absolutely. I have no doubt that Russia uses every way to reach people, influence them, undermine democracy and undermine our values. They say, ‘Why did you prohibit Russian television? This is another opinion. This is another source of information.’ But in our opinion, and I think we prove it with our website, thousands of stories where we caught them deliberately disseminating disinformation and propaganda. We proved that this is not traditional media. This is not about another opinion. It’s about propaganda. The only way we can protect people from being influenced is first of all to avoid it. It’s like a disease. It’s like comparing a restaurant that serves the best food and one that poisons customers. The next day the regulator will come and close that restaurant. I think regulators must do the same in this context for people who deliberately disseminate fakes and disinformation.

Given what you just said, I think readers are going to wonder about your opinions on free speech in Ukraine and whether it applies to Russian media. What are your thoughts there?

I support free speech and I’m a journalist, but I don’t consider propaganda to be media. We shouldn’t mix the right to express oneself and the right to deliberately disseminate these lies. Restaurants should have the right to serve different kinds of food but not poisoned food. We should protect ourselves from being poisoned. That’s the idea I support. In our case, Russian propaganda is poison for our citizens’ brains. That’s why I think their right to express themselves should be limited, at least in Ukraine. We should not fall into this trap and treat Russian propaganda as free media. They want to persuade us that they are another opinion and part of democracy. But they do not do that. They just manipulate people and nations and interfere to create conflicts in different parts of the world. That’s the huge difference I see. They are basically an extension of the Russian foreign policy machine. They are not journalists.

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