As a diplomat for nearly three decades, I’ve long followed national and local news around the world to better understand the societies in which I work. Real journalism is a vital component of any democracy, serving to educate and inform the public about its leaders and policies. Unfortunately, there have always been those who have attempted to use news sources to distort the truth to advance their own political, economic or personal agendas. While new technologies have expanded citizens’ ability to receive news from a far wider range of sources, it also makes it easier for stories and narratives to flourish that are deceptive or just plain false. Because of this, I am always cautious about the information I consume.
I hope the people of Ukraine are taking a similar approach when they turn on their televisions and scroll through social media updates and news feeds. Today, disinformation is a challenge faced by every democracy and its citizens. As democratic governments uphold freedom of speech, some malicious actors – domestic and foreign – spread outright lies or heavily distorted information to advance their personal goals. As Ukrainians bravely defend their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity on the frontlines in the Donbas, Ukraine cannot allow information-aggression to thrive.
Today, we see an onslaught of disinformation aimed at undermining the important reforms Ukraine has undertaken since the Revolution of Dignity, and that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is working to advance. In order to protect personal economic interests, bad actors are attacking independent law enforcement and regulatory bodies, and weakening corporate governance, while attempting to protect corrupt schemes that drain money from public coffers to the benefit of a few individuals.
At the same time, retrograde forces seek to drive a wedge between Ukrainians and their democratic allies. They suggest that the West seeks to “run Ukraine” or pursues its own interests at Ukraine’s expense. This is a false narrative driven by those who do not want to see Ukraine reach its full potential as a thriving, prosperous democracy that makes full use of the talent and creativity of its people. The United States’ support for Ukraine’s ambition to be strong, independent, prosperous and resilient is driven by our belief that a Europe whole, free and at peace is in the interest of all of us. My team at the U.S. Embassy works side by side with partners in the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian civil society and the Ukrainian people as they advance the initiatives they themselves have designed to reach their objectives.
Many of the false narratives attacking Ukraine’s relations with the West and its reform agenda come directly from Russian sources. As outlined in the State Department’s recent report, “Russia’s Pillars of Disinformation and Propaganda,” the Kremlin routinely attempts to sow discord in Western societies, including Ukraine, to weaken Western institutions, promote fringe voices and undermine our democratic ideals. It’s no coincidence that we’ve recently seen long-standing Russian disinformation – and outright lies – about “secret U.S. biolaboratories” revived simultaneously in Georgia and Ukraine, two democracies pursuing reform and closer ties to the West.
We have also seen certain prominent Ukrainians and Ukrainian media outlets falsely accuse Western reform partners of misspending assistance funds. In doing so, these elected officials, oligarchs, and others have set aside the interests of the Ukrainian people to pursue their own personal interests, or Russia’s, in an attempt to preserve the corrupt system that they have exploited to make themselves rich and powerful, and divide Ukraine from its Western partners.
The United States has long been committed to working with the people of Ukraine to combat disinformation through media literacy programming, training in investigative journalism, and more. It’s important that all citizens in a democracy have the skills to differentiate what is legitimate, critical reporting from baseless lies. Patriotic Ukrainians should firmly refute disinformation intended to advance Russian or oligarchic interests, and individuals propagating lies should be sidelined. Individual citizens also can take steps to protect themselves and their democracy from disinformation by thinking critically, using a diverse set of media sources, and seeking out ethical and unbiased sources of information. There are many such honorable journalists and media outlets operating here in Ukraine today. Don’t let their voices be drowned out by those with more wealth, more political influence, or those supported by malign external actors.
The United States remains committed to working with the Ukrainian government and civil society to achieve peace in eastern Ukraine and fully implement reforms to build a stronger and more prosperous Ukrainian democracy.
Kristina A. Kvien is chargé d’affaires, ad interim, at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. The commentary above was posted online by the U.S. Embassy on August 12.