On March 31, the staff of StopFake, an organization that aims to debunk Russian propaganda through articles, TV, and radio shows, gathered in the low-ceilinged basement of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev to watch the results of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election. The Russian-state-owned Russia 24 TV channel played on two television screens.
There were three major candidates running: President Petro Poroshenko, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and the actor Vladimir Zelensky. Only two candidates would move on to the second round. The Russian channel had been covering the Ukrainian elections non-stop. It aired a documentary laden with pro-Russian conspiracy theories and reported live from regions controlled by Russian separatists.
“Russia wants to portray Ukraine’s elections as illegitimate and portray it as a failed state,” Kateryna Kruk, the host of StopFake’s TV show, in which she airs and dissects the last week’s propaganda, told me in early March. “Instead of promoting pro-Russian candidates they are promoting mistrust of the entire system.”
During the election there were too many manipulations for the staff to keep track of. At the end of the night, Yevhen Fedchenko, the director of the journalism school, slouched in a chair as Russia 24 flickered in front of him. The second round of elections—between Poroshenko and Zelensky—is scheduled for late April. “It will be a heavy bombardment. Before, it was just kind of light artillery.”
In 2013, Ukrainians flooded the country’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in response to Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych distancing the country from the European Union. Nearly 100,000 protestors joined the demonstrations.
A three-month long struggle to pull Ukraine back from Russia’s grip ensued. Kremlin-backed bloggers and trolls launched a torrent of fake news to discredit the protests. “I would go online and I would see tons of stories that never happened circulating,” Kruk told me. Social media accounts called her stupid, advocated for her arrest, and said she should be raped.
Eventually, Yanukovych was overthrown. But soon after, Russian troops swarmed eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The faculty at the Mohyla School of Journalism believed that Russia was using TV stations and news outlets like weapons. “When we started to work we noticed that it was very systematic. It’s not just misinformation,” Fedchenko said. “It’s disinformation.”
Fedchenko created StopFake in 2014. Its target audience was educated professionals, but after Russian propaganda became a theme of the 2016 American elections, StopFake expanded to an international audience. It now publishes articles in 11 languages and monitors Russian propaganda in France, Spain, and Germany. “I am immersed in this stuff 24 hours per day,” Fedchenko said. “I would not say this is the most pleasant, to sort out this shit and try to sort out narratives.”
Ukraine is often a laboratory for the Kremlin to experiment with propaganda and cyber-attacks that they later aim at the west. Before Russian intelligence agents hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential elections, the Kremlin perfected the tactics in Ukraine, targeting government websites and individuals. Before the web of Russian-backed social media bots and trolls targeted American politics, they infested Ukrainian politics. (The Russian embassy in Ukraine did not respond to requests for comment.)
About 74 percent of Ukrainians say that TV is their primary source of news. (By comparison, a recent Pew poll said that 44 percent of Americans prefer TV, which is still the most popular medium.) Most of the largest TV stations are owned by oligarchs. Their airwaves are filled with opinion-laden punditry that serves two purposes—propelling the owners’ political interests and keeping costs down.
At the center of the Russian web are Kremlin-owned and -allied TV stations like NTV, Russia 1, and RT. These channels feature Putin-aligned guests and are followed by the country’s media elite. For instance, Russian political scientist Dmitry Kulikov spoke on a state-owned TV channel about the ongoing Ukrainian elections. “It does not matter who will win, because this victory will have nothing to do with the will of the people,” Kulikov said.
The TV stations and websites in both Russia and Ukraine then parrot those messages, he said. For example, the Russian-based website Ukraine.ru cited a poll it said showed the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians didn’t believe in the integrity of the elections. Dmytro Dmitruk, who was part of the team that conducted the poll, said that it had, in fact, said the opposite—that many Ukrainians were so concerned to eliminate fraud that protests were possible.
Social media makes Russia’s task easier. On Facebook, Russian influence was ubiquitous in the run-up to the first round of elections. Facebook and Instagram pages that were set up by Russian individuals portrayed Ukrainian schools as unhealthy, spread false news about protests and disinformation about NATO. Many targeted Poroshenko, the president.
Some of the pages were uncovered and eventually shut down by Facebook after it received a tip from American law enforcement officials. Facebook, which pledged in January 2019 to get tough on foreign political advertising and introduce other transparency measures, implemented them just 13 days before the first round of voting. And just days before the final vote, nearly 2,000 additional Russian-pages were found, many of which targeted Ukrainian politics.
Commentators and networks backed by Russia receive financial contributions or special access to public projects, Fedchenko says. In the effort to combat Russian-propaganda, Ukraine has banned at least 77 out of 82 Russian TV stations from the country. In 2017, Ukraine banned the Kremlin-connected social networking site VKontakte—similar to Facebook. Fedchenko believes that other governments should do the same. “Russian disinformation is basically masquerading as the real media which invokes the freedom of speech clause,” Fedchenko says. “Definitely the First Amendment should not be used for them.”
Fedchenko’s view is controversial within Ukraine, where some view the fight to combat Russian propaganda as a threat to press freedom. “Sometimes the material [StopFake publishes] is too pro-government and not independent or politically neutral,” Tetiana Popova, a former deputy minister of information policy for Ukraine, said. She now hosts a TV show in Ukraine on public affairs. There is a difference, she explains, between being pro-Ukraine and pro-Ukrainian government. Legitimate criticisms of the Ukrainian government are sometimes labeled fake news or Russian disinformation, she says.
On March 15, on the same day that Ukrainian NGOs protested a bill that would criminally charge anyone sharing “untruthful” information, StopFake hosted its five-year anniversary party. Smart, well-dressed Ukrainians picked at finger food and sipped wine inside vast, open room. It was just two weeks until election day. Members of the StopFake team began a reading of George Orwell, holding his work as if it were a religious text. Fedchenko told me that Orwell helps to “explain the relation between reality and non-reality, which now is very blurred.”
How would Orwell view laws that banned Russian TV stations that spread propaganda? Music thumped in the background. Fedchenko weighed in. “I think he would not mind that people would become more literate about what they are consuming,” he said, adding it would be hard for imagine Orwell predicting things like social media sites that harvest user data. “I would love to chat with him.”