Lessons about lies and misinformation
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Translation of the article written by Septimius Parvu, published on the portal contributors.ro on May 17, 2016

On the 11th of April 2016, the Romania website descrieri.ro announced that Romanian president Klaus Iohannis had passed a law proposed by businessman Ion Țiriac that all Romanians contribute €50 towards helping the refugees. After a little consideration, this information can easily be discredited, especially as, in order for the president to promote a law, it first has to pass through Parliament; which hasn’t happened.

Two weeks later, Russian TV channel Zvezda broadcasted a piece of news according to which Ukraine was on the brink of a second nuclear disaster after Chernobyl (http://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-ukraine-on-the-verge-of-a-second-chornobyl). The Ukrainian state allegedly used fossil fuels provided by the US to supply its nuclear power plants and was planning to terminate its contract with the Russian distributor. American fuels aren’t meant for Soviet reactors, which could lead to even greater disasters than that of April 1986. Journalist Dmitri Sergeyev quotes multiple energy experts, but only names one – Igor Mikheyes, who has been identified as a Russian expert in nuclear power. In support of the news, Zvezda mentions an accident which purportedly happened in the south of Ukraine, as evidence of the dangers American fossil fuels pose.

The two news items have only one thing in common: they are both distorted, false and propagandistic. Publishing news with false or partially altered content is an important source of panic for the reader who doesn’t filter the information and draws attention to imminent, often foreign dangers, which don’t exist in reality. The second piece of news was refuted by the Ukrainian website stopfake.org, a platform founded over two years ago in response to the large number of false news circulating about Ukraine, mostly supported by Russian sources.

As far as the Chernobyl report is concerned, the situation looks slightly different. No Ukrainian ministry or American archive has registered the accident in southern Ukraine. Igor Mikheyev has been associated with the anti-Euromaidan movement. In 2015, 95% of the country’s fossil fuels were acquired from Russia.

During a study visit in Kiev, we met with Yevhen Fedchenko, one of the founders of the website and headmaster of the Mohyla School of Journalism, at the beginning of April. The school is situated on a street frozen in time, with many decrepit houses lying in the shadows of industrial buildings. The college differs from the official buildings in Kiev, which are generally desolate and grey. Here, we spoke to two of the Stopfake activists in an informal environment, surrounded by prints of artists from the ‘70s.

We’re not off to a very promising start. The small Stop fake team is fighting an uphill battle. A great deal of their work is based on volunteering and relies on their collaboration with the students from the college of journalism.

Nevertheless, their activity is essential and, together with projects such as the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, aims to draw attention to the false news circulating in the public space. Over the last two years, they have published more than 1000 articles in eight languages. The site was partially translated into Romanian.

Their initiative was welcomed by the European Commission, who has launched its own project to counter Russian propaganda at the beginning of 2015. The job description of the Russian speakers involved in the scheme includes fact checking and correcting misinformation or myths. The European External Action Service founded the East StratCom Task Force aiming to confute disinformation campaigns led by Russia. The Disinformation Review gathers pro Kremlin misinformation and disseminates it weekly. Under the same umbrella The Disinformation Digest was developed, which presents the world from the standpoint of both Russian media and independent observers.

In Ukraine, the Stop fake team checks all sorts of information, ranging from texts and photos to videos. It has managed to start its own weekly TV show, an audio podcast and collaborates with the public radio network.

“We don’t have the luxury of being pessimistic”

The team started out with only six members, with 22 people now involved in the project, who source their information either straight from the press or from the public. In a country in which most networks are controlled by oligarchs, social media is the perfect tool to spread their work. And they are careful about what they publish, as only articles with solid background checks make it on the website.

Stop fake doesn’t only cover Ukraine. They’ve refuted articles such as Ukrainian Train Lost in Kazakhstan or Anti-NATO Protests Inflame Bratislava. Still, most of the stories they disconfirm are Russian propaganda. Published articles include reports by Ukrainian networks – most of the false news comes from private televisions. They don’t have editors in Russia, only local contributors, as is the case in most countries in which they are active.

