KYIV, Ukraine — The studio lights dim, and the anchor taps a stack of papers on her desk and directs a steely gaze toward the television cameras.
What appears to be a nightly newscast is about to begin, only with a very Ukrainian twist: Everything is a lie, from start to finish.
“Welcome to ‘StopFake,’ the place where we set the record straight on fakes about Ukraine,” the anchor, Margo Gontar, intones.
In other parts of the world, viewers might suspect the evening news is just a bunch of lies, but watching the weekly broadcast of “StopFake News,” they can be certain of it. The group is highly respected in journalistic circles here in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, for its specialty of debunking fake news.
If fact checkers cannot prove that a story published or broadcast by another news media outlet is false, it will not be featured in the weekly airing of “StopFake News.”
“We discuss the stories, and if an editor says, ‘Can we disprove this? Is this a lie?’ then, yes, we can use it,” Ms. Gontar said of the editorial process. “It is investigative journalism, with a twist.”
The journalism department at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy oversees the program and provides the basement television studio where, once a week, all the lies are gathered in one place.
The studio is on a side street of red brick apartment blocks in an up-and-coming neighborhood of Kyiv known as the Podil, or the Skirt, because it flows down a hill.
It is a district of warehouses and reclaimed factory spaces, now abounding with coffee shops, where various projects have sprung up as creative responses to the East-West conflict that started in Ukraine three years ago. Not everything can be left to the army.
A former shipyard, for example, became home to Izolatsia studio, an art collective displaced from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine that focuses on topics such as architecture and urban development in conflict zones.
“StopFake News” is no Onion-style satire, but rather positions itself as serious public service journalism, identifying fake news and debunking it on the air. That is because Kyiv, with its running battle with Moscow, was plagued by fake news long before concern over the problem spiked in Western Europe and the United States.
During the Ukraine crisis in 2014, manipulative and often outright invented news poured in from Russia on satellite television and websites and into sympathetic local newspapers.
Recurring themes emerged, becoming the talk at water coolers around the capital: An Islamic State training camp had opened in Ukraine; President Petro O. Poroshenko was a drunk and sometimes appeared inebriated in public; nationalists had taken to lynching or, in one infamous case, crucifying Russian-speaking children.
Ukraine banned some Russian television broadcasts, a practice that raised free speech objections, and yet the fake news still circulates online. “StopFake News” has chosen public debunking, not banning, as the best defense — and has shown it can become its own form of appealing entertainment.
StopFake, which is also the name of the organization that founded the newscast, began its work nearly three years before a report by American intelligence agencies into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election in the United States. And it predated by a year the European Union’s establishment of a department to identify and call out fake news plants from Russia. Facebook has recently hired fact checkers in the United States and Germany to flag false reports, not all of them Russian in origin.
Russia, though, has been such a fountain of fake news inside Ukraine that debunking factual errors in Russian propaganda became the specialty of StopFake.
Ukraine has become a testing ground “for a lot of Russia’s evil strategies,” Oksana Syroyid, a deputy speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament, said in an interview. “Unfortunately, we have to put up with this. Ukraine’s experience can be used by Europe and America to understand the real Russian threat.”
Here, as elsewhere, emotionally hued fake news can become lethally serious. Reporters at “StopFake News” pointed to the armed man who entered the Washington restaurant Comet Ping-Pong Pizza, apparently motivated by false reports that the pizzeria was a den of pedophilia frequented by Democrats.
Lest something true accidentally slips into the program’s report and damages the group’s credibility, a crack team of editors and fact checkers combs through all potential stories.
“StopFake News” is a peculiar kind of news. For three years, the headlines have declared what did not happen and what was not said, and the heroism or villainy of people who never existed.
In story after story — more than 1,000 have been reported so far — the journalists reveal laws that were never passed, insults that were never uttered and riots that never happened on quiet town squares. “The Exclusive Interview That Wasn’t,” reads one headline.
Yevhen Fedchenko, a journalism professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, helped start StopFake in March 2014 to heighten public awareness of Russian misinformation at the peak of the Ukraine crisis.
The group reported some of the biggest nonstories of the war. In 2014, Russia’s state-owned Channel 1 broadcast a now infamous report that Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a Russian child on the central square in Slovyansk after the Ukrainian Army expelled Russian-backed separatists from the town.
The report enraged Russian-speaking separatists already taking up arms against Kyiv, throwing gasoline on the fire of the uprising in the east.
“It was a good piece of propaganda because it was produced for prime-time television, it was emotional, and it was totally groundless,” Mr. Fedchenko said.
German propagandists in World War I first used the story line, claiming that the British were crucifying German soldiers, he said, and it has been a staple of European war propaganda since.
“It touches themes of cultural war and religious, civilizational conflict,” he said. “As propaganda, it is very effective.”
What began as a volunteer-run website grew into a news organization with 26 paid employees and researchers in several European countries and the United States, funded by grants. The show airs on about 30 Ukrainian television stations.
“The more outrageous it is, the more likely it is to be on the program,” Ms. Gontar, the anchor, said. Though the stories are “patently absurd,” she said, she plays it straight on air. “People should take it seriously.”
Recently, the show debunked a Russian news report that President Poroshenko had, while drunk, thoughtlessly given a soccer ball as a gift to a Ukrainian soldier whose leg had been amputated because of a war injury.
Other recurring false themes are that the Ukrainian government planned to put Hitler’s face on its paper money and that western, Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country have declared independence.
Ms. Gontar studiously refutes each one, then wraps up her weekly report with a promise of more to come.
“We will keep following the propaganda and catch the lies,” she said. “See you next week.”
By Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times