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Ukraine is the number one victim of Russian disinformation. Here is how it can fight back

Russian disinformation Ukraine march for unity Kharkiv2
A march to symbolize Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression gathered from 2 to 5 thousand participants in the northeastern city of Kharkiv on 6 February. Credit: Democratic Axe Facebook page
Ukraine is the number one victim of Russian disinformation. Here is how it can fight back
Article by: Adrian Karmazyn
“No country, no population has been as heavily targeted” by Russian disinformation as have Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, according to Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF), who moderated a recent Transatlantic Task Force on Ukraine online discussion about countering Moscow’s information warfare. One of the ways Ukraine can fight back, its participants said, is by helping Ukrainian media reach their audiences before the Russians do.

Although it is Russia that has militarily occupied the Crimea, waged a deadly war in the Donbas, and amassed well over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, President Putin and his propaganda machine assert that the United States, NATO, and Ukraine are the aggressors.

Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF)
Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF)

That’s a prime example of the type of disinformation that the Russian leader and his “cronies” engage in, said Mr. Katz, while, in fact,

“Putin is the aggressor and we know the Kremlin has no interest in a de-escalation given its designs on Ukraine and desire to break the transatlantic alliance and security.”  

What has been the response of Ukraine and its Western partners to the latest surge in Russia’s disinformation?

Orest Deychakiwsky, a former senior advisor at the Helsinki Commission, noted the “vigorous pushback” from the White House, State Department, Department of Defense, and in Congress, calling out Russia as the aggressor.

Orest Deychakiwsky, a former senior advisor at the Helsinki Commission.

He talked about the importance of “shining the light” on Russia’s false narratives, such as when Moscow mendaciously claims it fears an attack from Ukraine, and emphasized the value of documents like the State Department’s recently released United with Ukraine, Disarming Disinformation, and other fact sheets.

“They are a tremendous resource for countering Moscow’s misstatements, half-truths and outright brazen lies,” said Mr. Deychakiwsky.

Another effective tool in calling out Moscow, he added, has been the exposure of their planned “false-flag operations” designed to create pretexts for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Bret Schafer, who tracks Russian disinformation at the GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, said that although Moscow’s false narratives have not changed much in recent years, they have certainly intensified amidst the recent Russian military escalation.

Bret Schafer is a senior fellow and head of the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s information manipulation team

Some of the major themes of Russian disinformation about Ukraine, he said, include:

  • all Ukrainians are neo-Nazis,
  • Ukraine and NATO are the aggressors,
  • Russia does not want a war.

The US is now much better at countering Russian disinformation than it was in 2014, said Mr. Schafer, but the Russians are still ahead, for example, in terms of exploiting algorithms in Google search queries in ways that lead users to sources of disinformation.

For a Ukrainian perspective on the disinformation issue, co-moderator Oksana Velychko of the Reanimation Package of Reforms turned to several Ukrainian experts for their insights.

Oksana Velychko of the Reanimation Package of Reforms

Yevhenia Kravchuk, a member of parliament from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, outlined ongoing and recent measures taken by the government to combat disinformation. She noted the importance of the new Center for Strategic Communication within the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy which helps expose Russian informational provocations. According to the center’s website, it is charged with responding to information threats, supporting Ukrainian narratives, and strengthening cooperation with countries facing similar challenges.

Yevhenia Kravchuk, a member of parliament from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party
Ms. Kravchuk also highlighted the Ukrainian government’s support for media literacy programs, particularly within the educational curriculum, to help students understand how to recognize “fakes” and be more discerning consumers of news. She also talked about efforts to provide more targeted news programming for the population in Russian-occupied Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

Ms. Kravchuk, who is the deputy chair of the parliamentary committee on humanitarian and information policy, acknowledged the importance of Western assistance in media development and countering disinformation saying that “we are really thankful for all the help since 2014, and even before.” And recent deliveries of defensive weapons that Ukraine has been receiving from Western countries have boosted the confidence of Ukrainians, she stated.

Responding to a question about President Zelenskyy’s seemingly calm response to the huge Russian military build-up at Ukraine’s borders, Yevhenia Kravchuk said that he takes the threat very seriously but needs to also focus on keeping the economy moving forward in these difficult conditions.

In his remarks, Vadym Miskyi of Detector Media, a media watchdog publication, welcomed the Ukrainian government’s closure of three pro-Russian TV channels controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close Ukrainian ally of Vladimir Putin. This has had a significant impact on curtailing false Russian narratives on Ukrainian television airwaves, he said, explaining that for some 60% of Ukrainians, TV is the main source of news.

Vadym Miskyi of Detector Media

He called on the Ukrainian authorities to develop a stronger legal framework for implementing bans on media that promote Russian disinformation in Ukraine so that these prohibitions could not be challenged as violations of democracy by some in the international community.

Especially during this time of crisis, Mr. Miskyi encouraged the government to fully fund public broadcasting, which is an editorially independent, authoritative source of news and information with wide dissemination on TV, radio, and online platforms throughout Ukraine. He argued against expanding the state-controlled Dom channel which targets Russian-speaking audiences in the occupied territories to all of Ukraine, saying it runs counter to the spirit of post-Maidan public broadcasting reforms.

Andriy Kulykov, a prominent journalist and co-founder of Hromadske Radio, underscored that one of the best ways to fight Russian disinformation was for Ukrainian media to produce superior quality programming that will attract Ukrainian audiences and keep them from turning to Russian sources. While welcoming Western financial support for the development of independent media in Ukraine, he also encouraged Western journalists to come work in Ukrainian media outlets to share their skills and knowledge of best practices.

Andriy Kulykov, journalist and co-founder of Hromadske Radio

Assistance is also needed in terms of helping Ukrainian media better understand and cultivate their audiences. Addressing the problem of dissemination, Mr. Kulykov noted that there are some rural areas of Ukraine that receive no Ukrainian radio or TV broadcasts.

As Ukraine battles Russian disinformation, speakers at the online forum noted that the country simultaneously faces a challenging internal media landscape, where Ukrainian oligarchs exercise influence over the editorial policies and coverage decisions of their TV newsrooms. Compounding this difficult situation is the fact that many Ukrainians subscribe to online Telegram channels and social media that are purveyors of disinformation.

This Transatlantic Task Force on Ukraine (TTFU) event was organized in collaboration with the Reanimation Package of Reforms, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group. You can view a video of the webinar here.

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