KYIV – Among the first people to pinpoint that Russia engages in lies on an industrial scale packaged as actual news was Yevhen Fedchenko, 41, director of the Mohyla School of Journalism.
He and his colleagues noticed the practice during the Revolution of Dignity that ended in February 2014. That month, disgraced Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia after leaving behind a dry treasury and a graft-infested, dysfunctional government, along with 100 civilians killed by his law enforcement personnel.
A month later, Mr. Fedchenko and his like-minded team took action when he noticed that amid a “news vacuum” on Ukraine, where there was “no government, no news makers, …immediately that vacuum was filled with fake news, a fake reality” – allegedly by Russia.
Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government was being called a “junta,” the president’s overthrow was labeled a “coup d’état,” and it was claimed that “fascists” bent on annihilating Russian speakers had taken power in the country.
This was when Moscow was illegally annexing the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, an act that the Kremlin first denied – as is the case with leading fake news campaigns around the world – but which Russian leader Vladimir Putin later admitted was of his making.
As a former newspaperman himself, Mr. Fedchenko started busting Russian myths one layer at a time, peeling away, always knowing that a news story never has an ending.
Soon, the StopFake group that he co-founded to debunk hoax news would become aware of the scope of Russia’s large cottage industry, complete with a troll factory in St. Petersburg, automated “bots,” and fictitious social media accounts created to spread lies and disinformation on Ukraine. A BBC Russia report this week even revealed that Moscow proxies in the occupied part of the Donbas are cooperating with their Russian counterparts to spread brainwashing in Ukraine and Russia.
“We just started as a reaction to things on the ground,” Mr. Fedchenko told The Ukrainian Weekly at his office at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy campus on November 14. “Then there was a moment when we realized this is huge, that this is kind of a new reality. And very quickly it would be a new reality not only for Ukraine but for everybody else.”
It would take about two years for everybody else to identify Russia as weaponizing information in elections in France, the Dutch referendum, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and “finally the climax was the U.S. [presidential] election,” he said. “That’s when the U.S. and global media started to think, ‘well this phenomenon was around for quite a while and why didn’t we pay any attention.’ Actually, we did say that very specific political actions are needed.”
Although Ukraine banned Russian TV channels from the nation’s airwaves in 2014 at the start of Moscow’s invasion, it was only in May of this year that Kyiv banned popular Russian social media sites, several news portals and other online outlets that were deemed threats to national security.
“Now there’s no doubt that Russia weaponizes anything it has access to,” the academic said. “Basically, whatever Russia lays its hands on, they immediately weaponize it.”
Some of the Western countries that have been specifically targeted by Russian disinformation onslaughts have also taken action, albeit belatedly.
“Governments were very slow to react to that [Russian propaganda] because, again, it would mean that they would have to name who is behind this, Russia in particular,” Mr. Fedchenko said. “Governments were reluctant to do so. That means you accept the challenge and would have to react to that.”
The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of “seeking to weaponize information” by “deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories… in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions,” she said in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London on November 13.
Her statement came as “almost 45,000 messages about Brexit [the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU] were tweeted from Russian Twitter accounts in just 48 hours during last year’s referendum,” the Daily Mail reported, citing another U.K. newspaper, The Times.
The report continued: “More than 150,000 Russian-based accounts switched their attention from subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict to Brexit in the lead-up to the vote, according to research by Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.”
In the run up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, over 150 million Americans were “exposed to Russia-linked material on Facebook and… Instagram… last November,” MSNBC reported.
And this week, Russia’s government-funded English-language propaganda mouthpiece RT (formerly called Russia Today), registered as a “foreign agent” with U.S. authorities.
“Registering as a foreign agent is a big deal,” Mr. Fedchenko said. “It’s quite clear that… because a lot of people in the West perceive it as a legitimate source of information… [people] perceive it not as Russian state-run propaganda but as normal television, and RT was brought into the spotlight and discredited.”
Whether one looks at Britain’s choice to leave the EU or President Donald Trump’s ascension to the highest office in the land, it is impossible to know if Moscow’s use of disinformation and other tools, like hacking the Democratic Party’s national headquarters, influenced the outcome of the votes.
Yet, achieving a desired election outcome isn’t the Kremlin’s chief aim, said Mr. Fedchenko.
“The goal is to sow discord, …to get people to lose faith that there’s an objective truth out there,” he said. “Also what Russia successfully did is they used available tools to push fringe ideologies to the center and make them mainstream.”
Ukraine was always a victim to this – ever since it gained independence in 1991, he said. While it was more expensive to spread lies and propaganda by more traditional media like print, where ink, paper and the cost of distribution are exorbitantly more expensive, now Russia does it cheaply via social media platforms.
“All the Russian TV channels were present [in 1991]. You would always have politically charged news programming,” Mr. Fedchenko said. “This is very small but very well calculated, …pushing narratives and making sure they’re stuck in public opinion. This is very insidious and very unnoticeable to people who are not monitoring it on a constant basis.”
That’s why he draws the line between freedom of speech and propaganda.
“The first amendment doesn’t cover propaganda,” Mr. Fedchenko said.
He cited the Luxembourg European Court of General Jurisdiction’s ruling on June 15 that upheld a previous decision to keep asset freezes and travel bans to the continent in place on Dmitri Kiselyov, the only Russian journalist to have been sanctioned over the Kremlin’s war-mongering in Ukraine.
Now in its third year of existence, the StopFake.org Russian propaganda debunking website is available in 11 languages, with Polish and German being the latest additions.
Interloping state-run agencies with large budgets finally woke up to Russia’s informational warfare. Meanwhile, StopFake operated last year on a budget of only $225,000, and its 30 employees work remotely by using their personal computers while communicating online. By contrast, the overall U.S. intelligence budget is $70 billion, The New Yorker magazine reported this week in a story on Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections.
Foreign-language myth-busting stories that are about Ukraine get translated, while the emphasis is to let in-country editors and partner organizations choose which propaganda pieces to report in their respective languages and countries in the Czech Republic, Italy, Bulgaria, Spain and elsewhere.
A two-part monthly newspaper is also printed with funding from the British Embassy. Some 200,000 copies, printed in Russian, are distributed in the two easternmost regions that comprise the occupied Donbas. Called “Your Right to Know,” the publication provides accurate local news and reports on media literacy issues to prevent residents from falling victim to Russian propaganda in an area where the latter is prevalent via satellite, television and radio.
StopFake also runs a weekly syndicated radio and television show and stores all its broadcasts on SoundCloud. It also has a YouTube channel of weekly fake news debunking shows.
The group conducted three studies on Russia-related propaganda this year, one of which was affiliated with the Oxford Internet Institute. All of the studies are available for free and are aimed at improving media literacy and staving the effects of Russian information warfare.
Mr. Fedchenko’s stance is firm on Russia. If Russia tries to “weaponize” news narratives, that should be considered “to be an act of war.”
“If Russia is weaponizing narratives, the Ukrainian government should take action because what the Constitution says, the president… is in charge of national and the people’s security, so it is his constitutional duty,” he said.
He’s hopeful as well. Acknowledging that Moscow’s war has boosted “media literacy” in recognizing Russian propaganda, Mr. Fedchenko cited his group’s survey in February, which found that 58 percent of respondents “recognize the danger of propaganda.”
The West is more blind to Russian propaganda because it isn’t conventionally at war with Russia, unlike Ukraine, he said. “So other countries don’t have the capacity for resilience towards that propaganda.”
To learn more about StopFake, readers may go to: https://www.stopfake.org/.