KYIV, Ukraine — When “little green men” invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014, Russian media went into overdrive, smearing Ukraine’s Euro-revolution as a “fascist coup d’état.”
A group of professors and students struck back and unwittingly made history that spring when they launched StopFake.org, the first site to directly tackle and refute Russian propaganda. Now that the rest of the world has woken up to the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics, the journalism school crew behind StopFake have emerged as the “grand wizards” of the fake-news-busting world.
“There was a growing avalanche of propaganda from Russia seeking to reframe the narrative in the Kremlin’s favor, and we urgently needed to counterbalance that,” says Yevhen Fedchenko, the dean of Kyiv Mohyla University’s journalism faculty and one of the founders of StopFake.
The site quickly gained a cult following by exposing false facts in anti-Ukraine Russian news reports. An aggrieved mother whose child was reportedly “crucified” by Ukrainian troops was “outed” as a popular Russian television actress in an article that was shared 11,000 times and later referenced in a press conference with Putin.
But it was only after last year’s presidential election in the U.S. — when Russian fake news and cyberattacks were blamed for swaying the election in Donald Trump’s favor — that the site burst on to the global stage.
Almost overnight, the founders of StopFake went from provincial do-gooders to international media stars. Fedchenko and his colleagues were lauded at conferences and plied with offers of consulting work by nervous European governments. They now organize media workshops across the Continent, offering guidelines on recognizing and debunking Russian propaganda.
“We’ve been inundated in the past year with requests for advice and offers of help, now that Russian propagandists have begun to target most European nations — and even the United States,” says StopFake co-founder, Ruslan Deinychenko, who’s dressed in what seems to be the staff uniform — a bright turtleneck and hipster jeans.
The site also receives additional funding from various sources, including the Czech Republic’s foreign ministry and the British embassy in Ukraine. It has since expanded its focus and now publishes in 11 languages, including Czech, Italian, Romanian and German. With more money flowing into the operation, the founders have now hired journalists across Europe and expanded their global staff to 30 people.
As the West scrambles to get a handle on the Kremlin’s propaganda tactics, Ukraine for once finds itself in a privileged position. Ukrainians lived through the Soviet Union, speak fluent Russian and can sift through Russian-language sites for clues about the inner workings of the Kremlin’s fakes news operations. They know the sites pumping out Kremlin disinformation and might even have met some of their editors in the past.
The site Ukraina.ru, for example — a Russian-language site from Moscow that peddles false anti-Ukraine stories — recently offered one of StopFake’s freelancers a full-time position.
“He turned down the job of course, even though the salary was very high,” says Fedchenko, who knows the editor-in-chief, a man who spent a few years in Kyiv before the Maidan revolution.
“We traced their offices to a building in Moscow that also houses other Kremlin-friendly sites like Sputnik and RIA Novosti.”
As a journalist covering Ukraine during the post-2014 barrage of Russian propaganda, I remember how the Kremlin’s fake news stories infected our most private moments and reframed the narrative.
I recall an incredulous taxi driver telling me that a recent client from Moscow had insisted that the MH17 flight, which was downed over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, had been “stuffed with dead bodies.” He refused to pay the fare until the driver agreed with his version of events.
Fake reports alleged that the Ukrainian air force had targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane, which flew over the same region as MH17 one hour earlier. A journalist friend who was briefly detained in eastern Ukraine said the separatist soldiers had been incredulous the West could so openly support Kyiv’s “fascist junta.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s repeated assertions that there are no Russian troops or weapons involved in the conflict has created a convenient narrative for those who prefer to label it a “civil war” and not an act of Russian aggression.
Ukrainians are also intimately aware of the dangers of Russian propaganda, and the way it can infect the body politic with its dark messages.
Chopping the air feverishly with his hands, Fedchenko emphasizes that contemporary Russian propaganda had no inherent ideology and appealed to people’s basest instincts.
“Their messages are very fluid and seek to divide societies against themselves,” he says. “The Kremlin is against all international organizations like the NATO or the EU, and prefers that each country is forced to fend for itself.”
StopFake’s dire warnings about Russian propaganda and its nefarious designs have taken on new urgency in the context of upcoming presidential elections in both Germany and France, where there has been much talk about Kremlin disinformation campaigns against anti-Russian candidates.
Fedchenko explains that the case of the German-Russian teenager, Lisa — whose supposed rape by Muslim immigrants sparked mass protests by Germany’s millions-strong Russian community last year — was a classic example of Russian propaganda.
“They fabricated a rape to inflame passions among Russian speakers in Germany and discredit Merkel,” he says.
During a recent presidential campaign in Moldova, Russians also spread fake reports labeling the pro-European candidate a lesbian and accusing her of supporting “mass Muslim immigration.”
The pro-Kremlin candidate won the election.
Ukraine can’t turn back time. But for the rest of the Western world, it might not yet be too late. The government in Kyiv has many Russian media outlets to counter fake news. And indeed, Fedchenko’s biggest regret is that “Ukraine hadn’t switched off Russian television 20 years ago.”
His eyes briefly become misty as he imagines a country completely free from the taint of Russian propaganda. If that had been the case, he says with renewed conviction, “we’d never have had the war in the Donbas to begin with.”
By Vijai Maheshwari, POLITICO
Vijai Maheshwari is a writer and entrepreneur based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He spent six years in Moscow in the 1990s, and was also editor in chief of Russian Playboy.