Ukraine was a testing laboratory for information wars, - Stop Fake co-founder Yevhen Fedchenko
Stop Fake’s Yevhen Fedchenko talks to Marta Dyczok about information wars and explains how to fact check the news
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature in-depth interview followed by some new music from Ukraine. This is a rebroadcast of the conversation published on January 13, 2017.
These days there is much discussion in the media of information warfare and fake news and what we can do about it. And we’d like to bring you an interview we did in the past. It’s Marta Dyczok speaking with Yevhen Fedchenko, one of the co-founders of Stop Fake, an organisation in Ukraine that debunks fake news.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: YEVHEN FEDCHENKO EXPLAINS HOW TO FIGHT FAKE NEWS
Dyczok: Yevhen Fedchenko is Head of the Journalism School at one of Ukraine’s best universities, the National University of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He has also set up and runs the project called StopFake (http://www.stopfake.org/en/news/), which is in response to the information war that Ukraine has been experiencing for a number of years. Mr. Fedchenko, thank you very much for joining us.
Fake news, information wars, state sponsored cyber attacks, foreign interference in elections. None of this is new. But it is new for Americans. They are just learning how it is to be on a receiving end of that kind of activity. Over the last few weeks the US has been just buzzing about this Russian interference in their recent elections. Ukraine has been experiencing it for a number of years. Usually Americans go to Ukraine and offer advice on how to build democracy, economy, a free press. What can United States now learn from Ukraine, given that Ukraine has been on a receiving end of this type of activity, information war?
Fedchenko: Ukraine has been living with this for the last two and a half years. There was a reactive stage, but also we have experienced a lot of propaganda through television, which was around for years since Ukraine’s independence. And before that we had huge experience of Soviet propaganda. We really are pretty much immersed in this environment and we are learning how to cope with this, and trying to make sure that we differentiate journalism and something which is definitely not a journalism, or just a pretension or masquerading as being a journalism, and make sure that our audience will also understand this difference, and also looking for more truth around.
We are working now with the Stop Fake project to increase people’s awareness of dangers of propaganda, but also we talk to other audiences beyond Ukraine to explain how fake news is ruining journalism, how they influence public policy, and decision making and elections in different countries. Now we have a big dataset of all those fakes we debunked over two and a half years, and actually we have more than 1000 of them. What we can say that this is systematic approach to create the atmosphere of untruth, lies. This is evidence of not just bad journalism or low quality journalism. This is evidence of a very well created system, which was created by the Russian government and is run top down, very well resourced, with money and people. It has a huge impact, and now we see how it works from one country to another. Ukraine was just a testing laboratory for all these. Now we see how all those tools out of this toolbox are used in many other countries including the United States.
Dyczok: In this type of warfare this type of information warfare one of the aims is to create confusion, to create doubts, to get people to not really believe anything, because so many different narratives are put out there. Can you give us some of the examples how you actually tried cut through this cloud of confusion and mixed information, and sort out fakes from the truth? How you really know what the truth is? How it can help others to learn?
Fedchenko: This is great question because as we talk about era of post-truth, the atmosphere around is that the truth is almost non-existent anymore. But this is not true, because still we can find a lot of high quality journalism. But we also see a lot of fakes. We do a lot of monitoring in order to find them. We have the list of Russian media outlets, or so-called media outlets, which we monitor on a daily basis. Also we have a set of markers, which allow us to differentiate real news from fake news.
Dyczok: Could you tell us what those markers are?
Fedchenko: It’s pretty simple, and any journalist can give you those examples. The problem is that many journalists are not using them much anymore. So first of all, we are looking at the headlines of the stories, because often the headline of the story, and the story itself, tell the different stories. Because people are mostly reading the stories from social media the title, 140 characters is the only thing most of the people now consume and share with others. It is very important to see what is inside the story. Unfortunately, that is what most of people are not doing.
At the second stage we are checking the sources, because as we speak about Russian propaganda, we can see that they often quote each other. They often quote many anonymous sources. They quote unnamed foreign media. Or just generalizing American or European media. When we start to look for where the story originated, we just find a lone standing blog, which may have been created two days before the publication, or just some information from social media from pretty much an anonymous account. Very often they just cross–quote each other, and you cannot find from where the story has originated. Also we check the quotes they are using, because if they do a translation, they change the wording and the meaning of the quote. With a purpose of course.
We had many stories like this. For example, the story on the West lifting sanctions. They tried to find this information, and every piece of news they are trying to fake. When we start to fact check this information, we find those sources or speakers, which Russian media had quoted, say completely different things. For example, we had a great story coming from one of Russian media outlets saying that the US Ambassador in Moscow said that they are considering lifting sanctions. When I contacted the US Embassy they said, “No. He said just the opposite. We are looking into continuing sanctions.” So the meaning of what had been said was completely different.
So we’re looking just for these very small scenes, but they’re really important, because they completely change the whole meaning, not only the alone-standing news, but the whole narrative, because they produce it on a mass scale and then they translate them into many, many different languages, for example, only Sputnik [a Russian government owned news agency] now has more than 40 languages, so by the end of the day they take one fake which was produced in Russian or English, and then it’s translated into all those many languages and then it’s everywhere on Google search, and many media outlets just republish it because they still consider RTO Sputnik to be traditional media, and not an arm of the government in the conducting of information warfare.