Over time, they have discovered that Russian propaganda has developed certain patterns. The use of fake sources or experts whose work is unrelated to the matter at hand are two examples. One of the ex-

perts on Russian televisions was in fact an insurance agent in the US who claimed to be a political expert.

Their work has brought on attacks from the Russian media, which, according to Yehven, are mostly of emotional nature and have little to do with the content of their articles. Not even their webpage has escaped attacks which started from day one.

Their audience is segmented. They gather around 10-20.000 hits a day. Approximately 40% of visitors are from Ukraine, another 27% from Russia (http://www.stopfake.org/en/yevhen-fedchenko-battling-for-truth), some of whom also make donations. Many other visitors come from the US, Germany or Moldova.

Media intake can severely impair your freedom

Stop fake may seem like a strange presence in the information war (a proxy for the real war going on in Ukraine), but it is essential. The Ukrainian national television, which should be the citizens’ main source of information, has its own problems and deficiencies. Although in the ‘50s it seemed to be one of the most modern televisions in the Soviet region, things are looking a lot worse in 2016.

The high, overcast and chilly headquarters, guarded by armed soldiers stationed behind a stack of sand bags, stands out against the attempts of journalists to turn things around after the Euromaidan protests. The television has a network of 30 local channels aimed at 40 million viewers. It competes against 40 national private networks, whose owners include oligarchs close to the former Ianukovych regime, like Rinat Ahmetov. While the television has the capacity to foster change, it’s been crippled by the lack of funding. It has over 7500 employees, but their wages can hardly cover their rents in Kiev. Moreover, the most difficult obstacles seem to be the limited funds allocated for production, amounting to only $16.000 a year (yes, you read that right), and the low number of people working on the news section at the headquarters in Kiev – just five.

In Ukraine, a ministry was created in 2014 by the Yatsenyuk regime to handle the government’s information policies. In short, its role is to deal with Russian propaganda and the anxiety spread by the Russians in Ukraine, including in the Donbass region. The situation is more difficult in the East, where being of Ukrainian or Tatar origins can be dangerous. Being an independent journalist is even more so, considering seven correspondents have been arrested on charges of separatism. There’s no independent media in Crimea anymore, only propaganda. Most of the networks based in Crimea have closed down, and ATR has moved to Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities have blocked several Russian networks for propaganda.

ATR, a television owned by businessman Lenur Islamov which addresses Crimean Tatars (but also broadcasts shows in Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar), has relocated to the Ukrainian capital and receives financial support from the state to continue its activity. Islamov is being investigated by the Russian authorities.

Under these circumstances, marked by the unavailability of information, including by blocking the televisions’ broadcasting signal, social media remains one of the main channels of communication and obtaining information. The Stop fake Facebook page has almost 50.000 followers. Facebook is also used to inform and counter misinformation in Crimea and other war-torn territories in eastern Ukraine.

But the situation remains bleak seeing as only 10% of Ukrainian journalists affirm that they have never seen paid or commissioned pieces. It is hard to talk about press that is independent or hasn’t been subjected to political pressures under these circumstances. But the same trends are also becoming apparent in Romania, where many media trust owners have been imprisoned. Others are about to be. And we can observe these tendencies in many other countries in Eastern Europe or the Balkans too, as fairpress.ro shows.

In Romania, the list of propaganda websites, which publish sensationalist, edited and false news, is long and varied. Solely over the last year, fabricated stories have been published about the secret underground tunnels in Romania, fictional mass crimes committed by Syrian immigrants or hateful rhetoric targeted at the Western World’s fifth column or the ONGs hired by George Soros to destroy the world order.

Recently, the website russiatoday.ro was translated into Romanian. Iurie Roșca’s Easter message seems particularly relevant: The public space “fifth column” has to be unmasked. The entire network of ONGs, the media structure and TV personalities who subordinate our national well-being to foreign interests must be pinned to the wall of villainy.”

Finally, to quote Yehven: Do not consume propaganda. Think critically. Speak up!

The research for this piece was part of the “Romanian Experience in democratic transition and education for the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine” project implemented by the Civil Society Development Foundation, financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the RoAid (Romania’s development cooperation programme) fund, with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – Regional Bureau for Europe and Central Asia.

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