So we just want to set the record straight, and we collect all those stories and put them in an archive, which is available on our website to show the scale and the system behind it. And also the data collected by us allows us to make an analysis of all those fake stories. We’ve identified 18 main frames of Russian propaganda, for example, on Ukraine, and all of them are very, very famous already. For example, the narrative of Ukraine as a fascist state, or Ukraine as a failed state, of the junta, who came to power as a part of the coup d’etat here in Ukraine. And they just try to find every week or sometimes every day some supportive facts for all those frames to make sure that they’re repeated all the time and keep them alive.
Dyczok: It sounds like it’s a lot of work to fight this sort of an information war and expose all the fakes. The question I wanted to get your thoughts on is: journalists in the United States, in established liberal democracies, they’re now facing this sort of information war coming at them. What sort of challenges does this new kind of warfare pose to established journalism, where the norms are that one has to report all sides of the story? So you need to report even news that apparently is fake. So how’s that changing the whole face of journalism?
Fedchenko: I think that we are now witnessing huge changes in journalism, and all previously existing rules and norms seems to move very fast, and it escalates very quickly, which makes the work of journalists sometimes very difficult and sometimes even pointless. Because now, to distribute fakes, or manufacture fakes, you don’t even need journalists. You can just go to social media and you could get an even bigger audience than any traditional media outlet. So for journalists now the biggest challenge is how to recreate the system, how to introduce the new rules for our work and it’s really very difficult, because we exist in an environment where there are no rules. If only journalists would stick to the rules, and all other audiences or other newsmakers would just do whatever they wish, our rules and our norms wouldn’t do any good, because then journalists would look very marginal and pointless because we would be steps behind all the time. We would be just explaining what went wrong, instead of being more proactive, which is really, really a big challenge right now.
Journalists looking at all sides, seems to me, a very outdated approach. Because now you very often even cannot define who the sides are in any particular situation. Because you have so many actors, and each of them is playing kind of their own game, by their own rules, that it’s impossible to define whose sides they are. Or very often we see the competition between facts on one side and opinion on the other. That’s what RussiaToday and Sputnik are, kind of, pretending to do. They’re saying that, ‘we’re giving you the other side of the story’ but they’re not using any facts, they’re just giving their own opinion. And it’s very difficult to compete with them, because they use it in a very irrational way, emotional way, without providing any facts, and just being loud and that’s finding a huge audience for them.
All conspiracy theories, so is all those people who actually do not need any facts. Because again, all those years of the existence of propaganda created the atmosphere where people are not interested in facts, because they’ve been told many, many times that facts are irrelevant, the truth does not exist anyway. Everybody is lying, so what’s the point in looking for reliable sources or what’s the point of reading reliable media? You can just listen to the loudest voices around, and it’s very misleading and very confusing, and I’m sure it would have a very long lasting effect on audiences.
Dyczok: We see a lot of these trends now moving to the United States. You have been working on this issue for a number of years. What implications do you see of this type of behaviour in, arguably, the most powerful country in the world? What advice would you give to your fellow journalists in the United States?
Fedchenko: Well, I think journalists should basically bring their profession back and start to do what journalists were always expected to do. Just checking facts. And pushing those facts to audiences, even when audiences are reluctant at some points to hear that. To regain their profession back. But, on the other side, we really need to reinvent journalism. Because the old rules, as I mentioned, are dying. And it’s not a problem of journalism only, because we do not exist in a vacuum. So for example, the Ukrainian lessons with the war in Crimea and the war in Donbas were very painful because journalists were not quick enough to adjust to arising issues and arising challenges, and we’ve been losing this. For example, when the occupation of Crimea started, journalists spent quite a lot of time trying to find out who are those polite green men who are occupying Crimea and they were really sincerely looking for the other side of the story and waiting for sound bites. But it took a lot of time, and the momentum was lost, and that basically created a good atmosphere to move and start the war in Donbas.
That really was a situation when slow journalism or old style journalism played a very wrong role. Because journalists were expected to get the second opinion of what’s going on, the facts from the other side. And the other side was just creating fait accompli on the ground, and did not care much about what journalists would be doing in this situation. And then they said OK, we will produce facts on the ground, and then we will explain everything to you, and you will see by yourselves. So it definitely means that old style journalism is kind of a little bit outlived, and we need to reinvent it. And probably to become more cynical, because policymakers and politicians are really using these weaknesses of journalism sometimes, and those are moments where journalism is losing, it seems to me.
Dyczok: Well thank you very much for your insight. As the United States prepares for a new President, journalists have a huge task ahead of them to sort through the facts and the spin and hopefully they might get some insight from what’s been happening in Ukraine. Thank you very much for joining us.
Fedchenko: Yes, thanks for inviting me.
Carry me into your dreams. Неси мене в свої сни. That’s the name of a new song by a young Kyiv vocalist Iryna Yakubovs’ka who calls her band Tange Irene (pronounced tangerine). It’s from her recently released a mini album Кому. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll be back with more commentary on events in Ukraine with interview host Bohdan Nahaylo. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko and Oksana Smerechuk. Sound Engineers Anna Kyrychevska and Timothy Glasgow. Special thanks to Richard Raycraft and CHRW student radio at Western University for providing their studio and technical support for recording the interview with Mr. Fedchenko. Web support Andrew Kobalia.